July 19, 2019

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Complex cultural commentary

Controversial filmmaker offers look into desensitized and disjointed society

KINO LORBER</p><p>One of the distorted fragments that make up Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, The Image Book.</p>

KINO LORBER

One of the distorted fragments that make up Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, The Image Book.

With his new experimental essay film, Jean-Luc Godard — a founder of the French New Wave and now a cantankerous, still triumphantly controversial 88-year-old — has created an angry, opaque, often obstreperous work. A collage of distorted fragments, The Image Book is engineered to be hard to read.

If you give yourself over to its hostile barrage of cinematic effects, however — and viewers who aren’t committed Godard-heads might not reach this point — the cumulative effect of all this dislocation and disorientation is potent.

Godard is concerned, as ever, with the relationships between words and pictures and between representation and political realities. He is examining the effect of more than a century of cinema on our ways of looking, seeing and thinking.

Film collages generally offer viewers the simple (slightly smug) satisfaction of recognition. Godard is having none of that. Movie buffs might light on some of these images (the face of Ingrid Bergman or Buster Keaton, iconic scenes from Eisenstein, Ophuls, Hitchcock and, of course, from Godard’s own work).

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With his new experimental essay film, Jean-Luc Godard — a founder of the French New Wave and now a cantankerous, still triumphantly controversial 88-year-old — has created an angry, opaque, often obstreperous work. A collage of distorted fragments, The Image Book is engineered to be hard to read.

If you give yourself over to its hostile barrage of cinematic effects, however — and viewers who aren’t committed Godard-heads might not reach this point — the cumulative effect of all this dislocation and disorientation is potent.

Godard is concerned, as ever, with the relationships between words and pictures and between representation and political realities. He is examining the effect of more than a century of cinema on our ways of looking, seeing and thinking.

Film collages generally offer viewers the simple (slightly smug) satisfaction of recognition. Godard is having none of that. Movie buffs might light on some of these images (the face of Ingrid Bergman or Buster Keaton, iconic scenes from Eisenstein, Ophuls, Hitchcock and, of course, from Godard’s own work).

Much of The Image Book’s material is obscure, however, and even familiar films and iconic scenes are often altered beyond the edge of easy identification. Godard uses super-saturated colours — flaming oranges and neon blues — for effects that can be lyrically gorgeous or luridly ugly. He reduces some sequences to what look like low-fi videotapes of videotapes, with blurred-out black and white.

There are images from art history (Delacroix, Masaccio, Manet), the music of Bach, the words of Bertolt Brecht and Edward Said. Godard includes archival footage — mostly of war, atrocity and unspeakable human cruelty — and recent documentary sequences.

Sometimes sound and picture line up; sometimes they fight each other. The weary voiceover narrative, often delivered by Godard himself, fades in and out, at one point dissolving into a harrowing coughing fit. Not all the audio (which is in various languages) is fully translated into the English subtitles, which seems like a deliberate decision.

The structure is at first elusive. In the first part of the film, Godard presents Soviet visions, Hollywood dreams and the nightmares of history.

These strands of idea and image ultimately coalesce into a critique of colonialism, the western gaze and "the violence of representation," with Godard juxtaposing the exoticist tropes of old movies with works by Arab filmmakers and contemporary footage of the Middle East.

This specific argument in turn builds to the larger notion that 21st-century culture risks drowning in a sea of desensitizing and disjointed images, their meaning and moral weight flattened into an undifferentiated digital feed.

Godard perversely seeks to cure our glut of images with more images, tortured and transformed in ways that force us to reckon with them anew. Easy to dislike at times but hard to dismiss, The Image Book is a difficult, contradictory, complex work.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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