Remembering Jean-Luc Godard, French New Wave director
Jean Luc Godard did more than transform filmmaking practice and aesthetics, the French director turned them upside down.
Jean-Luc Godard, via flickr: Truus, Bob & Jan too!
The founder of New Wave cinema, Jean-Luc Godard’s influence on cinematic form and language over the past 60 years has been foundational, but his best movies are not museum pieces to be studied: they are vibrant, energetic, sexy, full of colour and smoke and crepuscular shadows that envelope you. They are alive. And will continue to be, though their maker is not. The revered French director embodied a period of European culture in the way Goethe, Beethoven, and Sartre did in their respective periods. In cinema, no one did more to make movies about the art of youth than Jean-Luc Godard, who was born in 1930, in Paris, and died 91 year later, on 13 September at his home in Rolle, Switzerland, by assisted suicide.
Godard’s films of the nineteen-sixties, starting with his first feature, “Breathless” (“À Bout de Souffle”), inspired young people to make movies in the same spirit in which others started a music band. His works—political thrillers, musical comedies, romantic melodramas, science fiction —moved at the speed of his thought, transformed familiar genres into intimate confessions, and made film form into a wild laboratory of aesthetic delight and sensory provocation.
As a young critic in the 1950s, Godard was one of several iconoclastic writers who helped turn a new publication called “Cahiers du Cinéma” into a critical force that swept away the old guard of the European art cinema and replaced it with new heroes largely drawn from the ranks of the American commercial cinema — directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. More than any other filmmaker, he made his viewers feel as if anything were possible in movies, and he made it their own urgent mission to find out for themselves. Whereas Hollywood seemed like a distant and disreputable dream, he made firsthand cinema—the personal and independent film—an important and accessible ideal.
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in "A bout de souffle" (1960), via flickr: Truus, Bob & Jan too!
When “Breathless” was released in 1960, Godard joined several of his Cahiers colleagues in a movement that the French press soon labelled La Nouvelle Vague — the New Wave. For Godard, as well as for New Wave friends and associates like François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, the “tradition of quality” represented by the established French cinema was an aesthetic dead-end. To them, it was strangled by literary influences and empty displays of craftsmanship that had to be vanquished in order to make room for a new cinema, one that sprang from the personality and predilections of the director.
With “Breathless,” his very first feature film as a director set a landmark for the industry. The 1960 film employed a new, fast, leaping-ahead technique and style — the jump cut — that forever altered the DNA of how movies were made. In the ’60s, Godard took his camera out into the streets and into cafés, stores, offices, and apartments, so that his film often seemed like a documentary about fictional characters. He drew many of those characters from Old Hollywood, a world he’d grown up watching and remained obsessed with, but one that he always made seem a million miles away, like some black-and-white Garden of Eden the world had fallen from. So even as you were watching Jean-Paul Belmondo play a glamorous crook or Anna Karina play a femme fatale, you knew that you were also seeing an actor toy with the very idea that they were playing that role.
Bringing consciousness to the screen
Godard’s retro referentiality is incarnated by the famous moment in “Breathless” when Belmondo looks at an image of Humphrey Bogart, fingers his lip and says “Bogie,” almost as if he were saying the word “God.” Yet Godard’s films, even as they gazed back at the past, also stared into the future. Every good filmmaker is out to capture something about life and reality, but Godard wanted to use cinema to take the entire modern world — the look and feel of life in the sterile comfort zone of the 20th century, the products and pop images that saturated our existence, the myths and systems (political, cultural, economic, romantic) we all lived inside, whether we knew it or not — and somehow drag it all onscreen. “Breathless” is an artistic hybrid that seemed to capture the discontinuities and conflicts of modern life, half in the artificial public world created by the media and half in the deepest recesses of his consciousness. In Mr Godard’s later, more radical phase, he came to suggest that there was no real distinction between these two realms.
He then did something that no previous filmmaker had, something akin to the way James Joyce took the back channels and byways of the human mind and put them right onto the page. Godard’s characters lived the life that they were living, and also talked, onscreen, about what that life meant, and even talked about the fact that they were talking about it. They talked about books, cinema, work, love, and language. Godard was turning cinema into a three-dimensional chess-game of experience that was always aware of itself. His films stood inside the reality they were showing you and outside it at the same time.
Yet, like many artistic heroes of the sixties, Godard found that his public image and his private life, his fame and his ambitions, came into conflict. He took drastic measures to escape from his legend while pursuing and advancing his art in ways that baffled many of his devotees and those in the press who awaited nothing more than his comeback—especially to those styles and methods that had made him famous. In the late sixties, he withdrew from the movie business under the influence of leftist political ideology and activism. In the seventies, he left Paris for Grenoble and then moved to the small Swiss town of Rolle. When he returned to the industry, he did so by way of exploring his personal life and the history of cinema together, through ever-more-audacious techniques and new technologies. What he kept to the very end of his career was his sense of youth and his love of adventure.
Gary Stevens, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Get to know Godard
If you would like to explore the ground-breaking work of Jean-Luc Godard, here are 8 of his best films – and also movies that serve as an introduction to his entire aesthetic:
· “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (1967)
· “Alphaville” (1965)
· “Goodbye to Language” (2014)
· “Breathless” (1960)
· “Masculin Féminin” (1966)
· “Every Man for Himself” (1980)
· “Contempt” (1963)
· “Pierrot le fou” (1965)