The Image Book
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Jean-Luc Godard flummoxes me. More often than not, his films, at least the recent ones, sail cleanly over my head. Is that an acceptable confession for a critic to make? We in this profession prefer, after all, to project authority and confidence, the impression that we always know what we’re talking about, that we grasp the work on some basic level, because otherwise how could we begin to critique it? But the dirty and perhaps badly kept secret is that, like anyone else, critics are sometimes defeated by the limits of our own knowledge or interpretative faculties. Movies, with their often innate links to culture and history, are great at making you realize how little you really know. Godard’s movies, specifically, often make me feel like poor, confused Jon Snow. They remind me that I know nothing.

I waved a flag of defeat, or at least of temporary stalemate, four years ago, when Godard’s last film, Goodbye To Language, premiered in competition at Cannes, in defiance of my obligation to offer anything resembling a coherent first take. He and I are both back at the festival this year, and I’m forced to wave that flag again, even more urgently, in the face of The Image Book. It’s another of the brainy, prickly iconoclast’s stream-of-consciousness essays, his dense and didactic collages. Classic cinema clips ranging from the universal to the obscure are sliced and diced, painted over and transformed into negative phantom versions of themselves. Grand proclamations (“A government powerful enough to give its people everything is powerful enough to take it all away”) share intellectual real estate with shout-outs to Goethe, Marx, and Brecht. If you’ve seen any of the feature-length supercuts the French director has assembled over the last couple decades, you have a sense of how The Image Book operates.

Saying what it adds up to is trickier. The relationship between real and fictional movie violence has long been a concern of Godard’s, going back to his ’60s jump-cut classics. Here the filmmaker draws associative connections between his favored art form (note excerpts from Salo, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, the famous razor blade and eye from “Un Chien Andalou”) and decades’ worth of real bloodshed and unrest, from the Vietnam War to the Arab Spring. But Godard’s train of thought has almost never been so difficult to follow, at least for yours truly. Is that a testament to the sophistication of his montage, or has he lost the thread, or even the desire to offer a thread? If nothing else, The Image Book proves that “impenetrable” is a relative distinction; it makes Goodbye To Language look as clear-cut as Breathless.

The Image Book
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

What’s the rubric, one has to wonder, for evaluating a movie like this? Perhaps it’s better to submit to its form than agonize over its content. Goodbye To Language’s hook was its inventive, often groundbreaking application of 3D, a technology Godard used, essentially, to short-circuit our brains and alter our way of seeing. (I’ll never forget the reaction at the Cannes press screening, when one discombobulating technique—creating two competing cones of vision, one for each eye—inspired a round of applause.) In The Image Book, the most audacious tricks are aural, not visual. A theater-experience partisan in the Netflix age, Godard plays around with the immersive and disorienting possibilities of surround sound, bouncing the audio from speaker to speaker, isolating different sounds in different quadrants of the auditorium. He even finds a sonic correlative to that aforementioned 3D opposing-fields prank, overwhelming the audience with competing (and often un-subtitled) voice-over, overlapping from the right and left peripheries.

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If only Godard also relocated some of the refreshing levity, the honest-to-god comedy, of Goodbye To Language. For though very good girl Roxy makes a brief cameo, The Image Book is a more poker-faced affair; only a cut between one of the laughing stars of Tod Browning’s Freaks and a close-up of an ass being eaten out really qualifies as a joke. This was, ultimately, a more alienating experience than the last one. I can’t hold my inability to make heads or tails of its ideas—to keep up with Godard’s brilliantly racing mind—against the film. But I can reassert my ongoing concern that his movies now often play like dialogues with themselves, speaking a language in which precious few are fluent. An echo chamber is still an echo chamber, no matter how many big ideas you send pinging across it.

Ash Is Purest White
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Can I further confess that I’m also no expert on Chinese history or culture? My roommate here at the festival, In Review Online editor Sam C. Mac, is much more versed in that field of study, which may help explain why his favorites of the fest so far are both Chinese movies. One of them is by Jia Zhangke (Platform, Still Life), whose new film, Ash Is Purest White (Grade: B+), is as attuned to the realities and anxieties of his homeland as any other state-of-the-nation address from this master director. But one need not catch every cameo or follow every point of cultural commentary to get on the film’s offbeat, tragicomic wavelength—though having some familiarity with the filmmaker’s larger body of work would help, given how linked the movie is to its predecessors, in big and small ways.

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As usual, Jia is working with spouse and muse Zhao Tao, who delivers one of her most complex performances as Qiao, gangster’s moll in the Datong of 2001. She’s dating, and deeply infatuated with, a slick mobster, Bin (Liao Fan), who holds court over the local dance club, settling disputes among his hotheaded crew. There’s a certain glamour to the lifestyle, but the gangster business is just another old-world industry on the wane in post-millennial China, and these aging criminals have to fend off challenges from the younger gangs nipping at their heels. Jia fans might, at this point, start citing parallels to the director’s Unknown Pleasures, given that the new film is set in the same time and place as the old one, similarly interested in the pop culture obsessions of its characters (Hong Kong crime movies, disco), and features Zhao in a not-so-different role.

The echoes don’t stop there. Jia’s filmography has always felt like a kind of continuum, ideas bleeding from one to another. But Ash Is Purest White creates a direct communion with his past work. Spanning three different timeframes and segments, like his recent Mountains May Depart, it engages with past triumphs in often surprising, explicit ways. The return to old shooting locations, radically changed (or in one remarkable case, completely reinvented) over time, becomes a striking metaphor for Jia’s ongoing concern for the changing face of his country. Is there a more potent way to communicate how different a place has become than to let the current, contemporary version of it “play” the older one?

Yet this is no retread. There was a time when Jia was one of international cinema’s leading voices of aesthetic austerity, adhering pretty strictly to a stylistic gospel of long takes, wide shots, imposing landscapes, and static camerawork. But his movies have gotten looser, and funkier even, over the past few years. Jia takes that further here, both visually (the cinematography is by Olivier Assayas’ regular director of photography, Eric Gautier) and tonally. It’s a surprisingly funny, even loopy film at times, with bursts of slapstick and screwball humor, plus a sporadic absurdism. It’d be nice to report that Ash Is Purest White coalesced into something greater than the sum of its best moments; the last segment, which brings everything full circle, is a little deflating after the mobile, self-referential liveliness of the middle passage. But Zhao holds it together through the sheer range of her performance, reverse-engineering an emotional continuity—an arc, even—that connects characters and past work she’s delivered for Jia. If the Cannes jury needs help selecting a Best Actress winner, they could start by penciling in this career summation.

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Tomorrow: ...is a very busy day. It may take me a while, but I’ll drop back in with thoughts on the latest from jailed Iranian director Jafar Panahi, French provocateur Gaspar Noé, and newcomer Eva Husson. Plus: Ramin Bahrani’s upcoming HBO adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, starring Michael B. Jordan, and if I can get into the market screening of it (that’s a big if), Christian Petzold’s follow-up to the masterful Phoenix.