A Tale of Many Godards

At Cannes, different versions of Jean-Luc Godard were everywhere


There were many indelible images from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but the one I’ll always carry with me is this: The sight of an 87-year-old Jean-Luc Godard, looking bemusedly out of a cellphone screen, as he conducted a remote press conference via FaceTime about his new film, Le Livre d’Image (The Image Book). I beheld this surreally endearing spectacle — as journalists lined up to ask questions of the phone, which was being held up by Godard’s cinematographer and producer Fabrice Aragno like some kind of trophy — on a monitor in the Palais des Festivals, effectively watching a screen of a screen. (You can watch the full press conference here. It’s actually quite interesting.) To add to the framing device, all around me were giant images of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina kissing in Godard’s 1965 classic Pierrot le Fou, a still from which dominated this year’s festival poster.

So, surrounded by the Godard that was the embodiment of youthful romance and abandon, I watched the tiny, pixelated, fragmented visage of Godard today, somewhat frail, his voice quivering, talking about a film that is about neither youth nor romance nor abandon, but about the timeless terror of how our minds structure and define images.

To add to the ontological hall of mirrors, Godard was also present spiritually during Cannes as one of the faces of the 1968 protests that shut down the festival fifty years ago. What’s more, right as the fest started, a new short film called Vent d’Ouest, alleged to have been made by him, appeared online, seeming to hark back to that spirit of resistance. (The film, untranslated, appeared to express solidarity with the eco-activist squatters who, after years of protesting, forced the shutdown of a prized construction project in western France.) The short, however, was declared a hoax by close Godard associates. In an earlier version of this article, I assumed the short was indeed Godard’s. But in some ways, the idea of it being a hoax is oddly perfect. It seemed like all versions of Godard were here: the youthful romantic; the eternal revolutionary; the aging, gnomic trickster; the fake; the icon; the blur.

When I saw The Image Book, I initially didn’t know what to make of it at all. (This is not an uncommon response with late Godard.) As an experience, it made for one of his more engaging, maybe even “entertaining” recent works; it even won a special Palme from Cate Blanchett’s jury on the festival’s closing night. The film carries you along in part because it consists largely of other film images — you can lose yourself in the dexterity and texture of Godard’s editing, in the way he matches compositions, gestures, subject matter. Many of the clips have been degraded: Some have been altered digitally, turned into something close to noise; some look like they came straight from VHS tapes gathering mold and dust in an attic. One recurring motif shows an old, decaying, sticky roll of film being unspooled by hand, and Godard himself, in narration, often mentions working with one’s hands. It’s almost as if he’s feeling his way through the images, like a blind man, fumbling for a new path through the century-plus discourse of moving images.

But to what end? A key question filmmakers must consider is the level of detail with which to present images and information to viewers — how much plot, or character development, or meaning, or even visual beauty to deploy in order to get us to focus on the right things, to keep us going. Provide too much information and we might get bogged down in insignificant minutiae and miss the whole. Give too little and we might lose the thread completely. It’s all a question of distance — sometimes the literal distance of the camera to the subject matter, sometimes the emotional distance of the filmmaker to the material. With Godard — especially late Godard — the burden of distance is on the viewer. He isn’t shaping space, or creating characters, or telling stories. The director presents very specific images, many of which already come loaded with meaning and context, and asks us to find something new in them.

To put it another way: If Godard cuts to a shot from one of my favorite films, Boris Barnet’s Alyonka (as he does in The Image Book), what are we to make of it? Does it matter that it’s from that specific film, which most viewers won’t have seen? Is it the content of the image — a young girl on the back of a truck, watching other trucks rolling across a dusty plain — that’s pertinent? Or is it what the image is juxtaposed against, what comes before and after it? Does this calculus change — and if so, how much — when the footage is from Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, a film far more familiar to the average viewer? (Or, at least, the average viewer of a late-period work by Jean-Luc Godard?)

