The Image Book is exactly what I expected it to be, and also something I couldn’t possibly imagine. The latest video essay by French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018.
It is about Western representations of the Arab world. The Image Book is so endlessly complicated that unless you have a grasp of the political situation in the Middle East, an understanding of France’s foreign policy, a mastery of dense film theory, and a mental backlog of hundreds, if not thousands, of films that you can recognize in a heavily distorted visual cue, you will probably be disoriented during the 84 minute run-time of this film.
Even trying to give an account of the film is challenging, given how the history of art — from Faust to Vertigo — bubbles beneath each shot. But it is precisely the film’s impenetrable nature that allows it to penetrate deeply in our cultural moment.
The first half of the film explores the problems with representing the Arab world through Western eyes. However, an explanation of how Godard conducts this exploration is impossible through the written word. In fact, it would do a disservice to this erudite film to attempt to interpret it.
Instead, the charm of The Image Book lies in its ability to collapse discourse around the Middle East in a sprawling landscape of maximalist intertextuality. Simply put, the meaning of The Image Book is so complicated that a viewer would be lucky to understand a single frame of the work.
Through its complication and disruption of Western modes of interpretation and meaning-making, The Image Book gives us a representation of the Arab world emptied of Western hegemony. By frustrating our prepossessed understanding of the world, The Image Book allows us to re-imagine the world in terms that are open to other voices. For example, one frustrating but fascinating detail is that the film’s subtitles translate only about half of the content. So for people who are not fluent in French, only half of what is said in the film is understandable.
Cinema is not here for us to pontificate about in cocktail parties, but is part of a global struggle for human expression. While artsy French films are easy targets for educated people to sound smart about, by making a film where talking about it only reveals a critic’s ignorance, Godard makes sure that we do not consume The Image Book, but that it consumes us, thereby complicating our presuppositions of the Arab world. Perhaps it’s all-too Western to think of the Arab world as a war-torn place in need of saving, but my preconceptions crumble in the beautiful images that Godard has masterfully curated.
Godard possesses a knowledge of cinema and philosophy that few could match. His ability to inject a healthy dose of confusion in our cultural representation of the Arab world penetrates our culture’s skin of prideful ignorance.
He unabashedly complicates everything, barraging his film with so many images that we are forced to question our assumptions about the world. In the absence of judgement and in the suspension of hermeneutics, The Image Book gives us a representation of the Arab world that subverts the colonizing eyes of the West.
There is nothing to say about the film; all we can really do is watch and listen.