Jean-Luc Godard’s latest dispatch on the current state of media and the world is a densely layered montage of films, sounds, and texts in the inscrutable style he has honed since his magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–1998). More meandering than his previous two films, Film Socialisme (2010) and Goodbye to Language (2014), which incorporated scenes filmed with actors, The Image Book relies almost exclusively on borrowed materials. The sweeping video essay ranges across many topics: the Holocaust, war, representations of violence and the violence of representation. The final and longest section of the film, “Heureuse Arabie,” contemplates the Arab world, juxtaposing Western orientalist depictions with images by Middle Eastern and North African filmmakers. An interrogation of history, the film is nevertheless steeped in actuality, integrating TV news footage, YouTube clips and ISIS propaganda videos.
The film is broken into five chapters that Godard likens to the five fingers of the hand. Indeed, the hand is the central image and metaphor of the film. Early on, Godard quotes Denis de Rougement, “Man’s true condition is to think with his hands.” For Godard, this means above all that the practice of montage should be conceived of as a mode of thought in its own right. This reflects Godard’s working method, his hands-on use of antiquated video editing technology, but also his contrapuntal approach to montage. What’s crucial for Godard is not one image or another, but the space between two images. In The Image Book Godard recycles images, sounds, and ideas from previous works, but also explores new territory. Never has Godard pushed the manipulation of the image and sound this far: film excerpts are transformed into blown out abstractions or hyper-saturated Fauvist paintings; the multi-tracked sound is positioned around the theater in complex surround sound, underscoring the radical disjunction between the visible and the audible.
Yet, The Image Book is also one of his most intimate films. In a quavering voice, Godard delivers an urgent yet melancholy narration. The image archive includes photographs of Godard as a child, an excerpt from Le Petit Soldat (1963) featuring his first wife Anna Karina, and a prominent reference to Images en paroles, a book by his longtime partner and collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville. The film ends on an ambivalent note perfectly captured by a scene from Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952) in which the vertiginous joy of a swirling dance ends abruptly with the dancer collapsing from exhaustion.
Swiss filmmaker Fabrice Aragno has worked with Godard in various roles (cinematographer, editor, producer) since Notre Musique (2004). Credited as an editor on The Image Book, alongside production designer Jean-Paul Battagia, film theorist Nicole Brenez and Godard himself, Aragno has become Godard’s principal accomplice and interlocutor. I sat down with him, in town for the film’s US premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival, to discuss how his relationship with Godard has evolved over the years, and to gain further insight into their working methods on the beguiling The Image Book.
Ethan Spigland (Rail): How did you meet Godard? How did you two first start working together?
Fabrice Aragno: It’s a long story. It’s like, “How did you meet your first love?” But no, it was in 2002, for Notre Musique. I was working with Ruth Waldburger, Godard’s producer at the time, as a production manager. She asked me if I wanted to meet Godard, and I said, “Yes,” but I wasn’t a fan of Godard. I was introduced to the house of cinema more through the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Italian neorealism. They all made films that explain without words. I knew Godard a little bit through school, where they tried to explain his films, saying, “If you want to understand Godard, then you need to know such and such.” And if I’m taught to understand anything, then it becomes boring for me. When this producer asked me to work with Jean-Luc Godard, I said, “Yes, why not?” since I’m not afraid of anything. Well, at the time, before I had my meeting with Jean-Luc, people would say, “Oh, he’s Godard, watch out, be careful, he’s very dangerous, he’s very angry.” And so I tried to see his films, to understand them. I stayed awake at night unable to sleep, trying to understand his films, saying to myself, “I don’t understand, but I need to understand! I’m going to see Godard. Godard will ask me a lot of questions, and I will say “bon” and he will say, “Okay, goodbye, thank you, we don’t need you.” But when we met, I realized that he was just a man, not a god, not a monster.
Rail: So you discovered that he was just a man, and you approached him as a man?
