“The Image Book,” the new film from Jean-Luc Godard, premiered today at Cannes with a sense of momentousness. It felt as though we were getting the Godard bulletin on the state of the world. At the same time, it’s the rare work of his that has the aura of a horror film (it’s suffused with images of violence, intertwining old movies and new atrocities). The two feelings are far from disconnected: “The Image Book” is a Godardian bulletin, and the world that he’s looking at through his color-saturated semiotic channel-surfing kaleidoscope is one that has fallen into horror and is spinning out of control. Or maybe it’s fallen under too much control.
Early on, there’s a chapter title that says “1. Remakes,” as if Godard were about to launch a riff on the corruption of Hollywood (if only!). The shot that follows is a retouched image of a nuclear bomb exploding. That’s a very Godardian black joke: the prospect of an atomic blast as a reboot of history. (It’s also a warning.) Speaking to us on the soundtrack, in a voice that’s now so low and sonorous and croaky with import that he sounds like Charles Aznavour crossed with Gollum, the 87-year-old Godard says, “War is here.” He means that it’s here, and also that it’s coming.
It’s tempting to say that his warning is all about the brutes and fascists (I won’t mention any names), but Godard isn’t about to let any of us off the hook. In Europe, he says in his scratchy cigar quaver, the actions of citizens can’t be separated from the actions of their government; they’re all one. That’s a truth that too many — especially on the left — now try to hide from, but Godard doesn’t like to point fingers unless he’s pointing the finger at everyone.
In the ’60s, he made real movies, even if he insisted, almost from the start, on fragmenting them into academic baubles. The fragmentation then took over, and the pretense that Godard was “purifying” cinema by converting it into a playground for allusive brainiacs become more and more annoying. Yet his work featured actors and pretended, on occasion (“Hail Mary”), to tell stories.
So it’s something of a paradox that “The Image Book” is more accessible and vibrant than much of the work of the past 30 years that Godard has been reflexively praised for (as, for example, the unwatchable “JLG/JLG”). He has now gotten rid of actors entirely and found a free-associational mode of sound-and-image collage that suggests MTV crossed with the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” He’s no longer a cracked storyteller — he’s an audio-visual poet. This means that “The Image Book,” rather than being seen by 12 people, might find an audience of 112. It was just announced that images from the film would tour several major cities as an installation, and that feels right. Godard, let’s be honest, has left the art house behind. He has become his own living museum piece.
Watching “The Image Book,” we catch a hundred fragments of things that, depending on who you are, will trigger different thoughts and feelings and associations. Godard rips them out of context, crashing together bits of music (Bach, the soundtrack of “Ivan the Terrible”), old movie clips (Crawford and Dean, “Notorious” and “Young Mr. Lincoln,” a pinhead from “Freaks”), sado-porn like “Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom,” and video footage of terrorist murders to let us see and hear each one anew. The Hollywood actors speak of love and passion as if it were a lost paradise. The global political killers seem to be carrying out a degraded — or maybe it’s a heightened — version of what the movies taught them.
The coruscating images in “The Image Book” fuse into feelings of dread that build on things that Godard has been talking about for half a century: the stunting of emotion by capitalism, the assassination of language by mere words (that is, by advertising). With so much civility ripped away, war, Godard seems to be saying, may be all that’s left. In the last third of the movie, he retains his squirmy fixation on the Middle East, in which the media’s dehumanization of the Arab world — a legitimate complaint — is balanced by Godard’s sanctification of the Arab world. (It’s a little like what he did in his late-’60s Marxist days, when Mao became hipper to him than the Euro-American bourgeoisie.)
Yet as you watch “The Image Book,” it conjures a totemic darkness that can’t be shaken off. Godard tells us that people used to want to be Faust, and now they just want to be kings. That’s the difference between a world of religion and a world of chintzy power. Our world, in “The Image Book,” has finally caught up to Jean-Luc Godard’s doom-laden dream of it. He seems to be saying that we all have a choice: to change it, or to sit back in our TV armchairs and watch.