Blu-ray: The Image Book

STUDIO: Kino Lorber | DIRECTOR: Jean-Luc Godard
RELEASE DATE: 5/21/19 | PRICE: DVD $17.99, Blu-ray $22.99
BONUSES: Interviews with producer-cameraman Fabrice Aragno and researcher-critic Nicole Brenez; essay by film scholar James Quandt
SPECS: NR | 87 min. | Documentary | 1:78 | 2.0 stereo

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

While most filmmakers are content to tell enchanting stories, Jean-Luc Godard (WeekendBreathless) has spent the last six decades creating a “dialogue” between film and the other arts. Thus, his latest film – made while he was 84-87 years old — is an essay, a gallery installation, a symphony of densely layered audio elements and a cine-poem that picks up where his Histoire(s) du Cinema left off.

The Image Book is divided into six parts, comprised of what Godard deems “the five fingers and the hand.” As in previous film and video essays he’s made, clips of classic films are intermingled with scenes from newer features, photographs, paintings, newsreel footage and newly shot footage (including images of Godard’s home studio). Here the filmmaker (who reportedly loves his iPhone) also includes surveillance camera footage, videos with pixelation caused by compression, at least one viral video from YouTube (the little girl who loves trains), and sudden black screens that call our attention to the audio.

The audio level is even “busier” than the video — the sound for certain clips is counterpointed by snippets from others, as we also hear Godard’s narration (in an even raspier voice than ever), voices reading poetry, fragments of classical music, pop songs from Europe and the Middle East (including the late, great Scott Walker, a perfect fit for this feature) and, true to form, sudden silence, which draws our attention back to the visuals.

In this instance, Godard has the audio move from channel to channel. When one saw the film in a theater, a sort of “Sensurround” mix sent the audio around the viewer; on disc the sound appears on different channels and the voices stay separate from the music, while we hear a mix of seven different languages.

As has been the case with all the 21st-century work of Godard, the themes he touches on here are monumental: war, love, death, art, and that favorite of aging artists, memory. The six sections aren’t perhaps as distinct as JLG intended them to be — one can see images that relate to his “Remakes” idea (the first section) in the “Region Centrale” section (the fifth and longest section, about the Middle East), and vice versa.

As is the case with any great film “auteur” – and Godard is truly one of the last Old Masters standing – the film builds upon work that has gone before. It therefore will not have much appeal for those who are unfamiliar with Godard’s work after 1968. “Uncle Jean” buffs will be richly rewarded, though, as it becomes obvious only a few minutes in that he is revisiting some of the montages he crafted for previous essay projects (most prominently Histoire(s) du cinema) and building upon them with much new material and new reflections.

The segment about the Middle East contains entirely new material and ideas, which (as with much recent Godard) can be enjoyed on a visual level the first time out and “assembled” intellectually through repeated viewings. The gist of it is that Europeans have treated those in the Middle East as one polyglot whole. JLG conveys this through readings from the work of cultural critic Edward Said and from novels that depict the so-called “Happy Arabia.”

In this instance, Godard’s support of the Palestinian cause includes no rancor against Israel and is conveyed with striking images from obscure Middle Eastern films (Godard has said that he watched all the material he could find in Switzerland) and news and surveillance footage that keeps one expecting bombs to fall – which in a few instances does happen, but in the more blissful moments, does not.

In the final analysis, The Image Book is a sublime sensory assault that offers a trove of insights into various themes. It also reflects Godard’s continued reverence for old New Wave cult movies (L’Atalante, Vertigo, Kiss Me Deadly, and yes, The Nutty Professor), as well as pictures made by those who were influenced by the New Wave, including Pasolini and Gus Van Sant.

For those want to identify the clips, Godard offers a full list in the closing credits of every film, painting and piece of music he used. But, true to form, he lists simply the title or just the creator’s last name (Artaud, Murnau, A. Sokurov, Delacroix, Shakespeare, Beethoven). As could be predicted, no indication is provided as to what work appeared in which section of the film.

The essay by film scholar James Quandt in the accompanying booklet “unlocks” some of the more cryptic references in the film. For her part, researcher-critic Nicole Brenez talks in an onscreen interview about how deep Godard’s research was during the creation of the film. She was first recruited to find for the filmmaker an obscure 1972 French film that was adapted from the work of the author who is quoted at length in the Middle East section of the film. She notes that JLG made it plain that Image Book wouldn’t contain actors — “Actors are too slow!” he told her.

Brenez emphasizes that what is not onscreen is as important as what is, meaning that Godard’s intentions and messages can often be discovered in the spaces between shots, or in the moments where the image or sound drop out. She also declares that Godard designed the film to watched on smaller screens and is well aware of the capabilities of modern viewing “platforms.”

As with the Quandt essay, Brenez’s interview is most helpful when it comes to the Middle East section of the film. She also discusses the entertaining way JLG chose to discuss the film at Cannes — via a press conference conducted via FaceTime in which a a phone was handed to the questioners, who wound up having a one-on-one virtual chat with the Old Master.

In another video interview producer-cameraman Fabrice Aragno discusses the circumstances in which the film was made. He reveals that it was assembled at Godard’s house (as he can no longer travel), over a period of three years with JLG editing for almost four hours each day.

A skeleton crew of researchers and technical people assisted Godard. Aragno and others shot the new outdoor footage that is seen in the film, but only JLG maintained the “books” (read: bound collections of notes) that determined what went in the film. Each of the books kept tracks of a different aspect of Image — one contained the text of the voiceover, another listed the images and edits, and still another contained the English subtitles for the film.

This last matter was one Godard was emphatic about — he wrote the English subtitles himself, not wanting to have every single bit of dialogue translated. The subtitles here are remarkably lucid, though — unlike the fragmented “Navajo” English subs he supplied for his 2010 Film Socialism (which were replaced by Kino Lorber for theatrical and DVD/BRD release).

Confirming that Godard is still, first and foremost, a fan of/expert on classic cinema, Aragno delivers the heartening news that TCM is on JLG’s TV all day long. He notes that Godard rewatches things that he savaged as a critic at Cahiers du Cinema and sometimes finds he’s changed his mind about the picture entirely. Aragno sums it up by saying that “He *needs* to watch… it’s his breath, watching films.”

Image Book was released in tandem with Blu-ray editions of three other Godard films. Detective (1985) and Hélas Pour Moi (1993) are entertaining pastiches he made while working on his chef d’oeuvre Histoire(s) du Cinema. First Name: Carmen (1983) is one of his finest “later” efforts with haunting dialogue and music. And, naturellement, images that aren’t easily forgotten.


Buy or Rent The Image Book

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”