Aragno: Yes, just a man. And when I began to work with Godard, then he was no longer Godard, because I was afraid of Godard, but not of Jean-Luc. With Jean-Luc, it’s just him and me, it’s normal. And then he asked me to do two or three things, and he was happy with them. Then, later he asked me to be the location manager for Film Socialisme. There I was thinking about how to shoot the film digitally, in high definition. It was new at the time. In fact, I’m not afraid of technical aspects of cinema. I’m not a technician, because a technician thinks you need technology for making films, but I believe that the most important thing is to simply look and listen.
Rail: And technicians feel that you need to do things a specific way, that you need to obey the rules.
Aragno: And I don’t like the rules. Not because I think I’m better than the rules, but I was always on the opposite side of the rules. I used to work in puppet theater. And in puppet theater, it’s free. So it was strange, when I entered film school, and they said, “There are rules, you have to do things like that and like that and like that.” I said to them, “No! In puppet theater I can do anything; I can try to do the impossible. I was trained to make the impossible possible.”
Rail: Godard must have admired that attitude. He’s somebody who always wants to break the rules.
Aragno: He liked it, yes. For example, he gave me a camera, an HD camera that he had just bought, “Maybe you can use it, try to do some tests with this camera. I don’t know how to work with it, and my finger is too big for these little buttons.” And I said, “Okay, I will try.” Since I’m always trying to do my best, I said, “Oh yes, I will do a real professional test.” I made a real professional camera test, and this camera had no quality at all, it was just a cheap camera. But there were two or three buttons—I didn’t know what they were for, so I pushed these buttons to the opposite position. And then something interesting happened: the image was no longer high definition, it became grainy, and the colors… When I presented the tests to Jean-Luc I said, “I’m sorry, this camera is low quality, but I find this effect interesting,” and he decided to use the camera.
Rail: Do you have background as a cinematographer?
Aragno: No, I do not. I have the background of someone who looks and listens. I did lighting for the theater, so when I have the tools to do lighting for the cinema, I use the same eyes that I used for theater. I did photography, and I shot some footage in film school, so I know how to expose film.
Rail: In The Image Book it’s striking the way Godard embraces the accidental. For example, the way he included the changing aspect ratios, which first occurred by chance on his monitor while he was editing. I imagine he is very open to this kind of discovery.
Aragno: He’s more than open—he needs this. From the beginning of his career, he has always taken what happens, the reality he finds himself in, from Breathless (1960) on, and even before Breathless with his short films. He needs to interact with the real—to oppose it, or to accept it. He will keep it if it’s interacting with the film in an interesting way. For example, we went location scouting for the Paradise scene in Notre Musique. We went to look at the location on a Saturday. It was a really beautiful place in the forest by a lake, and the ground was covered with white garlic flowers. It smelled very strongly of garlic, but it felt as if we were walking on a cloud inside the forest. Later, Jean-Luc called me and said, “Maybe we have to film this right now, while these flowers are in bloom,” not in two weeks the way it was planned. I had the same thought, so we called everyone. The camera was coming from Paris, the cinematographer from Brussels, an actress from Brussels, the sound engineer from there, etc. The earliest the crew could arrive was Monday. Sunday evening, there was thunder, with icy rain. When we arrived on Monday morning, all the white flowers were destroyed. And it was windy, a bit like today—sun, rain, wind, sun, rain—no longer an image of paradise. And he said, “No problem, we will film. Doesn’t it also rain in paradise?” It’s crazy that he can change his mind so quickly, because in film school they tell you, “You have to prepare, you have to think about, you have to write, and what you write you have to do.” Working with Jean-Luc, I rediscovered the freedom that there is in puppet theater. And I said, “Yeah, why not?” Because, in fact, why not? And we filmed—and it was incredible, this scene in this wind, with the sun and the sound of the rain. And it’s the same thing with something technical. For example, while editing, the frame suddenly jumped from 4:3 to 16:9 because he hadn’t changed the automatic scale on his monitor. Sometimes, the effect was miraculous, as if the gods were behind it. You see, the angels are always on his mind.
Rail: So that happened and he said, “Let’s use this.”
