Updated: Apr 21, 2019
"Not all that special or particularly talented," but with the devil on your side, who needs talent? I wasn't entirely convinced by Brady Corbet's Vox Lux, mainly because I could sense that he wasn't entirely convinced by his main character, Celeste, the pop star protagonist of this fictional narrative. Many will compare her to Lady Gaga's Ally from A Star Is Born, so I'll do that too - both are believable superstars, but hampered by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and construct of pop performance (whether on or off stage) that gives the impression that our filmmakers feel themselves at a superior remove from popular art. In Corbet's case, that's a curious contradiction to his technique of character development and presentation - he affords every single figure in his films with a sense of agency, validity and verisimilitude as real people within these unreal plots, so one must conclude that he and his extraordinary roster of talent on crew and cast alike just misjudged Celeste's depiction in the film's crucial final chapter.
To that point, I was pretty much transfixed, though I too felt myself at a superior remove from Corbet's art at times, due to his tendency to feel himself at that same remove from his audience. If Willem Dafoe's narration is intended as sneering subversion, it succeeds, but it's ugly and overly florid; every now and then, there's a scene (some of them extended) that functions as little more than showing off on Corbet's part, and nothing that, were it even worth showing off, would compare to the majesty of what he gets right. The bombastic portent of Vox Lux worked better in his last film, The Childhood of a Leader, but it's riveting stuff nonetheless, shot and scored exquisitely. And when Corbet pulls off a quieter, subtler moment, or displays his innate appreciation of how to just hold a moment or a scene or even a whole series of scenes, one wonders if he's capable of growing into the finest American filmmaker of his generation. That's a whole lot of growing he's gonna have to do, though.
Even the Palme d'Or - a Palme d'Or Speciale, now - is Godard-ified in The Image Book, the grand master's astonishing, dumbfounding, infuriating collage of footage and ideas, ideas, ideas, all ideas, all jumbled together, making complete sense and yet making zero sense at all. The futility, indeed the impossibility of keeping up with what Godard does here is met head-on by the essentiality of keeping up with it, the necessity of following every image, hanging on every word, and wondering whether the parts you've missed were parts you were intended to miss or not. At times, consuming what Godard's throwing at his audience can feel like being forced to answer invisible questions in an exam under the threat of humiliating failure if we can't nail every last response. One's capacity to endure The Image Book may come down to two things: enduring that humiliation, and bothering to stick with it.
Those who do will be taken on a journey through film, a journey through art, a journey to the Arab world, a journey through history, a journey into sadness and despair. If Godard's last work was an adieu to language, this feels like an adieu to cinema as we've always known it, indeed, to the power of art to communicate the horrors of our world. Godard has always been a pessimistic artist, yet a humanistic one - here, that humanism informs that pessimism, The Image Book emerging as a lament for humanity as destroyed by humans themselves. Godard's process is arcane and opaque, and I'm not sure he actually intends for anyone to ever be able to completely decipher it, in spite of the inevitable requirement it has to be deciphered in order to be properly appreciated, itself in spite of even the most attentive viewer's inability to do anything of the sort in one viewing, probably even in ten. This is a caustic work by a contemptuous man, and it might be all the more essential for that. Godard once changed cinema forever, and he's never stopped changing since.
A subtler change in The Dead and the Others, a new, ingratiated ethnographic documentary that's not really even a documentary, but what does it matter? This is an only slightly-inauthentic depiction of authentic reality, that of the Kraho people in Brazil; current events in mind, this may be a poignant depiction, as it may be one of the final such insights the world has into this culture, indeed perhaps a chronicle of some of the last years of the culture itself. Real life is set alongside fabricated recreations of events that may or may not have ever actually taken place, and stories are told to preserve and to illuminate the nature of that life, one of a different quality and at a different pace to those outside these communities.
As valuable a document as The Dead and the Others may be, its existence as an artistic entity outside of such classification is barely justifiable. The film is beautiful, certainly, and sincere too, but it's not revelatory and it's not so intensely beautiful as to make it possible to overlook its more formulaic tendencies. Directors Renee Nader Messora and Joao Salaviza deserve credit for refusing to exaggerate even in their recreations - details that might have been too easily mined for their 'exotic' or 'mystical' qualities are presented with a detached shrug, as reasonable occurrences within the fabric of the narrative, and rightly so. Still, in lieu of any exploitative interest, the directors find nothing to enliven their movie, nor to ignite their audience's investment. If we genuinely are about to witness the demise of Kraho culture altogether, one can't help but feel that they ought to have been afforded a stronger send-off.
Vox Lux, The Image Book and The Dead and the Others are all currently showing at the 2018 London Film Festival, organized and run each year by the British Film Institute. This year's LFF will close this Sunday, the 21st of October.