‘It’s Not Me’ Review: Leos Carax Dreams of Godard in an Imperfect Homage and Self-Reflection

A self-portrait and cinematic essay, Leos Carax’s “It’s Not Me” is perhaps the most accurate impression of a late-era Jean-Luc Godard experiment anyone has ever attempted. From Carax’s raspy voiceover to his jaggedly assembled combination of archival footage and absurd original snippets, the 41-minute short probes a variety of personal and political subjects, but it never quite beats with the furious heart and provocative spirit of Godard’s twilight era.

The project was conceived as part of a museum exhibition on Carax for Paris’ Centre Pompidou, but the prompt posed to him in the form of a question — “Where are you at, Leos Carax?” — appears to have led the enigmatic filmmaker on a confounding quest of self-discovery. The exhibit would never come to fruition, but Carax’s inquiry into his work, his lifelong influences and cinema at-large has yielded an occasionally fascinating collage. The film not only ponders Carax’s past, through family photos and home videos as well as childhood touchstones like Tintin and David Bowie, but it also laments the future of the moving image, which the director’s voiceover claims has lost its sense of vitality and divinity in the age of cellphone cameras and casual image-making.

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However, the problem with embarking on this essayistic journey in such distinctly Godard-ian fashion — from bold, overlapping on-screen lettering, to jarring cuts that yank sound and image in and out of view — is that Godard himself did it better on numerous occasions. The closest cousin to “It’s Not Me” is Godard’s “The Image Book” from 2018, which similarly mourned cinema’s power to shock and unsettle in an era of media saturation. Godard’s solution was to revitalize the moving image by making his scenes and transitions feel jarring and unsettling. Like his 3D experiment “Goodbye to Language” four years prior, “The Image Book” was nauseating to the point of shaking the audience out of its stupor.

“It’s Not Me,” on the other hand, is a much gentler film. Not only is it easier on the eyes and ears, but its dreamlike stream of consciousness also tends to follow a more linear path. Carax employs old news reels to conjure the specter of Nazism and its influence over European cinema history, as well as popular images from his youth, and he further connects these dots to his own early works in an effort to trace his intentional and accidental inspirations. The result is often thought-provoking, but rarely soul-stirring. Carax broaches intriguing questions of nature, superimposing images of Roman Polanski over footage of his own films, as he points out their similarities while pondering their notable differences. And yet, the answers (or the lack thereof) leave little room for imaginative intrigue or rumination, since the film moves quickly on to its next topic of oblique discussion.

This swift movement from one subject to the next is rationalized through framing footage of Carax himself dozing off and journaling in his sleep, an introduction that contextualizes “It’s Not Me” as a work of deep subconscious. The resultant retrospective pulls from the director’s own “Mauvais Sang” and “Holy Motors” (among others), with frequent appearances from collaborator Denis Lavant. But as Carax looks back at his career, “It’s Not Me” offers little by way of some new or enlightened perspective on his otherwise fascinating filmography. Carax himself is, in many ways, a construct — his professional moniker is an anagram of his legal name, Alex Oscar — but this cinematic deconstruction of himself doesn’t go nearly far enough.

It’s a remix rather than a re-invention, and while not every film demands a radical re-thinking of cinema, this one in particular does. By including images and audio clips of Godard at various points, Carax only further invites unflattering comparisons to the late French New Wave maestro, a bar he sets and repeatedly fails to clear, both philosophically and aesthetically. Just as often as Carax invokes known filmmakers and cultural icons, so too does he splice in images of war, both historical and contemporary, along with the smirking faces of various political strongmen — Xi, Kim, Trump, Assad, Netanyahu and so on — resulting more in broad platitudes than in specific radical thought. The fatal flaw of “It’s Not Me” is that it looks backward rather than forward, embodying films that have already been made, rather than those yet to be dreamed.

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