Aragno: Yes, I filmed the TV monitor, and then I redid all this on the computer.
Rail: Recreated the effect?
Aragno: Yes. Okay, it’s interesting like that, but all the ruptures in the film are also interesting: in the sound, in the image, in the structure. If he pushes an image into the white, the following image must be blacker—there is a dynamic, a difference between each image. Normally, color correction is used to keep all the images on the same level, all flattering for the actors.
Rail: He is always seeking contrast. Or counterpoint, as he says at one point in The Image Book.
Aragno: Yes, yes.
Rail: And also in the realm of ideas—one idea is always contrasted with another.
Aragno: But also the audience’s feelings. Your imagination is built in the gap between two images. If you make two images that are the same, what can you imagine? Nothing. But, when the difference is big like that, okay, you can make a jump between the two. It’s like electricity. You have 110 volts. In Europe, we have 220. There is a potential between them.
Rail: Right, it’s like those lines by Pierre Reverdy that Godard often quotes: “An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic, but because the association of ideas is distant and true.”
Aragno: In fact, it’s a gift to the audience to, to have something for them to… The difference between two images creates a space for the audience to enter.
Rail: I’ve always felt that Godard’s films do not convey a message. Overall, in my opinion, his cinema is not didactic— maybe a little bit during the Dziga Vertov period.
Aragno: It’s all a mirror, a mirror. Everything is a mirror of the world in his films. All is present. All is of the present. He began to make digital films when digital cinema became fashionable; he made a 3D film because everybody was talking about 3D. And in these films, it’s not the technical questions that interest him, but on the contrary, the question, “What is cinema today?” Therefore he makes this film into a kind of memory of cinema, because he traffics in images without seeking the highest resolution, it’s more a memory of cinema than cinema itself, his own personal memory of cinema.
Rail: Because of the low resolution of the images, it feels as if we are remembering or dreaming about a film, rather than watching it directly.
Aragno: Yes, but also his personal memories. He’s sharing all these memories with me, little things: the first theater play he attended, or how he first arrived in Paris, and so on.
Rail: So, in working with him, you’re entering his life, his memory.
Aragno: More than working, it’s more than work. We are taking a voyage together somehow.
Rail: So it’s also a friendship. It’s more than—
Aragno: Yeah, yeah. But we need work to have a pretext to be together, and a pretext to speak about things, and a pretext to do something. Without making a film, I think we will never meet again, and I think he will die if he is not making something. He needs this. He’s an artist.
Rail: I think it was very moving when yesterday you were talking about how you see Godard both as a lonely old man facing mortality, near the end of his life, yet also as a child full of curiosity. One senses both in the film.
Aragno: Ah yes, of course, he’s always a child. It’s not in the version you saw at the New York Film Festival, but let me show you the image of the child painting that he has just added to the end of the film. It will not be for the cinema—I think we will just use this for the installation.
Rail: Because you’re imagining the film forming part of different installations?
Aragno: Yes, yeah.
Rail: I see.
Aragno: Jean-Luc calls this un accueil, for “a welcome”—more than an installation. [Plays a scene of a child painting from The Image Book on his laptop.] There it is.
Rail: This is the shot you were talking about, right?
Aragno: Yes, this was actually the first image we made when we began the film. He asked me to go film in a small art school for children where all they do is paint. This is the image of the child painting.
Rail: It adds a note of hope—the creative activity of the child.
Aragno: It will come right after this, which is the scene of the man dancing [Plays a sequence from The Image Book, an excerpt from Max Ophuls’ Le Plaisir.]
Rail: From Max Ophuls’ Le Plaisir. Yeah, I love this sequence too, because you can read it both positively and negatively, you know. The dance is joyful, but it ends with the man falling, collapsing from exhaustion.
Aragno: And the character… he’s an old man, behind the mask of a young man. This, I re-filmed from the original source. [Jumping to another shot from the film.] But, for this sequence, I used Godard’s edit. I didn’t make it better or higher resolution, because it’s more—you can project yourself more into an image with lower definition. Because if I edit in high definition, you will see too much detail, that it’s two tourists, maybe two German tourists, and I don’t know it’s not true. However, when I see this image the way he did it, I can project myself into the film.
