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‘The Image Book’: Jean-Luc Godard’s mesmerizing ride through a century of cinema

In “The Image Book,” French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard spins a montage of history.
In “The Image Book,” French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard spins a montage of history. Kino Lorber Films

Now 87, Jean-Luc Godard looks at the world the way Alfred Hitchcock photographed James Stewart’s panic attack at the top of the fateful bell tower in “Vertigo.”

Godard’s recent essay films pull back while pushing in, creating a vertiginous effect. Does he see too little or too much? In our present moment, filmed and framed and packaged a thousand different ways, can any of us say for certain?

That’s the sort of rhetorical guesswork this filmmaker provokes. Narrated by Godard in an insinuating low growl clouded by cigar smoke and skepticism, “The Image Book” is his latest audio-visual collage. It layers bleached-out, manipulated imagery of a century of cinema, fragmenting bits of “Duck Soup” and dicing up the atomic finale of “Kiss Me Deadly.” It’s Godard, the New Wave rebel, waving an ideological white flag, rebuking geopolitics as the provenance of “morons,” writing off the revolutionary spirit as spent and gone.

But not really. If “The Image Book” is just a great whatsit, why is it bracing and finally very moving?

That’s me. You, on the other hand, may detest Godard’s latest as politically naïve (there’s a great deal on the hazy, gauzy, romantic notion of “Arabia”) or madly indulgent as Godard spends a trancelike 84 minutes rifling through his personal inventory of violent, sensual, real-world and fake-real-world imagery. He samples ISIS propaganda videos alongside Joan Crawford’s unblinking death-ray stare.

It is a death-haunted inquiry, likening recent history’s cyclical mass slaughters (the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the ongoing bloody instability in the Middle East) to Hollywood’s reliance on remakes. Glib enough for you? Godard’s just getting warmed up. Remarkably, still, the filmmaker retains a fundamental core of seriousness, and serious aesthetic bravura, inside the japes and idiosyncratic connections.

Some sections, divided into chapters, are relatively straightforward, such as a passage devoted to the rhythm and symbolic meaning of locomotion. Others fixate on the government versus the people. The quotations flit in from all over, including Godard’s own brain. Olivier’s “Hamlet,” Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” coexist with observations (some more facile than others) such as describing the Arab world as one of “secrecy and landscapes.” Or: “I prefer poor people because they are the defeated.”

These can sound like the throwaway lines of a postmodern visionary nearing the end of the line. But “The Image Book” lives and breathes cinema; the cutting and sound games (up and down and all around) remain arresting and instinctive and inspired.

Samuel Beckett once said he pitied James Joyce because Joyce believed in the power of language. Godard is not there yet. He may have said his farewells to language in his own essay film, “Goodbye to Language.” But as a filmmaker he can’t shake his belief, even now, in the free-associative power of all he has seen.

(Opens Friday at The Tivoli.)

‘The Image Book’

1/2

Not rated.

Time: 1:24

In French, English, Arabic and Italian with subtitles.

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