Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book (2018) is having its exclusive online premiere in the United Kingdom from December 3 – January 1, 2019.
The first thing we see in Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, The Image Book, is the pointing hand of Leonardo da Vinci’s St. John The Baptist, believed by many to be his final work in oils—a masterpiece of sfumato, though Godard’s image is contrasty black-and-white like a Xerox some generations removed from the original. Next, two hands, maybe the director’s, pinning together lengths of film at a Steenbeck editing table, and one of those esoteric quotations for which Godard is famous: “Man’s true condition: to think with hands,” from the Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont, previously featured in Godard’s magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinéma. Then, a montage from Histoire(s): hands (including Giacometti’s The Hand) and part of a favorite quotation from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. Paul also being the name of many of Godard’s on-screen alter egos—and hands being a recurring motif throughout Godard’s body of work, connecting his sixties New Wave movies to the poetic and multi-layered audiovisual ruminations of his later years.
Hands bring to mind some of Godard’s favorite directors—the many close-ups of hands one finds in the films of Fritz Lang and Robert Bresson. But also the close-ups in Godard’s own movies, which are always metaphors and abstractions: hands over hands in A Married Woman and La chinoise; Jean-Paul Belmondo with lit matches between his fingers in Pierrot le fou; a hand dangling from a handcuff in front of a train window in Keep Your Right Up; painterly hands against the landscape in Nouvelle vague; the hand open against TV snow in First Name: Carmen. Hands imply gestures. They caress. They massage cigars and light cigarettes. They take and give money. They write.
Godard’s own cursive has to be the most filmed handwriting in the history of cinema. One recognizes it in the opening credits of Une femme coquette, his first fiction short, from 1955. In the same film, one finds the earliest example of another future Godard staple: a shot of a character writing, the way Anna Karina pens her letter in Vivre sa vie or Belmondo keeps his journal on graph paper in Pierrot le fou. (Though, it should be pointed out, that the handwriting in Pierrot le fou is actually Godard’s.) Later, one reads of Godard’s method of making actors learn their lines by having them write them out in their own handwriting. “A cinema haunted by writing” is how the great critic Serge Daney once summed up the New Wave’s influences. But with Godard, it seemed to go further—the dual career projects of film as inscription and the creation of a personal cinema that might follow the examples of sculpture, painting, music, and poetry, all of which are usually created by hand.
Perhaps, as with so much that genuinely pushes the boundaries of medium, it is also a return to origins, early silent cinema being an extremely manual art. The earliest filmmakers had to do everything themselves: punch their own perforations in strips of celluloid; load the camera and lubricate the brass internals with nose oil; print and project. With the exception of the original Edison Kinetograph, which had an electric motor, the first few generations of movie cameras were hand-cranked, which ironically meant that they couldn’t be handheld. That new perspective would develop our wartime necessity, first with the Aeroscope camera of World War I (powered by compressed air), then with the original Arriflex—a historical confluence of cinema, atrocity, and propaganda that is, in itself, very Godardian. Here, I’m reminded of another memorable aphorism from Histoire(s): “Only the hand that erases can write,” based on a famous quotation from the medieval German mystic Eckhart von Hochheim.
No coincidence that Godard, in his work with the cinematographer Raoul Coutard, helped popularize the off-the-cuff handheld camera in the sixties. Those early New Wave successes took the burgeoning auteur cult to its logical endpoint by radically refashioned film into a director’s first-person, always underlining the idea of a movie as a made object—the hand that sets the aperture, the hand that paints the walls, the hand that makes the cut. From the eighties on, Godard's hands became a common sight in his work. We see him editing and putting on records (recalling one of his first on-screen cameos, in Éric Rohmer's The Sign of Leo), always reminding us that whatever we're watching is his handiwork, created in a darkened room. But now that his work is largely digital, we never see him clicking around at a computer. Perhaps because the visual metaphor just isn't the same.
The interest in collage was always there, but one of the major arcs of Godard’s career has been his disillusionment with the camera; this is one of the things most likely to piss off detractors of his late-period work the most. Alexandre Astruc’s proto-auteurist concept of the caméra-stylo, the camera pen, had given the critics of his generation of critics a way describe a director’s art. But there was always a problem with the concept: a writer can take a pen anywhere. One can recognize a search for something lighter in Godard’s failed eighties experiments with the Aaton 35-8, a custom 35mm motion picture camera that was meant to be small enough to fit in a car’s glove box, but never really worked—or, more recently, in the creativity inspired by Goodbye to Language’s hand-built 3D rig. But for the most part, the mature Godard is a montage artist, arguably the greatest since Sergei Eisenstein. His editing table is his writer’s desk.