In that sense, The Image Book represents a uniquely difficult case. A cinephile can go down a million rabbit holes watching these clips: Why Kiss Me Deadly? Why Ivan the Terrible? Why Pasolini’s Salò? And why so many of Godard’s own films? Why his war movie Les Carabiniers? Why his spy drama Le Petit Soldat? Why the sublimely disturbing final shot of King Lear? There is certainly something apocalyptic in these images, a sense of conflict and chaos, but is that all he’s going for?

Godard isn’t trying to obfuscate, but it can sometimes seem that way. He fractures images and sounds — presenting ideas as broken sequences, filled with interruptions, his sentences cobbled out of different voices, like some sort of cinematic ransom note. But late in the film, he offers up a quote from Brecht: “Only a fragment carries the mark of authenticity.” That seems central to his project here. Godard is not trying to convey some secret idea that he’s deliberately and cynically buried in the material, but rather the opposite. He’s trying to be as truthful as possible. These movies aren’t puzzles, or contests, and enlightenment is not some sort of trophy you win for “figuring it all out.” The film is what it is. (Jesus, I’m starting to sound like him now.)

For all my initial bafflement, The Image Book continued to haunt me. Maybe that’s all Godard wanted. Throughout the festival,  in conversation, I found myself going over and over his editing strategies — he cuts in surveillance footage of ISIS attacks, sometimes directly brutal, sometimes merely ominous, alongside images from American and Russian and European movies. It felt as if, true to his title, Godard was creating a compendium of images, an encyclopedia of visual references for the Western mind. Pasolini’s Salò had been a revolt by that filmmaker not only against the dehumanization of runaway capitalism, but against what he perceived as the corruption and commodification of his own work. And by placing his own images of war alongside other films’, it seemed Godard was perhaps expressing a similar kind of exasperation. Only his Salò unfolds not as an orgy of scatology and destruction, but as an orgy of film clips.

But are these scenes of terror meant as a contrast, or an echo? The Image Book moves in stages, and it even seems to replicate the structure of a journey. There’s a section in which we see lots of footage of trains; another in which we see lots of water — as if we’re traveling through both space and time. The marvelous final section ends up in the Middle East, where Godard cuts to footage from a variety of films from the region.

However, it wasn’t until I had a chance to speak to the Egyptian critic and programmer Joseph Fahim that I felt like I was starting to grasp what Godard was doing. Fahim was quite taken with the film, and has written astutely about it for Middle East Eye. We bonded over the fact that Godard had chosen some genuine deep cuts for the images for the Middle Eastern section — clearly, Jean-Luc had done his homework. As Fahim notes: “The last chapter of The Image Book transpires as a deconstruction not only of the Arab narrative imparted by the West since the invention of cinema, but of the occidental control of cinema history. Arab cinema has always been ignored by Western historians and academics. The images introduced by Godard in here are unknown to most Western critics who waxed poetic about the film.”

Seen in that light, Godard’s cutting in of terror attacks and other real-life horrors alongside the war movies and thrillers of The Image Book’s first half gains political urgency. If we consider the movie’s different sections as categories, then these images of terror exist alongside the images from American and European cinema, not among those films from the Middle East. Our experience of such events (at least to those of us watching at home, in the West, which is most of us) finds a place among the narratives of war we’ve already constructed in our minds from the works of pop culture. That’s not to suggest that the images are alluring — absolutely not — but sometimes the only way to make sense of them is to fit them into the tradition of conflict and catharsis as presented in our movies and television shows.

And here again we must discuss the issue of distance. Is Godard perhaps asking us to take a step back and see many of the images he’s presenting not as memorable moments from beloved movies but as part of a cultural discourse that, for all its artistic bounties, is still used to marginalize, to terrify, to manipulate? If so, he clearly (and touchingly) sees this process of deconstruction extending to his own work as well. And perhaps to the very image of the filmmaker as godlike figure. In the film’s closing moments, Godard, who already sounds unthinkably fragile throughout the film, starts coughing during one of his voiceovers. It’s a genuine cough, not a feigned one, and probably a blown take of sorts. But by leaving it in, foregrounding his own vulnerability — undoing his status as an all-seeing narrator, auteur, icon — he’s arguing, perhaps, for a more clear-eyed approach to all of cinema. There is no meaning here. His only goal is to make us think anew.


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