top of page

Archives and Morals: Jean-Luc Godard and the Boundless Provocations of The Image Book

At the reckless age of 88, the eternally iconoclastic French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard is enjoying a career peak at a time when most directors (assuming they live so long) are inclined to rest on their laurels in advance of their impending burial. His latest, 45th feature-length work, the essay film by way of philosophical reverie-cum-virtuoso remix The Image Book (Le Livre d'image) received the first Special Palme d'Or ever to be awarded in the history of the Cannes Film Festival last year. In typically Godardian fashion, the elder subversive undercut his own significant achievement with yet another first: the first Cannes press conference to be conducted via FaceTime, with the reclusive director safely ensconced in his home in Rolle, Switzerland. As Image Book cinematographer Fabrice Aragno held up his iPhone, an international press corps peppered the director with questions gamely dispatched with Godard’s trademark mixture of gnomic detachment and direct engagement. Some examples: “Your film contains a clip from the Michael Bay film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. What is your opinion of Mr. Bay’s work? [Pause] Remind me of what you actually see in that part of my film. [Someone describes the contents of the clip.] I do not remember the title of that film or the name of that director. But if I inserted the footage, it must have contained something I couldn’t find anywhere else.” “The cinema should consist not so much as showing what’s happening. That you can see around you every day. Films should show what’s not happening, which you never see anywhere, including on Facebook.”

The reviews of the film have been equally praiseworthy, even (or especially) when critics own up to the film’s thoroughgoing inscrutability and the manifold contradictions — art vs. war, images vs. text, power vs. rebellion, analog vs. digital, life vs. death, etc., etc., etc. — which find a wealth in division throughout. “A head-scratcher and a mind-bender,” enthused J. Hoberman on The New York Review of Books blog, “The Image Book…is gloriously obscure and brutally unpretty, yet lucid and even gorgeous all the same.” Stephanie Zacharek of TIME Magazine wrote: “…if it’s hard to understand exactly what Godard is trying to say in this brief scrapbook scamper—it clocks in at one hour, 25 minutes—just watching it is a strange, melancholy pleasure, and an open window into the world of things that worry its creator.” And the ultimate Hollywood-industrial final word, Variety, printed a flat-out rave for The Image Book from their chief film critic, Owen Gleiberman: “…it’s something of a paradox that The Image Book is more accessible and vibrant than much of the work of the past 30 years that Godard has been reflexively praised for…He has now gotten rid of actors entirely and found a free-associational mode of sound-and-image collage that suggests MTV crossed with the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” He’s no longer a cracked storyteller — he’s an audio-visual poet.” Not bad for an indie foreign film which, as of March 8, has amassed a whopping U.S. domestic box office take of $86,429. Godard, who must be fully aware of his status as one of the greatest living directors, and the high regard cinephiles in the U.S. and around the world have held him for many decades, appears to have now become the ultimate cultural vegetable: someone people feel more comfortable talking about than actually engaging, and not least his shockingly vital and still daring late work. He’s lived long enough to become the lion in winter, one so declawed and unthreatening that it’s easy to praise his potent critiques both historical and cultural — each one informing the other until they’re virtually indistinguishable — without suffering any consequences. But a consideration of the long arc of Godard’s career culminating in The Image Book, first as critic, then as a director who viewed filmmaking as a natural extension of his criticism, reveals him to be of fathomless consequence to the history of cinema. __________ It was as a charter member of the French New Wave or Nouvelle Vague that Godard cemented his status as cinema’s greatest provocateur — and/or, if you buy his argument, the world’s longest continuously-serving film critic. Alongside his cohorts (and eventual sometime nemeses) François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, Godard stormed the barricades in the pages of the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma. Fueled by a movie-mad culture in Paris, Godard and his fellow critics resisted a creeping classicist “Tradition of Quality” in the early-50’s global cinema, and championed a director-focused appreciation that came to be known as la politique des auteurs — generally translated as “auteur theory,” though this neuters the undeniable political implications of the phrase — which posited the director as the true “author” of any film, and the more cinematically flamboyant, the better.

