The Image Book / Jean-Luc Godard / 2019 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Striking manipulation of color and contrast
Side Effects: Unresolved themes

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[The Image Book plays throughout March at Boston’s MFA.]

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film—depending on how you count, just shy of the cinematic giant’s 50th feature—is structured around the image of the human hand. Early on an index finger from classical art points skyward; late in the film we see the fiver fingers of an outstretched hand. Between these two visual touchstones, The Image Book counts off five distinct sections of a discursive, thrilling, frustrating, unresolved cinematic essay-poem, one for each finger.

In The Image Book, Godard is interested in exploring the connection of cinema to European history, specifically the way violence in film and violence in real life mirror one another like two tangled threads of human experience doomed to repeat itself. But the film’s connection to the image of the human hand isn’t just a structural device or a metaphor for violence. It’s an ontological philosophy, a method of working, a principle of constructing meaning. As Godard’s narrates over images of a film reel unspooling, we “think with our hands.” Like all of Godard’s work and specifically his filmic essays, The Image Book is both the thought and the record of its thinking. Through assembling via montage fragments of films and historical footage, allusions to paintings and writings, and pieces of musing narration, the film winds its way through the themes and concerns Godard is interested in exploring.

Because Godard lets us into the process of his thinking, The Image Book can be frustratingly vague and unresolved at times, more so than other similar films like Histoire(s) du cinema and Origins of the 20th Century. He’s working with similar themes—the way art reflects reality, the politics of oppression—but seems to abandon thoughts midstream, sometimes literally allowing his narration to fade out, cut off, or drown into another competing thought. In particular, the film’s 5th and longest segment feels uncharacteristically vague. The film muses on how images representing the Arab world differ from European images, and what these representations say about the region’s politics, but falls into the same trap of viewing these complexities through Western eyes.

Despite the inherent frustrations with following a thought still in the process of its formulation, Godard’s methods are aesthetically thrilling. The film combines all of the ways Godard has experimented with manipulating and combining images from across his career into a dense collage of effects. He uses superimpositions and a pulsing, back-and-forth editing rhythm to suggest new connections between two discrete images. To radically alter the look of each individual image he includes in this collage, Godard also digitally pushes the contrast and color levels, creating an almost abstract and psychedelic swirl of colors. Through these manipulations, the film offers us new ways of seeing, and therefore new ways of thinking.

Many of the aesthetic and thematic concerns of The Image Book are familiar within Godard’s work, but the film’s tone is striking. While Histoire(s) du cinema is radical and urgent, The Image Book feels like an elegy. The octogenarian iconoclast has found new ways to push film form for decades, placing his faith in the power of the cinematic image, but there’s an air of finality and resignation to The Image Book. Violence is a fundamental element of human nature, the film seems to suggest, and not even art has the power to change it.

[Read my collection of essays exploring the philosophy, politics and art of Godard’s career, culminating in a new critical video essay.]

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