Still from The Image Book, 2018. Image courtesy of Casa Azul Films.
For at least two generations of cinephiles, Jean-Luc Godard’s name has been synonymous with le cinema, even if his “later” work (a significantly longer filmography than the 1960s period that made him famous) remains too far a reach for mainstream moviegoers. The Swiss auteur’s elegiac new essay film The Image Book premiered at Cannes last summer, a festival whose official poster was a photoshopped still of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina locking lips in Godard’s own Pierrot Le Fou (1965)—precisely the kind of reductivist, saccharine New Wave iconography that’s haunted the very idea of cinephilia for the last half-century.
The bourgeois couple at the center of Godard’s last feature, the 3D masterpiece Goodbye To Language (2014) asked: “Is it possible to produce a concept about Africa?” The Image Book continues: “Can the Arabs speak?” In light of these questions it’s worth pointing out that at that same Cannes, while dozens of overeager film journalists prostrated themselves before the Croisette publicity circus for a chance to FaceTime with the eighty-eight-year-old iconoclast, France’s Centre National de la Cinématographie announced an initiative to restore 20 seminal works from African Francophone countries (including Safi Faye’s Fad’Jal, Sidney Sokhona’s Nationalité: Immigré, and short films by Moustapha Alassane) - a breakthrough for cinema history that went entirely unnoticed by English or French-language press.
“Can the Arabs speak?” Coming from Godard (who once endeavored to teach militant filmmaking in postcolonial North African territories, like a Maoist missionary), this line of questioning is problematic at best. Yet anyone seasoned by the dizzying swirl of references and obfuscations (cinephilic, literary, historical, visual) that’s been JLG’s calling card since the 1980s will know better than to presume any one clip or quotation as symbolic of the whole.
The Image Book’s signature image is a hand with its index finger outstretched, taken from a crude xerox of Da Vinci’s 1513 St. John The Baptist—itself the site of some format-specific controversy among art historians after it was restored by the Louvre in 2016. I initially took this as a comment on the click-driven epistemology of an increasingly pixelated, custom-curated world. The film revealed itself as structured in five Acts (one per finger, or digit) culminating in a conclusion as autobiographical as it is sweeping in its insinuations. Whether you’ve kept up with every one of Godard’s last forty-six features or this is somehow your first, it’s impossible to deny the film is a bracing viewing experience which, in a world peopled by images (simultaneously blotchier and more permanent), is a high enough compliment for one day.
After the film (whose French title, Le Livre d’Image, translates to something closer to the colloquial English “the picture book”) made its North American premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down for a brief interview with Fabrice Aragno, Godard’s editor, cinematographer, and all-around collaborator on his last four films (and an accomplished filmmaker in his own right.) Aragno was already hard at work concretizing Godard’s visualizations for The Image Book’s second act as a gallery installation, now on view at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (and slated to travel to further shores later this year).
Still from The Image Book, 2018. Image courtesy of Casa Azul Films.
Steve Macfarlane Let’s talk about the much-ballyhooed Cannes press conference, where Godard answered questions via FaceTime. Was that his idea?
Fabrice Aragno If you want to call someone in another territory and you don’t have money to pay the normal long-distance fees, you use FaceTime or WhatsApp, but WhatsApp doesn’t give you the video of the person on the other end. Jean-Luc knows how to use FaceTime.
SM I thought it was a sad spectacle, this long line of journalists drooling at their chance to be with the phone—
FA That was never the idea! The idea was: Jean-Luc is at home, I call him, and I put the phone in a journalist’s hand, he has Jean-Luc Godard in his hand.
SM No big deal.
FA Exactly. And then Jean-Luc has the journalist in his hand. Remember the hand’s importance in The Image Book. “Okay, any questions?” But, the people who organized the press conference wanted to know how journalists would hear one another’s questions: “If I give the phone to a journalist, will he run away with Jean-Luc in his hand?” They ended up insisting that the phone must be on a tripod. That was weird. Putting Godard on a tripod? A tripod is a stand; a stand is a pedestal …
SM Suddenly Godard is a deity.
FA It’s like a fetish. I didn’t know how it would be. I wasn’t happy.
SM So, does that mean Jean-Luc looked into his phone and saw, looking back at him, dozens of journalists, hundreds of cameras?
