The French New Wave adored video essays as the form of expression. Video essays were the form of expression adored by the French New Wave. It allows using images to visualise and more fittingly demonstrate what the director is interested in saying. Yet, with this form there is always a threat of the director becoming too self-indulgent. Video essays can, among many other things, stand on the fringe between fiction and non-fiction (Sunday in Beijing), be fascinating, unorthodox tales (La Jeteè), or intellectually challenging philosophical treatises (Sans Soleil).
The latest film from the legend of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, is an epitome of a postmodernist video essay gone wrong. Although this medley of films, songs, quotes from poems and novels, ISIS video clips and impressionist paintings shows the director’s erudition, its general lack of coherence ends up being a very frustrating experience for the viewer.
The film is divided into various chapters which instead of ordering Godard’s train of thought, make everything even more arbitrary. When the viewers think they managed to finally get a grasp of what a certain segment is about, it abruptly jumps to a next topic. Among the titles of these chapters are: “Remakes”, “St Petersburg’s evenings”, “Spirit of laws”. This brief enumeration shows how the film attempts to span over numerous topics without any overarching theme. The Image Book has a sense of mystery about itself, but it’s a mystery that I really was not interested in solving.
The main reason for that was how The Image Book seemed like a contrived gimmick instead of a genuine attempt to create a revolutionary video essay. From the late sixties onwards Godard was always about making anti-cinema and frustrating the viewers’s expectations. Yet in this montage political imagery vies with personal digressions and really obscure cultural links hence blurring any sort of clear cut message. The amount of clips and quotes, although staggering, in the end proved to me to be nothing more than pretentious flexing of intellectual muscles. With time Image Book turns into arbitrary ramblings that only in rare instances made any sense.
The Image Book probably is a commentary on contemporary culture of violence. In Chapter 1 “Remakes” Godard shows how over the years we have been “remaking” old war films. There is a sense of almost brutal irony when the director is juxtaposing execution scenes from some French old flicks with those uploaded to the Internet by ISIS. Again, the final chapter covers the tensions between Western Europe and the Arab world. “Everything done in Europe is by Europe” says Godard – or maybe it’s one of the hundreds of quotes from other artists he employs? There is also a sense of an ethical dilemma when the director narrates: the “Act of representation orders violence towards the subject of representation”. Yet, even if in the final minutes Godard’s film starts to make some sense, it is still too late to really involve the viewer in his discourse.