“I await the end of cinema with optimism“, said director Jean-Luc Godard in 1963, on what surely must have been a rainy French morning. Not that he ever became famous for his optimism, but there is a reason why this quote is still striking over fifty-six years later; it comes from a director who irrevocably changed the very art form I’m writing about. He’s quoted as saying this as cinema had not even reached the one hundred year mark, not even the ninetieth. This is the quote of a man who saw an apocalypse coming. A personal one. The new film by Godard – which is always an exciting prospect to think about – bursts onto the screen which finally reveals to us what exactly this ‘end’ entails. He wasn’t predicting the ‘end of cinema’, he instead brings to us the end of the ‘image’.
Much, much like his outing Goodbye to Language on how language itself and how we communicate with one another needs to be reevaluated if we ever hope to evolve and thrive divided audiences in 2014, it seems 2019 is the year Godard returns to interrogate audiences on our attachment to cinema, and how our fascination with moving images and what those images portray comes at a cost. It almost feels silly to recommend to go into this movie without having read anything about it beforehand; doing so implies that there is a plot or central arc to spoil at all. If you know what Godard has been up to in the recent decades, he has become fascinated (really though, always fascinated) with digging deep into the intricacies of the most basic facets of the human experience. Violence, language, images, sounds, dogs staring at things on beaches. But The Image Book is where it truly comes to a head.
Recall the last dream you had. Really, really think about it. In your current conscious and self aware state, none of which you were when you’re asleep, what does that dream feel like to you as the images are running across your mind? Does it have a physicality to it? Is it listless, half-remembered and barely there? Was it so impacting you could almost poke it? All of those feelings and more could be applied to The Image Book, which feels like the dreams of Godard have left his body and found a home in a film projector.
Films that have been compared to dreams before like Eyes Wide Shut, Donnie Darko, and anything that David Lynch has made are perfectly suitable for the comparison. But The Image Book has perfectly captured the fractured form, the vague feeling of being under threat, and the off-kilter trappings of control being gone. A dream given form on celluloid, dancing and laughing before us. From the very beginning, the tone of The Image Book is decidedly more accusatory than any recent film I’ve seen by Godard. Many-a-film have confronted violence in film as a theme, but the artistic choice to do it in essay form packs a considerably more weighty sucker punch to it.
This confrontation is only complimented by the films brief flashes of light, deep contrasts, and changes in aspect ratio and sound that are so idiosyncratic and unexpected that it almost feels like a 4D motion-ride. It only makes sense that a film this critical of violence in media would almost be made of violence. The editing is sharp enough to cut yourself on. It feels pedantic to even call it editing. It’s that endless expanse and rule-defying world of dreams that keeps calling back to itself, and the image itself is taken to its artistic and logical limits. Stretched and pulled and fried into obliteration, Godard makes sure this clash between the fantastical and realistic, image and sound, is achieved to maximum effect.
Godard is famous for filmic essays, to the point where even his most conventional films in terms of plot and character have an air of wanting to break free from their restraints. He’s a filmmaker and a man obsessed with the idea of cinemas role in revolutionary and political strife, and much of the drama and emotion from films like The Image Book comes from the inability to reconcile cinemas portrayal and stance in some of humankind’s worst hours. The Palestinian conflict gets an extended sequence in the film, and scenes of violence and systematic oppression are only made more unsettling by the films surreal presentation. Brief frames of a scratched Adolf Hitler randomly violate one sequence. When The Image Book gets into the heart of humans as it moves away into the heart of film, things get appropriately more dire.
When the lights went up and the movie was over, my mom told me “that was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. That was worse than when I took you to see Click.” I don’t know why she felt like ruining my buzz by reminding me of a film starring Adam Sandler having godlike powers, but I can’t help but wonder if Godard would have found a reaction like my mothers amusing instead of insulting. A film that we need more than we deserve, The Image Book is a crown jewel in a filmmakers near sixty year long career. It may be 86 minutes, but will fry itself into your head like film burning into a projector. It is you, and you are it.