FA Yes, but it was too dark for him to see much of anything.
SM Do you think Godard would ever make something with financial support from Apple?
FA I should ask them. I don’t know how to contact Apple. After all, we already used FaceTime—it was my iPhone!
SM Moving on, The Image Book already has another life, as a gallery installation.
FA Jean-Luc’s original idea was to recreate a cinema in other places. It started in his living room. We wanted two images from the TV and two loudspeakers, so as to layer the differences between image and sound.
FA He cannot stop creating. Look at the latest sketch he sent me: a white wall, a black background, an image, and eight loudspeakers.
SM The screen is surprisingly small.
FA And there is a lamp to provide a little light, to fill the space. So it’s like you’re seeing the film inside a cave: a room with an image—we are not outside. It’s a memory of cinema.
SM Which is already a medium of derivatives, allusions, references, imitations, copies—much like film criticism.
SM So I went back and read your interviews from Goodbye to Language. They were all about the solving of technical problems for each scene, 3D and otherwise. Whereas The Image Book relies much more on material repurposed from other movies.
FA Well, it’s like this. Jean-Luc, myself, and one of the other credited cinematographers, Jean-Paul Battaggia, would meet every week—Jean-Luc is Swiss but always between the two lands, Switzerland and Paris. I’m the other Swiss guy. (laughter) I have to build his edit station because he still edits on videotape, as you probably know. It’s not common today. My job is to recreate his edits and then help him find the film to include in the finished project.
SM He’s cutting from his own personal tapes?
FA They still work, it’s a miracle! For The Image Book his research ended up encompassing between 500 and 800 films. Jean-Paul would bring some from Paris that Jean-Luc requested. I also need to mention Nicole Brenez, who was the fourth one of us.
SM I was going to ask, at the end of the film, there’s a card: GODARD BATTAGGIA ARAGNO BRENEZ.
FA Right. Nicole brought a lot of special images; she’s a very talented historian of cinema. I don’t know where she gets everything from—an unknown copy of an unknown film by an unknown director, experimental films, emulsified archival footage, strange films. I remember she brought in toy train footage from films by Charles and Ray Eames. We call Nicole Brenez “the archaeologue.”
Each thing that Jean-Luc wanted to include in the film, each sound, each image, he’d write a “script” for it. He’d mark down the image, its name, where it appears in the edit, which “camera” would capture it, so to speak. Then I would have to redo everything manually. When the producer cut us off, Jean-Luc gave me the job of finishing post-production. It’s a handmade film, but we did shoot some original material, including in Tunisia.
SM Even the original images have been downgraded?
FANo! No! No! They are colorized, not downgraded.
SM At the end, there’s a clip from Le Plaisir by Max Ophüls that looks like it came off an ancient VHS tape. Tell me about the decision to use old copies of films that are readily available in crisp, HD restorations.
FA When you see Jean Gabin and the train, that’s HD. The cabaret dance at the end is VHS, of course—because it’s where the tape runs out. When Jean-Luc grades an old VHS or DVD into “painting” I keep it that way—it’s what brings them into “image” in terms of metaphor. Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of War and Peace (1968) or John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), I conform from HD to HD—same with our original footage.
Still from The Image Book, 2018. Image courtesy of Casa Azul Films.
SM Does Jean-Luc ever reveal the grand schema of the finished product in his mind’s eye? Or does it all proceed from this type of problem-solving?
FA There’s one scene with a recreation from the Paris Commune. A soldier says, “The orders are ready to execute the manifestant”. How do you say it in English, when you have planned to kill someone?
FA Right. There are a lot of premeditated things. But sometimes the exact same thing happens spontaneously. And it was the same with Goodbye to Language and Film Socialisme (2010).
SM I’m beginning to suspect you get a lot of questions that can only really be asked of Jean-Luc.
FA Ah, the old “What means this?” “What means that?” For everything we create together, we never speak about it. He never told anyone, not even his partner, Anne-Marie Mieville. He just did it. For example, in Notre Musique (2004) there’s a sequence with a student watching Jean-Luc’s own films, and Jean-Luc shows two images: one is of a Palestinian going through the water; the other is of the Israelis arriving to the Holy Land. “The Jews became the stuff of fiction; the Palestinians became a documentary.” Shot, reverse-shot. So he’s not saying “I need this” or “I want that.” He just shows the world. The films are just a mirror or mirage. We did Film Socialisme in HD because in 2010 everyone everywhere was trying to sell HD, saying HD was better.
