What is a movie? Your film studies professor might have limited their definition to “a video moving at 24 frames per second”– that’s the speed to picture ratio that creates the illusion of real-time on screen. Jean-Luc Godard, the 88 year old poster boy for the French New Wave, would argue otherwise. He would argue that there are no boundaries in movies just as there are no boundaries in art. His latest movie is boundary-less; an audio-visual whirlwind that defies categorization. It’s a category five tornado of sights and sounds.
Until you open yourself up to “The Image Book,” it’s hard to get your head around this mind bending masterpiece. There are no main characters and there is no plot to speak of. The story is a scrapbook of the director’s memories, friends, influences and the things that inspire him to get out of bed every morning. Luckily for us, it’s all in good taste. Narrated by the chain-smoking voice of Godard (he is French after all), the images come from all over the place. There’s clips from old Griffith and Renoir films, news footage of Middle-East revolutions and paintings that come to life as they haven’t since “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Everything is alive but not everything is well.
You get the “I shouldn’t be watching this” feeling more often than not throughout the 84 minute run time. Rarely has images been juxtaposed in such a disorienting fashion, and never have they been put to grittier use. It’s as if Godard and fluidity are seeing other people. That’s not a bad thing. When footage of “Vertigo” has the saturation turned all the way up or down; sound cards are thrown to the wayside; ISIS videos are overlapped with “The Battle of Algiers,” the result is equally confounding and empowering. It’s also a blend that is endlessly moving.
But how can a collection of GIF-length moments move someone? The answer is actually stated aloud somewhere between Joan Crawford’s killer glare and the mushroom clouds in the air: “The harmony of arrangement produces harmonies.” Is this about the power of arrangement? Or is it a meditation on the movement in moving pictures? It’s hard to say. What’s easy to say–and see– is the way it jumps from scene to scene with cumulative grace.
When you are the inventor of the jump cut, you get the liberty to try new things without questions. Sometimes they work (“Breathless,” “Alphaville,” “Contempt”), sometimes they don’t (“Oh, Woe is me,” “A Woman is a Woman”). But Godard is a director that doesn’t fear failure so much as he fears not trying. 69 years into his career and he hasn’t lost his love for cinema and his hatred of the world around it. When he isn’t obsessing over trains like Keaton and hands like Bresson, he’s comparing remakes to terrorism and the modern-world to biblical revelation.
Near the end, Godard brings up Babel. A time when God condemned his people by dividing everyone by differing languages. Without communication there was chaos. That’s the way Godard sees the world today. Not coincidentally, this visually kaleidoscopic and tonally haunting picture never fails to speaks our language.