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Jean-Luc Godard's documentary The Image Book, seen above in a still, pieces together fragments and clips from some of the greatest films of the past, then digitally alters, bleaches, and washes them, all in the service of reflecting on what he sees in front of him and what he makes of the dissonance that surrounds him.

Courtesy of TIFF

  • The Image Book
  • Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
  • Classification N/A
  • 84 minutes

rating

A pleasant moment of recognition occurred when watching Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book as it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. The fifth chapter was named after Toronto artist Michael Snow’s film La région centrale and begins with footage from his film. Just as Snow’s work suggests a displacement away from an urban centre toward the periphery of a desolate rocky landscape, one of Godard’s gestures in his new work was to bring Canadian film into a festival that neglected it, and assert its importance.

This gesture of giving a voice to others – to those who have been misrepresented or oppressed – is at the heart of The Image Book.

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At another point in the film, Columbia professor and public intellectual Edward Said is quoted on the tranquillity of the subjects in contrast to the stereotypical violent representations of them. Godard uses this idea to better represent the Middle East by opposing quotidian footage of the Persian Gulf against that of the rote sensationalizing of Islamic terrorism in American films. Throughout, Godard condemns barbarism of the state and that from the rich and powerful, while supporting civil disobedience, class solidarity and revolution. One particular relevant citation stands out among many others: “Do you think men in power today, in the world, are anything other than bloody morons?”

For anyone not familiar with Godard, The Image Book is an essay film – closer to his 1988 project Histoire(s) du cinéma than to his recent work – which manipulates images and film clips, from the news and original footage, against a complex soundscape. The visuals used are particularly intense and emotive, and through their collage, accompanied by Godard’s own raspy and conspiratorial voice-over narration, the director creates a mood and atmosphere that is entirely his own.

The Image Book is worth seeing if only as an aesthetic experience – to let its images and sounds wash over you – while also offering itself up as an object to reflect on.

Courtesy of TIFF

But the raison d’être of Godard’s approach is to give an image and an experience over to the world of ideas, a sensation that is only heightened through The Image Book’s shifting moods of awe and shock, beauty and perplexity. This is a collage film full of non-cited citations – when Said’s words are narrated, they’re not attributed to him; and viewers unfamiliar with Snow’s work wouldn’t know that it was his footage appearing in the fifth chapter. The names are listed in the credits, but even these are elusive, with only last names included.

The title of The Image Book is meant to be taken literally. This is a binding together of images and sounds that are important to Godard, and the film has the intimacy of a personal postcard sharing memories of deceased friends, favourite films and political touchstones. All of this is accentuated by the work’s tactile quality. Its experimental effects have a rough and homemade feeling, as opposed to the gloss of current digital technologies, which is emphasized at the film’s beginning with the discussion of hands and Godard working with celluloid.

The post-credit scene is likely one of the most powerful experiences ever of both hope and lament. The screen is black, with a gradual layering of audio-tracks of Godard speaking. Through the multitude of voices and an increasing coughing fit, you can hear the director saying, “And even if nothing would be as we had hoped, it would change nothing of our hopes, they would remain a necessary utopia.” It feels like a last breath. Then it cuts to a merry celebration at a dance hall.

The Image Book is worth seeing if only as an aesthetic experience – to let its images and sounds wash over you – while also offering itself up as an object to reflect on. This is one of the reasons it won a special Palme d’Or at Cannes for both the film and Godard’s 50-year-plus career. And if Godard’s right-hand man Fabrice Aragno is to be believed, the filmmaker is still in good health and has a couple of virtual reality projects in the works. For the cinema, there couldn’t be better news.

The Image Book opens Friday at the TIFF Lightbox (tiff.net)

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