(director/writer: Jean-Luc Godard; cinematographer: Fabrice Aragno; editors: Jean-Luc Godard, Fabrice Aragno, Jean-Paul Battaggia, Nicole Brenez; cast: Jean-Luc Godard (Narrator), Anne-Marie Miéville (Narrator): 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Fabrice Aragno, Mitra Farahani; Kino Lorbo; 2018-France/Switzerland-in French, Arabic, Italian, German with English subtitles)

“Contorted, baffling, polarizing and idiosyncratic documentary.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2018.

The eighty-eight-year-old controversial French director now living in Switzerland, Jean-Luc Godard (“Breathless”/”Alphaville”), the one time critic at Cahiers du Cinema, is a survivor of the French New Wave from the 1950s. Here the post-modern legendary filmmaker directs this contorted, baffling, polarizing and idiosyncratic documentary telling us how he weirdly envisions the world as he looks back at the European history of the last century by entirely using images from archival footage (old film clips and occasionally social media sites).

The obscure film is divided into five chapters that are meant by Godard to be like a hand with five fingers, each finger being a part of the thinking process for the whole (I have no idea what the auteur is talking about). In any case, the material flows from one chapter into another, supposedly giving the film a completeness.

The first chapter, “Remakes,” is of nuclear annihilation by the atomic bomb during the Second World War. The second part, “St. Petersburg Evenings,” is a meditation on war through the use of flashbacks to the first chapter.The third part, “Those Flowers Between Rails, a Confused Wind of Travels,” references Rilke’s great poem The Book of Hours and features films about trains and his visions of mechanization signalling progress in civilization. The fourth part, “The Spirit of Laws,” addresses the enforcement of civil order. The fifth part lifts the title of Michael Snow’s landscape film, La Région centrale (1971).

It’s a head-scratcher, with some beautiful images but one that plays fast and loose with the known film formats. It still reinforces Godard’s famous slogan of  ‘the medium is the message.’ In the The Image Book, Godard eschews storytelling in favor of trying to make this a beautiful lyrical visual essay on his ruminations of how all the world leaders used their powers ineffectively and placed the world in jeopardy (all the world leaders are deplored by Godard). He blames them for their mistakes and of never correcting them even when proven wrong.

We are shown movie images from film clips, as he narrates over them in a way that either fascinates or disturbs you. The filmmaker cuts the viewer no slack and gives the impression he doesn’t care what you think–you can take it or leave it.

Some notable film clips include: Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden as lovers in the Nicholas Ray western Johnny Guitar (1954), the Soviet version of War and Peace (1966–1967), passages from John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and the zany “The Country’s Going to War” musical number from the Marx Brothers’s Duck Soup (1933). It ends with scenes from Godard’s favorite film, go figure it’s one set in the 19th century, Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir (1952).

It’s an edgy film, one I strangely enjoyed even if I know I missed much of what he was saying–including most of the many French cultural references.

The curmudgeon filmmaker is the only other survivor from the 1950s French New Wave besides the kindly 90-year-old Agnes Varda. Godard has re-invented himself, no longer the New Wave filmmaker he became famous for as a young neophyte filmmaker. He continues to evolve, for better or worse, as an experimenter and disruptor. But he’s absolutely still relevant in cinema, a noted figure who just can’t be dismissed so readily even if he’s so damning, didactic and a total mind fuck.

REVIEWED ON 11/22/2019    GRADE: B