It’s difficult now to appreciate what a radical proposition auteur theory represented at the time, although a comparison of the opening credits of films from the 50’s and today will demonstrate how much the focus shifts from say, a David O. Selznick production to a Michael Bay film. Godard articulated the New Wave’s stance in an article for the French magazine Arts, where he praised his fellow-critics for having, “led . . . the fight for the film auteur,” further declaring, “we have won by gaining acceptance of the principle that a film by Hitchcock, for example, is as important as a book by Aragon. Thanks to us, the auteurs of films have definitively entered into the history of art.” It’s also hard to recapture this disposition towards Hitchcock in the early 50’s, then considered a merely stylish entertainer by the comparatively tepid mainstream American film critical community of the era, while the director rose to the occasion of the Nouvelle Vague’s exaltation as the 50’s proceeded, going on to create his greatest works, which remain some of the most indelible masterpieces in the history of film. Godard has naturally gravitated to maverick directorial sensibilities throughout his career, but especially during this early period of his published criticism. In a review of the director’s 1957 film Bitter Victory, Godard simply states: “Cinema is Nicholas Ray.” He went on to dedicate his 1966 film, Made in U.S.A. to both Ray and Samuel Fuller, whom he claims, “taught me respect for image and sound.” And his statement in honor of Orson Welles has redounded through the decades: “All of us will always owe him everything.” Although it was Truffaut who was the first New Wave figure to direct a feature film with his still-influential The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) from 1959, Godard would supersede that film’s importance and influence with his own first feature-length work, one that introduced a million indie filmmakers to the aesthetic liberation of handheld cameras in shopping carts, available light and jump cuts as a new coherence: Breathless (À bout de soufflé). Godard would then spend the 60’s jumping from theme to theme, somewhat in the fractured manner of his films: war and its crimes, including an instance of waterboarding some 50 years before the Bush administration would make the practice fashionable in Le Petit Soldat; bourgeois sexual relations as a woman abandons her family and drifts into prostitution in My Life to Live (Vivre sa vie); mid-60’s Paris providing the setting for a dystopian future where the hard-boiled detective Lemmy Caution (American expatriate actor Eddie Constantine) combats the all-powerful supercomputer Alpha-60 in Alphaville; crime, camaraderie and with its French title, providing Quentin Tarantino with the name for his production company, A Band Apart with Band of Outsiders (Bande à part); even accepting Hollywood money and directing celebrities like Brigitte Bardot for his fascinating and gorgeous big-budget (for Godard) adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel Contempt (Le Mépris); and using the bare outline of a minor crime novel for the discursive farewell to Godard’s then-wife and muse, Anna Karina, while introducing political themes like American imperialism, Vietnam and even a reprise of waterboarding in Pierrot le Fou. The political dimensions of Godard’s films began ramping up in the late 60’s, climaxing with 1968’s appropriately insurrectionist Weekend. Thereafter, in collaboration with fellow critic/director Jean-Pierre Gorin, he made doctrinaire films steeped ideologically in Marxism and putatively created in collective fashion by their Dziga Vertov Group (named after the pioneering Russian filmmaker) with largely dreadful results very much of their time. He slowly came out of this hard-leftist phase with increasingly complex feature-length experiments in collaboration with his then-and-current life partner, Anne-Marie Melville, while also starting to embrace primitive video technology in film, beginning with 1975’s Numéro Deux (Godard maintained that this film was a sequel to Breathless, possibly as a joke). For all the esotericism of his work during this period, his reputation as a great director remained strong in the U.S., and when he finally returned to a semblance of narrative filmmaking with 1980’s Every Man for Himself (Sauve qui peut (la vie)), the film met with great praise (and/or arguably relief) from American critics, and even occasioned an hour-long conversation with Dick Cavett that remains one of Godard’s best and most forthcoming interviews in English:

