There’s a moment in Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book where the forerunner of Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) takes home footage of a young girl who—perhaps for the first time in her life—watches an incoming train coming to a station. Godard completes the moment with the shot of the now iconic 50 seconds of L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, first shown by Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1896, perhaps a first someone has ever seen a motion picture. This is a rare instance in a Jean-Luc Godard film where an edit, for once, emphasizes continuity. But it is also rare in that this deceptively simple connective shot between the two clips touches on Godard’s almost sentimental love of film. Our ability to capture moving images in 1896 is no different than it is in 2018 because it remains that the use of a camera extends to our most natural fascination with the world.
Where Godard’s last feature Goodbye to Language was a bold and thrilling attempt to meet the demands of a world constantly advancing in forms of audiovisual communication, The Image Book attempts to draw out the human essence within the thousands of images projected at us everyday, and find the things forever preserved amidst the world’s vast technological shifts.
The Image Book collages the images history and film history and from it forms a single mold, suggesting the two are inseparable, bound together by the unchangeable sense of perception that remain deeply fixed in our nature even as the mediums of seeing and hearing changes. Achieving this, Jean-Luc Godard drops the persona of the radical critic and adopts the role of the enlightened philosopher. Gazing upon the endless images across different periods of history and film that flash in The Image Book’s 85-minutes Godard sees patterns emerge, haunting reflections of our world through the eyes of an all-knowing and everchanging lens.
Writing, editing and directing The Image Book, Godard’s attempt to mirror reality and film absorb us into a world where reality is as much a subjective experience as it is an objective truth. A crucial reference point in The Image book is where Godard pairs Roberto Rosselini’s 1946 Paisan with a real-life camera footage bearing almost identical scenes, prisoners bound by their captors and then tossed cruelly into a waterway. Martin Scorsese once noted watching Roberto Rosselini’s Paisan was “like seeing reality itself unfolding before your eyes,” as sentiment that Jean-Luc Godard must have shared when scrolling through a website like LiveLeak.com and coming across such a familiar image of moral outrage.
Roberto Rosselini was noted for his ability to create images of stark realism, so much so that audiences were fooled by Rome, Open City when in 1945 they saw not sound stages or studio sets but the actual scenes of rubble and poverty from Italy’s war-ravaged city. Today it’s easier to see the seams of Rosselini’s elaborate fabrications. His films don’t possess such an authentic feeling in 2018 as they did in postwar Italy. But Jean-Luc Godard, whose methods was to deconstruct the medium of film, never believed in film’s “realism” to begin with. To Godard, the only reality we could draw from film was by deconstructing it and distilling the dramatic framework down to its source, the internal world of the filmmaker.
As films seem more “authentic” in appearance the more dishonest they become. Take the methods in neorealism for example, employing non-professionals and real-life settings simply manipulate raw images to draw a fabricated response from an audience, no different in intent than Golden Aged Hollywood’s lavish melodramas. The only way to achieve a true sense of reality was to look at images as products of its creators, directors with internal motives who wished to dictate the way the world how they saw it. The reason Hollywood masters Ray, Hitchcock and Hawks are constantly referenced in Godard’s films is because, like Godard, images and stories were merely the forms in which emotion took shape.
This form of cinema is as powerfully recurring in Jean-Luc Godard today as it was in 1960 with his student feature Breathless, a gaudy and graceless traverse into American noir—a genre he worshipped— which in its purposefully fatalistic and futile attempts to imitate his forefathers had somehow become among the most transparently emotional expressions in all French cinema.
In The Image Book, Jean-Luc doesn’t adopt so distinct a filmic shape as he had in Breathless, or Alphaville or Pierre le Fou. In his newest work, the vast sea of images that Godard surrenders himself never yields to a narrative flow, rhythm or a linear timeline, rather they take on an omniscient presence. Godard sees the images which pass over time as ever-present in shaping our ongoing familiarity of the world. His film is hyper-aware, even overwhelmingly so, but amidst the kaleidoscope of images emerges a deeply personal vision, Jean-Luc Godard recalls the power of the image, surrendering our fascination to it puts us into state not unlike the little girl in the train station, but with it comes an enlightened disgust, how images shaped by film and media also attempt to control how we see the world.