‘The Image Book’ Film Review: Once Again, Jean-Luc Godard Messes With Viewers’ Heads

The 87-year-old director’s newest film is an essay in sound and picture and an assault on the idea of cinema and, sometimes, on the viewer

The Image Book
Cannes Film Festival

Fifty years ago, Jean-Luc Godard was a cinematic revolutionary. Now, the reclusive 87-year-old legend is on another plane entirely, with his magisterially opaque and maddeningly elusive films as much criticisms and dismantlings of cinema as they are examples of it.

Then again, words like opaque and elusive sell Godard short, because they imply that he’s interested in things like plot and character.

He’s not, except in the vaguest and most poetic sense. “The Image Book,” which premiered in competition in Cannes on Friday, is an essay in sound and image, a poem that uses some of the tools of cinema, maybe even an assault on the idea of a movie (and, at times, on the viewer).

It’s a trip to Planet Godard, which at this point in time is a planet capable of sustaining and even inspiring human life, but only if they’re the right kind of humans.

You want an idea of what the maddening maestro – who, of course, didn’t show up for his Cannes premiere on Friday afternoon – is up to with this one? Well, you could look at the poem he submitted in lieu of a director’s statement: ” … Like a bad dream written on a stormy night / Under western skies / The lost paradises / War is here.”

Or the note by Bernard Eisenschitz in the press notes: “In the constant interruptions, being split between what is represented and the machine of the cinematograph, with its unspooling, its perforations, its decomposition. Rediscovering continuity by digital means … Waves, flames, bombardments, armies, history and the world as a thundering spectacle a la Dovzhenko, or Vidor.”

Or better yet, you could just experience the damn thing, which should be possible for industrious American viewers at some point, because it is after all Godard.

But beware: Even though it clocks in at less than 90 minutes, “The Image Book” requires stamina, or more accurately surrender. (A section of the Grand Theatre Lumiere balcony devoted to press had at least a dozen walkouts during the film.)

Godard uses a barrage of images from movies as disparate as “King Lear,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Dr. Mabuse,” “Anna Karenina,” “Orphee” and “Jaws,” along with news footage and still photos, along with an equally assaultive sound collage, to immerse the viewer in a violent jumble of Western art and Western inhumanity.

Make no mistake: This is an angry movie, both in form and in content.

The footage is all fragmentary and the cuts are all abrupt; music and dialogue often as not cut out before the clip is finished, and what we see often has the colors so saturated or the contrast so cranked that it’s almost unrecognizable. Sometimes the words spoken onscreen are translated in English subtitles, other times they’re not, and at certain points the subtitles serve as commentary rather than translation.

Travel, particularly train travel, is a running motif for the first half of “The Image Book,” but this is travel on the road to chaos and brutality. (Among the final shots of trains are Nazi and Japanese trains from World War II.)

And when Godard uncharacteristically begins to unspool an actual narrative in the final stretch of the film, it is a completely fictional one, with news footage masquerading as the story of Sheikh Ben Kadem of the gulf state of Dofu. That section does, though, have a catchy moral: “Do you think men in power today in the world are anything other than bloody morons?”

Godard’s last film, 2014’s “Goodbye to Language,” was nearly as bold and fragmentary, but it also showcased Godard’s daring use of 3D in a new way. “The Image Book” is a tougher sit than that film, which won the jury prize at that year’s festival, but it is an unforgettably strange test for hardy cinephiles.

At the jury press conference before Cannes began on Tuesday, jury president Cate Blanchett was asked if her jury would be able to judge the competition directors’ new films independently of their past work, and if the legendary status of Godard’s career would make it possible to judge him against other directors.

Blanchett gave a noncommittal declaration of nonpartisanship, but there’s another reason it might be impossible to weigh Godard against the others: At this point in his career, he’s playing a different game from the rest of them.