Jean-Luc Godard’s discursive follow-up to Goodbye to Language feels like a film that’s been put in a broken blender; it flings everything at the wall and sees what sticks. This is a Dadaist treatise on cinematic representation, violence, the fate of the world—or maybe none of those things. Le Livre D’Image produces everything from portraits of Arthur Rimbaud to clips from the cinema of Michael Bay, asking the audience to cling to whatever fragments of meaning they can find. In doing so, it’s an even more radical—albeit less focused—extension of Godard’s previous work. (The film is certainly peppered with the same unexpectedly lowbrow humor—be sure to look out for the cuts between Tod Browning’s Freaks and some abrupt anilingus.)
If that isn’t enough of a hint as to the madcap, kamikaze nature of Le Livre D’Image, there are plenty of others. The screen periodically goes black while the scenes from films like the director’s beloved Johnny Guitar go on unabated. Home movie footage of executions and terrorist violence come hand-in-hand with a stream-of-consciousness voiceover full of Godardian declaratives. Split into unruly sub-headings that allow some brief guidance, Godard’s tendency toward the dislocated and oblique nonetheless reaches new heights here. Free floating without an evident thesis, the film bounces between wide-ranging issues—war, the environment and the potential for revolution.
In one typically circular statement, the voiceover tells us that any activity can be art provided it is no longer dominant. If this is a statement about the death of cinema, retrospectively honored now that its 20th century dominance has faded, that seems to fit the filmmakers’ perspective well.
It’s undoubtedly the viewpoint of an older man, revealing Le Livre D’Image as a rather grouchy film. As an elderly Godard ruminates on the fate of the world and the end of cinema, the film fills with apocalyptic imagery: the nuclear explosion at the finale of Kiss Me Deadly; abrupt bombings caught on camera. This could well be the old-man-yells-at-cloud meme in avant-garde cinematic form. Yet amid countless examples of pessimism both verbal and visual, Le Livre D’Image also occasionally ventures into hopefulness.
It’s always been somewhat difficult to encompass Godard’s intentions, and this is particularly the case with his latest unwieldy creation. Are we doomed to an endless cycle of violence and degradation? Was cinema only great when no one regarded it as art? Is this all a profound joke? Is there anyone out there, on first viewing, that grasps every reference to political and cultural theory the film contains?
It’s fitting, ultimately, that Godard seems so fixated on images of trains and train-tracks. Le Livre D’Image is a film that derails itself constantly and self-consciously. At his age, Jean-Luc Godard has no interest in getting you up to speed; he just wants to be sure that you keep watching.
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Luc Godard, Dimitri Basil
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival
Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing flicks.