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Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘The Image Book’ is a searing essay on human violence

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A still from the movie “The Image Book.”
(Kino Lorber)
Film Critic

“The Image Book” is an 85-minute cinematic brainstorm, a swirling, dazzling, maddening frenzy of disconnected sights and sounds that have been compiled and arranged according to a rhythmic and rhetorical logic that only its maker can fully divine. That’s a roundabout way of saying it’s a new movie by Jean-Luc Godard, the 88-year-old Swiss-born filmmaker-philosopher-essayist still fondly remembered as one of the last standing pillars of the French New Wave.

It has, of course, been several decades and many more movies since the celluloid-era glories of “Breathless,” “Masculin Féminin” and “Weekend,” and these days Godard is more often appreciated — or not — as an endlessly elusive (and allusive) cine-crank, an artistic giant who has moved past radical experimentation into a realm of stubborn, gnomic inscrutability. Those with no interest in his post-1968 body of work will know precisely what to do, or not to do, with “The Image Book.” Those willing to brave its pleasures and frustrations — and they are not always easy to tell apart — will find themselves in for the most intoxicating kind of bafflement.

Like a micro-spinoff from his epic “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” (1989-99), “The Image Book” is a free-associative collage that spins its own historical and cultural counter-narrative from pre-existing movies, paintings, photographs and texts. Silent-era landmarks like “The General” jostle for attention alongside Michael Bay; Hollywood classics like “Jaws” bleed into documentary footage from today’s bloodiest front lines. Individual fragments lodge in your memory: a teenager on a shooting spree in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” a horrific spectacle of degradation in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” a conflagration from Godard’s own apocalyptic “Weekend.”

The relentless montage is laced with Godard’s familiar end-of-civilization motifs: the futility of language, the dissolution of meaning, the evils of capitalism and the horrors of war in Europe and beyond, this time with a particular emphasis on the Middle East. The apocalypse is here, Godard seems to be saying (not for the first time), and the doomsday spectacle that awaits us is not the Rapture so much as the Rupture.

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No other filmmaker revels so freely in the aesthetic possibilities of discontinuity and decay. Sounds and title cards drop in and out; aspect ratios shift at will; individual clips appear to have been distressed, discolored, strobed, slowed down and otherwise warped almost beyond recognition. Stirring blasts of orchestral music intermingle with the loud pop of gunfire. Hovering over it all is Godard’s own raspy growl of a voice-over, a sound that is more arresting than it is illuminating, especially if your French is as shaky as mine. (Large chunks of his narration have been left unsubtitled.)

“The Image Book” divides into five chapters, and the fun of each one — and by fun, I mean hard work — comes from trying to follow Godard as he thinks his way through the material, a process that seems at least as manual as it is mental. The first chapter, titled “Remakes,” is a playful riff on destruction and renewal: We get the climactic explosion from “Kiss Me Deadly” and Jimmy Stewart diving into San Francisco Bay after Kim Novak in “Vertigo.” The second chapter, “St. Petersburg’s Evenings,” launches from a dance ball in Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” (1967) into a whirlwind of violence: shootings, impalings, burnings, bombings. Is what we’re looking at real or staged? Our confusion is entirely the point.

The third part, “These Flowers Between the Rails, in the Confused Wind of Travels,” rifles through the visual history of train travel, one of our great cinematic pastimes. More than once I found myself noting the visual similarity between a set of railway tracks and an unspooling film reel, though Godard pushes beyond that metaphor to consider the train as a bringer of death, a mechanism of war. The fourth chapter, “The Spirit of Laws,” features the inspiring sight of Henry Fonda in “Young Mr. Lincoln,” in mock counterpoint to scenes of utter lawlessness.

The fifth and longest chapter — which borrows its title from Michael Snow’s 1971 avant-garde landmark, “La Région Centrale” — shines a tinted spotlight on the Arab world. It weaves images from the long, interminable history of conflict in the Middle East — some from movies, some from ISIS videos — into a despairing screed on not just the inevitability of violence but also the unknowability of the truth.

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“The world is not interested in Arabs,” the filmmaker drawls, though you may well wonder, based on this curious bombardment of images, if he is the ideal person to correct that sorry state of affairs. Godard, perplexed as always by ethical questions of representation and authorship, would ask the question himself. But that doesn’t mean he would necessarily seek an answer. “The Image Book” is a meditation on not only the power of moving pictures but also their inadequacy, the way they betray the very history they seek to represent.

Early on Godard plays a scene from Nicholas Ray’s great 1954 western “Johnny Guitar,” in which Sterling Hayden urges Joan Crawford to tell him she still loves him, whether she means it or not: “Lie to me,” he urges. It’s a moment the filmmaker has quoted before, though never quite like this, truncating the exchange with a few brutal cuts to black. Does he still love this medium that once so captivated him, and whose boundaries he has done more than any other living filmmaker to explode? For the better part of a century the movies have lied and lied and lied to us, Godard says. But on the basis of “The Image Book,” that doesn’t mean he’s done with them yet.

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‘The Image Book’

In French with some English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 15, Aero Theatre, Santa Monica

justin.chang@latimes.com | Twitter: @JustinCChang

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