A hundred years ago, Soviet directors started to sense that film was not merely a useful mechanism for disseminating socialism, but might be an inherently socialist medium in and of itself – the first truly socialist medium. Something of that impulse filters down to Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film, and possibly his last film, which continues the more abstract aesthetic of his Histoire(s) du Cinema, Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language. According to Godard, The Image Book is designed to be seen on a television screen, in a small space, with speakers at some distance. That’s not all that different from the venue where I watched it – a smaller cinema at the Palace Central Park multiplex in Sydney – which seemed like the ideal venue for all the hallmarks of Godard’s late style. Even more than the features that preceded it, The Image Book is a work of montage, starting off as a kind of epilogue to Histoire(s) du Cinema in which Godard performs even more distortion and deflection upon the films he is quoting, deliberately shying away from the high definition restorations typical of the digital age. Most of the film plays as a discorrelation between sound and image, although The Image Book depends upon sonic discontinuity even more emphatically than Godard’s previous films, with so many sudden and plosive changes in the soundscape that there is no real silence, since the removal of sound tends to occur so abruptly that it leaves only more white noise in its way, especially during the heightened volume of the final third.
As with Histoire du Cinema, Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, the structure of The Image Book is driven by the kinds of unexpected connection and correspondances that, Godard suggests, can only be felt and grasped when film is understood as a primarily tactile medium. From the opening images of hands cradling and folding spools of film, the hand of the director is more materially present here than in nearly any of Godard’s other films, not least because The Image Book feels more open and unfinished than any of his previous films, one of several reasons why this seems intended as Godard’s final release. In the version I saw, the English subtitles also felt discorrelated, as if they had been absorbed into the film instead of merely grafted on top of it. Much of Godard’s narration is untranslated, or only translated in fragments, suggesting a stream of consciousness that is so wandering – and so French – that it can’t be properly translated, especially since words and images are worked into ever more inextricable combinations over the course of the film (the working title was Image and Word). Throughout the film, Godard also emphasises the materiality of the written word as well, along with the visuality of language, especially when the excerpts he is dwelling upon are drawn from Marxist or socialist thinkers, philosophers and writers.
After about twenty minutes, this associative flux starts to focus on images drawn from WWII, and the period following WWII when neorealist directors started to search for a new film language to capture the dispersed, diasporic and denuded state of Europe they saw it. For these directors, all survivors of WWII were migrants in some sense, meaning that the camera had to become a migrant as well, and learn to see Europe with a new sense of contingency and transit. In The Image Book, Godard focuses on depictions of train journeys to capture this sense of transit and flux, but also the different problems posed by the migrant landscape of Europe in the present. For while trains here evoke a flux that demands a cinematic reinvention akin to neorealism, trains are also offered as ciphers for cinema themselves, along with the waning of cinema in the present moment. From an early phantom ride that fractallates out into psychedelic glitch, to heavily distorted fragments of what appears to be Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, trains come to stand for both the demand for cinema and the exhaustion of cinema, emblems of a self-exhausting line of flight from current depictions of Europe that suggests the necessity for some radically different journey.
This journey is the main subject matter of The Image Book, which uses this montage of mid-century cinema as the prologue to footage from Godard’s own recent trip to the Middle East. Unlike Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, Godard’s original footage takes longer to announce itself here, and is inflected partly through another voluminous montage sequence, this time focusing on images of the Middle East within twentieth-century cinema, along with images of the Middle East in contemporary Western media. One of the most evocative of these is of a middle-aged women sitting next to a mule that carries a television on its back, since as the film proceeds Godard suggests that Western media has exhausted the visual language that can be used to depict the Middle East – or, rather, that the Middle East represents an endpoint to the hegemony of Western media in understanding and representing our world. For Godard, ‘the East is more philosophical than the West, and everyone is a philosopher because has time to reflect, to look at the world,’ while the Christian West, by contrast, is merely the refusal to know yourself, the death of language.’