SM It was cutting-edge.
FA So if it’s 2014 and everyone is pushing 3D, we will use 3D. We’re just connecting with the readers of the world. He never wanted to transform the cinema—just to present instances, to draw a web of associations.
FA It’s important precisely because you don’t have to understand. We claim we need an explanation for this and this and this and we have to pay this much, but with images we can forget everything. All the doors, all the rules. As with poetry, so with cinema.
We had a screening of Goodbye to Language and afterward, a woman came up to me and said, “Help me understand!” I said, “What’s to understand?” Everyone has the key. Forget all the locks! The task is to even forget the door, to realize the door is everywhere. Watch the film like a child watches a cloud in the sky. Okay, maybe it’s more complex than a cloud in the sky. Maybe you had some love affair, maybe you created some problems in your family, maybe someone died. But when a child sees this building meet that cloud, he can create something; that’s what we’re after. As adults, we’re seeing too many doors and locks to create much of anything.
SMIn the United States, when you utter the words “French New Wave,” it’s like a rite incantatoire: suddenly you’re seeing in black-and-white Jean Seberg selling the New York Herald Tribune, Belmondo, chain-smoking, Leaud, “Marx and Cola,” Brigitte Bardot naked. It seems Jean-Luc has been trying to distance himself from these clichés for a very long time. Have you two ever spoken about that?
FAYes, of course. Though these days, these months, these years he’s remembering a lot of that, because he’s old. When we met for lunch last Tuesday; Godard went on for about an hour reciting his old memories. But for him it’s the same wave. He has the same energy, but knows he cannot redo. This is why the first chapter of The Image Book is called “Remakes.” You know how you have the ability to shoot retakes? (I hate this word “shooting” by the way.) It’s in the contract: if you find a problem in the edit, the actors will do retakes. We used retakes but never to do the same thing over again; never the same way twice. Why would he want to make Breathless over and over again?
SMThis reminds me of Redoubtable (2017)—the cliché that becomes an institution unto itself.
FAWe knew about Redoubtable because it was everywhere. Somehow it was made by the same people who produced The Image Book. They never told Godard, never asked if he knew about it. When I asked him about it, he said he was more affected by the fact that Anne Wiazemsky didn’t ask him. It was, after all, their private story. And maybe he was not the best. I don’t think they were in contact when she died.
SMThere are certain images in the film where I say: “This is the Godard I know.” The colorized sunsets, for example—
FAThat’s not Godard, it’s me! (laughter)
FAOkay, it’s between me and Godard. But you have to understand—everything could become a Godard film.
SMAll I mean is that I recognized similar patterns of color and light, consistent across the last few films. That there is a gap separating you and Jean-Luc from the average consumer, and that the gap is narrowing. Can anyone create those sorts of colorized sunsets now? Do you want them to?
FAI never considered myself a professional. I am not a “cinematographer.” I am not a “sound man.” I am a filmmaker. I love to use the image; I love to use sound; I love doing color correction. The techniques are very easy to learn! Every camera has a red button and a lens. In one day you can teach yourself everything. And then you’ll start trying to see the difference between la langue—the tongue—and language.
SMDo all four of you in GODARD BATTAGGIA ARAGNO BRENEZ take equal ownership of this film? Even if you’re saying people should just watch the film instead of “interpreting” it, you know it’s inevitable they will.
FAIn fact, we had the audience in mind constantly. We started in a small room with just two loudspeakers. When the film was selected for Cannes 2018, it was my job to find the money to do it the way Jean-Luc wanted; it wasn’t easy. People assume Godard is rich. He has very few of the rights to his own films. He even needs money to pay the rent on his cottage in Switzerland. It’s really not easy. Sometimes I start to panic between films.
SMHow is that possible?
FAMy job was not only to find the money but to “mount” the film—to create a space for the sound with the audience in mind. The layering is for the audience. They can’t sit in the room with Jean-Luc, so we have to create the same impression for them. Again: think about poetry. It doesn’t need an explanation. If it does—
FAA failed poem. A failed teacher.
The Image Book is now playing at IFC Center and the Walter Reade Theater in New York. It will open at the American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles on February 15.