Come the MTV 80’s he did so much to anticipate via his trademark shock-cut emancipation of visuals and audio, Godard remained a figure of controversy, igniting criticism from the Vatican over his modern-day consideration of a virgin birth, Hail Mary (Je vous salue, Marie), as well as crafting the unlikeliest Shakespeare adaptation of all time in his Cannon Films-produced King Lear, starring Burgess Meredith, Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen and Godard himself. Increasingly, Godard as a character, factors into his films of this period, all leading up to what many consider to be his magnum opus, the magisterial history of cinema, or vice-versa — or, with its parenthetical implication, one of several possible — the decade-in-the-making video project Histoire(s) du cinema. Here, it’s all Godard, in image and voice overs, alongside a profusion of excerpts from other films, newsreels and an endless array of videos, professional and otherwise, sculpted and altered across multiple episodes into a dizzying but also enormously revealing reflection on cinema as the prime historical agent of the 20th century. In its similarly avid sampling, its enigmatic juxtapositions of image and text and its literally phlegmatic voiceover by Godard (sounding like an even more doddering Alpha-60) The Image Book, closely resembles Histoire(s), seeming at times like its lost final chapter or afterword. __________ The first image we are greeted with in The Image Book is of a pale hand from a Renaissance canvas, pointing skyward. It’s a detail taken from Leonardo Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist,” presumed by historians to be the master’s final painting. This is followed by a shot floridly video-processed into vibrant blues, reds and yellows of the once-essential tool of the filmmaker’s craft, the Moviola editing desk, cutting then to a close up of fingers folding frames of celluloid awaiting an edit, while remarking on the capacity “to think with hands.” Already, in three shots, Godard has invoked heaven and earth, the height of Western civilization, along with both his own mortality in what could be his own final work and technology rendered obsolete, the privileging of the analog, while simultaneously embracing digital effects (Godard must also be aware of the sense, in English at least, of “digits” as a synonym for fingers). And he’s just getting started.

“It’s a brief story,” he remarks much later in the film, “the mass extinction of a species.” Across five nominal chapters whose titles re-appear seemingly at random, Godard waxes elegiac not only for himself or a culture, but for all of humanity. Similarly, his selections range from not just Western masterpieces of another century, but countless other images from around the world and throughout the ages, right up to the present day — yes, that includes 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. War and its aftermath are mainstays throughout, with the film drawing upon everything from WWII footage to ISIS training videos. There’s a continuous sense of the cautionary in The Image Book, but it’s one also intermingled with many of Godard’s past obsessions, with him even re-sampling samples from his own past work and others, with specific ones tying this work directly back to Histoire(s). As in that earlier work, we hear — and occasionally see — the classic “Lie to me,” scene from Ray’s Johnny Guitar, an exchange which also appeared as dialogue in Le Petit Soldat, as well as in other scenes drawn from that Western interspersed throughout Histoire(s). Yet another re-sampling from the Histoire(s) features a few seconds of an enthusiastic rimjob being administered in an otherwise anonymous gay porn video — except, in The Image Book, the scene is bookended by a giggling microcephalic from Tod Browning’s Freaks. As in much of Godard’s work, his point is obscure while provocative, a dialectic never quite resolved but continuously, radically interrogated. And also, occasionally, even leavened with a certain goofball humor. Along with these examples, I recognized a fraction of other sources utilized throughout The Image Book, some as noted from Godard’s own work, and nearly all regularly undergoing substantial visual/textural transformations: an older Lemmy Caution looking lost in a scene taken from Godard’s ostensible Alphaville sequel, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero; the rear-projected opening of the funhouse scene (and, interestingly to me, not the arguably more appropriate “hall of mirrors” sequence that it precedes) from Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai; Ringwald and Meredith in King Lear; a shark attack from Jaws, among many other examples. I could also swear that it’s a headshot of the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael (less and less a fan of Godard as the years wore on) which is followed by Delacroix’s famous depiction of a bare-breasted female Liberty Leading The People. Vocal samples and snippets of music are also intermixed throughout the film’s radical audio design (there’s a whole other article that could be written about Godard’s audio work in the film — suffice it to say that watching The Image Book in surround sound is a must), with Godard’s continuing friendship with ECM Records honcho Manfred Eicher keeping the soundtrack awash in the music of such noted ECM artists as Tomasz Stańko and Arvo Pärt.