In other words, Godard glimpses a new kind of image book in the Middle East, a repository of audiovisual situations that exceed the capacity of the West to contain or mediate them. Of course, looking to the Middle East for artistic inspiration is part and parcel of the Orientalist mindset, but Godard offsets any arrogation of aesthetic distance by corroding, rupturing and intercutting his footage so as to defy any one omniscient perspective. After a while, he starts to bleed this footage back into the Hollywood montage of the opening third, suggesting that it is impossible to represent the Middle East in the contemporary world without first capturing the corrosion and devolution of Western media, and Western film history in particular. At the same time, Godard insists that while the Middle East may hold ‘interest politically’ for the West, it is simultaneously seen as ‘scenery and landscapes,’ as if self-assurance of Western media depended precisely and precariously upon its ability to reduce the Middle East to still images, or to a depoliticised and demediated ‘landscape.’ It is exactly that landscape that Godard seeks to implode here, sometimes by corroding his images, but sometimes by allowing his images to remain intact to clarify the gap between ‘the violence of the act of representing and calm that lies within the representation itself.’
For that reason, and unlike Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, The Image Book is – often – not especially beautiful or lyrical to look at. In many ways, it is closer to Histoire(s) du Cinema, or the kind of film art that might be exhibited in a gallery – Godard’s comments about the ideal screening situations suggest as much – but even with that in mind, it starts to feel a bit plodding beyond a certain point. Twenty years later, Godard’s montage style, and his take on film history, is not as novel as it once was, and The Image Book seems prescient that even the glitchiest and strangest combinations that Histoire(s) du Cinema pioneered have now been domesticated and normalised through YouTube and other related platforms. Indeed, the history of cinema that Godard set against the canon has, in 2019, become the main way most younger people experience the canon, suffusing even the most unexpected juxtapositions here with a kind of self-defeating reflexivity that, once again, makes this feels like a final statement from the French master. Strange as it may sound, after a while it becomes a bit tedious to witness even Godard sifting through his voluminous cine-memory, and Godard himself, to his credit, seems just as tired and bored.
Yet that doesn’t make The Image Book a work of defeatism, or a mere epilogue, since this exhaustion just throws Godard’s socialist hope, and the integrity of his career, into even sharper relief. Towards the end of the film, the plodding pace starts to drop away, as Godard immerses us in a series of coastal landscapes that reminded me of the privileged role that the Po Delta plays in Italian neorealism. Like the Po, these Middle Eastern vistas are less landscapes than zones that are shifting and fugitive enough to hold landscape itself at bay, allowing Godard to suffuse them with the fugitive subjectivities through which so much of the interface between Europe and the Middle East now has to be figured. Any residual sense of ‘scenery’ is offset by the explosions and plosive bursts of raw noise that grow almost unbearably loud during this final sequence of the film, as Godard arrives at the conclusion that being steeped in Western cinema means that he can never properly visually engage with the Middle East, but that the very fact of being so steeped in Western cinema means that he has an even deeper duty to encounter that apparently impossible threshold.
In the final moments of the film, this converges with Godard’s dual sense of the impossibility, but also the necessity, of socialism within the world as he sees it. For Godard, only socialism, as both political and aesthetic possibility, can allow the West to overcome the history of cinema, or repurpose the history of cinema as a mediatory possibility that permits the Middle East to be more than mere scenery or landscape. With a fusion of opacity and simplicity that recalls late Beckett, the last part of the film cuts to black as Godard’s voice affirms the importance of hope, determination and belief in a utopian socialist state, before he starts to cough and his words are distorted into the white noise that forms the substrate of his soundscape as a whole. After crafting some of the most original images ever committed to film, there’s a modesty and beauty to this black screen and voiceover that I found quite moving, making feel like this may well be intended as Godard’s final missive. It’s not quite the final note, however, since Godard ends with a brief clip from a Hollywood musical – I couldn’t recognise which one – depicting a dancing sequence. Light years away from the present, socialism and the Middle East, this image somehow exudes an irreducible egality to the moving image, and to cinema, that feels inherently socialist, inherently present, and inherently generous enough to accomodate the divides that The Image Book articulates. And it is in that contrast between the capitalist production of film, and the socialism of the film image, that the beauty of this release, like the beauty of Godard’s output, and the beauty of Godard’s own film history, finally resides.