Rail: So in that case you just re-filmed Godard’s edit?
Aragno: Yes, I just re-filmed it. It is not here anymore, but first I re-edited the original, went back to the original sources, but then I said, “Forget this…”
Rail: It feels—of course, so many of Godard’s films are personal and autobiographical, but this one felt—
Aragno: Yes, it’s very intimate.
Rail: It felt more personal to me than most of his recent films.
Aragno: Perhaps it is the most intimate since JLG/JLG (1994). I will show you, there are two or three images of Jean-Luc as a boy in the film. But I don’t know whether you knew that, that it is Jean-Luc. [Freezes on a photograph of Godard as a child.]
Rail: No, I didn’t recognize him.
Aragno: But it’s not a key. I hate the idea of a key that opens a locked door that will help you to understand a film. In this film there is no key, no lock, no door.
Rail: I feel that with every film Godard is connecting to things that he’s done before, but at the same time he’s always exploring something new. What do you think he is searching for in this film that is new?
Aragno: For example, making an adaptation of a nove. It’s a small book. But he did the adaptation by reusing images already existing in other films. I think this is new for him. He has used films before for his discourse on the history of cinema, but not to tell a story.
Rail: The last and longest section of the film, “Heureuse Arabie,” is the title of a Dumas novel?
Aragno: Yes, but the original story of this sheikh is from a novel by Albert Cossery, a francophone Egyptian writer, called Une ambition dans le désert, which tells the story of a small imaginary country in the Gulf.
Rail: That section felt a little new for him. I mean, he’s exploring questions of orientalism, colonialism, the violence of the act of representation. Of course, he’s dealt with these issues before, but not to this extent. Why is he interested in the Arab world right now?
Aragno: Why? I don’t know. But it is also the present—
Rail: Yes, right, because he is incorporating current events: there are images from the news, ISIS videos…
Aragno: It’s today, yeah.
Rail: Maybe because there’s still so much misunderstanding.
Aragno: There is a lot. It’s said in the film, that the West does not allow the Arabs to speak. And because his friend Elias Sanbar is Palestinian, at least since Ici et ailleurs (1976), he’s felt connected to this world. In fact he’s always connected with the Palestinians, so I think it’s not a totally new interest.
Rail: Yes, of course.
Aragno: He’s afraid to make a film with actors. [Laughs.] He takes actors from scenes already made.
Rail: Although you did shoot some new images for this section of the film, right?
Aragno: Yes, yes. I shot some pretty images to embellish the thing, but mostly images like the ones you find in National Geographic, images for tourists. Okay, well I like making images for tourists, but I’m not proud of it. But I always love shooting original footage for his films.
Rail: Does he have new projects in the works?
Aragno: Yes, yes, yes.
Rail: Can you say anything about them?
Aragno: Now I am also the producer on his films, so I need to raise the money. Yes, there are two projects in preparation with the pretext of virtual reality. We are beginning with two approaches: we can either do or undo VR. Maybe we will undo it more than we do VR, because thinking about VR leads to the opposite of VR. Is there concrete imagination in virtual reality? For me, cinema is concrete imagination because it’s made with the real and uses it. VR, virtual reality, is totally the opposite of that, but it might be interesting to use this and then to destroy it.
Rail: Does Jean-Luc want to actually use virtual reality?
Aragno: Yes, maybe!
Rail: Ah, interesting. In the same way that he deconstructed 3D in Goodbye to Language.
Aragno: This kind of way, yeah.
Rail: He’s always been interested in deconstructing new technologies and reimagining—
Aragno: No, we’ll see, we’ll see. First, it’s just an idea of a beginning. There is a forest to cross, and we are just at the beginning of the forest. The first step is development. As they say in business, first there is development and research. We have to develop somehow an idea for the film; I won’t say a script, but to see what we can do with this system, and what we can undo with this system.