But an ability to cite sources is as useful to Godard’s aesthetic imperatives in The Image Book, as it would be when listening to a masterful DJ transform sample-based sources into new, richly vibrant musical art. Godard even toys with this archival sensibility when he flashes lists of the dozens of “Textes,” “Tableaux” and “Musique” sources for the film at the end for a comically brief few seconds. The art is not in the crate digging itself but the manner in which Godard transmutes his material via digital video effects, desaturation and psychedelically intense re-saturations of color, and sudden shifts in formats/aspect ratios of the same material as a multifaceted technique to convey his polymorphous book of images. Le politque de sampling, say: the overall effect is one that galvanizes the attention even when it is continuously confounded. Sometimes, however, Godard’s strategies appear to be very straightforward, as when such intertitles as “Hommage a La Catalogue,” “Archives and Morals” and “Archeology and Pirates” appear, or a simple layering of Hebrew text over Arabic. Godard’s long solidarity with the struggle of Middle Eastern populations is strongly reinforced throughout and especially in the film’s longest, final chapter, “La Région Centrale” (itself the title of a separate major work by the Canadian experimental filmmaker and musician Michael Snow), though these moments are also complicated with troubling images of the Holocaust. These sequences are clear evidence of Godard’s mastery of the cinematic form, not to mention his dogged humanism, as documented atrocities from both the history of Jews and Arabs serve as synecdoche to a present-day reality that speaks louder than words, precisely because of the implicit power of images themselves in Godard’s hands as a form of communication. “The words,” he insists at one point, “will never be language.”

Again and again, what at times feels obscure in The Image Book comes through with bracing clarity, as in shots of a painter working on a canvas with overlapping perpendicular lines of many different colors. “Mosaic” or “bricolage” convey a sense of Godard’s gameplan here (Aragno, for his part, has suggested the film resembles a “fresco”), but doesn’t convey the penetrability of pigments blending one into another, much as the ideas represented by their images and sounds become a unified voice in the film. Once Godard dangles the intertitle “Counterpoint,” the polyphonic, contrapuntal nature of his approach becomes clearly apparent, all harmony, dissonances, reprises. To see the world in a grain of sand — or, as Godard articulates it in a voiceover: “I need eternity for the story of one day.” Far from a Lego-brick stacking of ideas, The Image Book lives and breathes, bristling with Godard’s restless, even youthful artistic energy. So much of what he has to say is mournful — “Believe me,” he laments, “we are never sad enough for the world to be better,” something followed not long after with a disturbing fit of cigar aficionado Godard’s emphysemic coughing over a black screen — and yet we see shoots of creative possibility in those moments of painting, in shots of women from many eras and cultures happily gathering in marked distinction from the plentiful images of war and associated horrors, and in the wholesale intransigence of an incomparably accomplished filmmaker still storming the barricades in his 89th year with a work of dire warning, heartbreaking recollection and fearless abstraction. In an era of fake news and rewarded know-nothingism, it’s also a bracing salvo of tough-mindedness and a salutary refusal to accept the status quo, not least from the expectations of conventional filmmaking. Few people may end up seeing The Image Book, but it’s hard to imagine anyone emerging from it unmoved or aloof to its boundless provocation. In these respects, as throughout Godard’s endlessly challenging career, all of us will always owe him everything.


James Keepnews

James is a musician, writer and multimedia artist. His film criticism has appeared in New Haven Advocate, Fairfield Weekly, Metroland and other publications.




bottom of page