Some misguided souls will doubtless arrive here in the hope your correspondent will have made complete, top-to-tail sense of The Image Book, the latest dispatch from Jean-Luc Godard. The title of Godard's headscratching 3D opus of 2014 - Goodbye to Language - would suggest we're long past that point; to cite an earlier Godard title, it may now be Every Man for Himself. Arriving mere months after this most elusive cineaste's hurtful no-show at the finale of Agnes Varda's Faces Places, The Image Book might be dismissed as further proof that JLG became the cinema's foremost shut-in some while back, and that his films have become those of a man talking to himself (and himself alone) in the dark. Yet if their apparently random imagery and asynchronous sound have made it increasingly difficult to pin down what this director's going on about, it's still been just about possible to get a sense of how he's feeling about the world. In recent years, Godard titles have been a touch misleading in this respect. 2001's In Praise of Love came over as entirely despairing, where Goodbye to Language seemed less valedictorian than it did upbeat. The Image Book - which felt hopeful to this viewer, albeit in a roundabout way - turns out to be entirely aptly titled. Here is a film born of the desire to construct a flicker book of images, separated on screen by fades to black that would be the movie equivalent of turning a page.
Nothing else is that simple. At this year's London Film Festival screening - held, somewhat improbably, at the IMAX in Waterloo - a warning pasted above the ticket booth cautioned of incoming "images of real death". Although one or two of the images in the film - of political assassinations, and the concentration camps - are clearly what this notice was referring to, it's often impossible to tell real from reel here. What Godard has mounted is an assemblage of clips, bits and pieces, some from movies we immediately recognise (Vertigo, Salò, Elephant), many from those we may not, some drawn from newsreel, others from CCTV, others still from films taped off the telly, so that their constituent frames are desaturated and defamiliarised. (This is very much the handiwork of the theorist Godard who once asserted that movies shown on TV aren't movies, rather reproductions of movies, like a Mona Lisa poster you might buy to hang in your front room.) This visual bric-à-brac has been overlaid with soundbites collected from diverse sources. Some of this speech has been subtitled for non-Francophone audiences, but much of it isn't; and just in case you were still under the impression this would be an easy-breezy night out at the pictures, sometimes subtitles appear where there is no dialogue to be heard. Incomprehension of at least some of the above is not an option, I would argue, but an obligation; "Chatting with a madman is an invaluable privilege" someone is heard to intone around the halfway mark, and by then, you may feel The Image Book has invited you to do exactly that.
Not for the first time with latter-day JLG, then, your experience (enjoyment seems too limited a word) will depend on the extent to which you're willing to enter into the game of "What's He Getting At?" I found the initial barrage of visual and verbal non-sequiturs challenging in the extreme; yet by minute twenty-five, I'd relaxed into and found myself more or less completely compelled by the way the images had started to flow before my eyes. (Godard has cut his own movies for the best part of fifty years now: we may not always understand his words, but his sentence structure is something else.) It helps that this timecheck coincided with a section that is clearly about trains - trains in the movies, trains in real life, no more, no less - which should arrive as a blessed relief to any hardy cinephile still trying to make head or tail of the singular artefact put before them here. We are suddenly presented with something akin to what Christian Marclay has done in his masterwork installation The Clock (still ticking away at Tate Modern): a filmmaker announcing that here is a theme, and here is how that theme has been filmed over the years. The Image Book thus reveals itself as a continuation of that encyclopaedic project Godard began with his Cahiers reviews and eventually reworked into his landmark Histoire(s) du Cinéma: an attempt to round up or corral the movies, to gather and communicate some sense of cinema en tout.
The task he has undertaken is staggering, and quite likely impossible, which is why The Image Book sometimes seems to stagger in the direction of non-sense; yet in this moment of fifteen theatrical releases every week, and how many hundreds of millions of hours of footage being uploaded to YouTube every day, there is something ennobling, even touching in the thought of Godard as the Canute of cinema, up to his neck in a still-swelling ocean of imagery, yet still trying to point out the most eyecatching waves to those who care to look on from the shore. There is real beauty in some of the images Godard selects and sets before us here: in the close-ups of actresses from screen history, in the director's own hypersaturated inserts of flowers and kids at play on a beach. (Can we see Godard himself in the sea behind them, not waving but drowning?) And he's still capable of redirecting our eyes towards the political, as in a chapter on the Arab world, which pieces together shots from Pasolini's Arabian Nights, the Algerian conflict, Michael Bay's 13 Hours, and jihadist videos to bolster an argument that the Middle East, comparatively underregarded by Western eyes, is still very much unfinished business. (Overlook it at your peril, Godard warns.)
Alongside the images we see, then, there's some analysis of that we don't see. Virtuoso sound mixing shuttles our attention between the left and right-hand sides of the screen, and you'll almost certainly emerge with a greater understanding of the hierarchies of viewing - how you respond to an image versus how you respond to the soundtrack. (Viewers fluent in Arabic may get more from the film than those who merely speak English, and are therefore reliant on subtitles that aren't always forthcoming. Godard can be a royal pain in the arse, but he remains unparalleled at unpicking viewer complacency.) You may still lament how the young turk who changed the face of cinema with Breathless turned into an old man effectively building cathedrals out of matchsticks in a shed in Switzerland - except that these constructions are themselves somewhat radical to behold, and still possessed of the capacity to move or awe us. A thought came to mind, watching The Image Book: is Godard the octogenarian making movies that only Godard the brilliant young critic could fully interpret? Is the new film, then, more self-involvement, or a gift or challenge to a new generation of imagemakers, a defiant holler of "see what you make of this"? To this viewer, it very much looked like both a masterpiece and a travesty, an attempt to mainline all films simultaneously that, by the very futility of that task, comes to look like no kind of a film whatsoever - or, just perhaps, a film like no other. Your own mileage may, as they say, vary, but The Image Book does finally get very close to an ideal of pure cinema: a film in which everything - sense, continuity, perhaps even the viewer's physical and mental well-being - has been sacrificed to the act of seeing.
The Image Book screens in selected cinemas this Sunday, before streaming via MUBI.