Point: I’m not sure we can call whatever it is that Jean-Luc Godard makes “movies” anymore.
Counterpoint: Maybe our definition of “movie” is too limited.
The aging enfant terrible of the French New Wave — Godard is 88 now, and, aside from Agnès Varda, the last auteur standing — sends out occasional bulletins from his hermetic/hermeneutic lair in the editing bays of Grenoble, France. The latest is “The Image Book,” which arrives in Boston for a stay at both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Harvard Film Archive. (Check their websites for specific dates.)
Like much of Godard’s recent work, “The Image Book” is a rumination on art, politics, history, and mankind’s eternal folly disguised as a cinematic collage. It’s plotless but it has shape; random but with purpose. After initially fighting the movie, one might find oneself giving into its flow, the visuals scudding across one’s retina, the assemblage of quotes and mournful pensees on the soundtrack seducing one into following along in its wake.
The movie resists conventional analysis, which is what’s good about it. Godard pillages the pop culture detritus of the 20th century and early 21st — film snippets, news footage, glimpses of historical atrocities — and arranges them by theme and emotion and internal rhythm. A section called “The Flowers Between the Rails” is a visual concatenation of train imagery, reminding us (along the lines of composer Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”) that the history of rail travel in 20th-century Europe is one of both hope and horror.
The style is an onrush of intertitles, classic film clips, news footage, black and white opening up to blistering passages of saturated color. Much of the soundtrack comes from the past, in actual aural film excerpts or Godard reading from historians and poets. The language is mostly French, occasionally German, Italian, Russian. Sometimes we get subtitles. Sometimes we don’t. The overarching effect is of Babel.
Eventually the swirls of contemplation on European history, the rule of law, the Sherman tank of colonialism all coalesce into a meditation on the Arab world and its place in the Western imagination. Godard correctly notes that the governments and societies of the West are obsessed with Islam but not particularly interested in Arabs or Muslims. Nor is his beloved cinema let off the hook. “The act of representation almost always involves violence toward the subject of the representation,” he says.
In the final passages of “The Image Book,” the filmmaker narrates the story of a fictional Arab country called Dofa, wholly lacking in oil reserves and thus free from the ruinous meddling of petro-imperialism. It feels like a story out of Borges — or a reverse Wakanda — yet it still ends with the local madman threatening to lead the country’s children toward the building of bombs. “I’ll always be with the bombs,” Godard says, and whether that’s the shallow old provocateur talking or whether he’s too old to care anymore isn’t clear.
“We are never sad enough for the world to be better,” Godard sighs toward the end of “The Image Book.” It’s a line that sticks. This is old man’s film, but the old men are often right, whether anyone listens to them or not.
THE IMAGE BOOK
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard. At Museum of Fine Arts, various dates, March 1-21; Harvard Film Archive, March 15 and 17. 84 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: archival nudity, war, and atrocity footage). In French and assorted other languages, with (some) subtitles.