Jean-Luc Godard at Ninety

Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard, who turns ninety today, is “doing well,” says Fabrice Aragno, who has been working with the director as a DP and all-round right-hand man since 2002. Talking to the Swiss national press agency, Aragno adds: “Perhaps the cigar thwarts all viruses.” Anyone who caught Godard’s Instagram Live talk back in April or Hedi Slimane’s outstanding portfolio of black-and-white portraits of the filmmaker in his home in Rolle, a modest town on the northwestern shore of Lake Geneva, in July will know that he’s constantly punctuating his sentences these days by puffing, tapping, or relighting a thick stub of Cuban tobacco. He’s also working on two separate projects, their materials spread out on his kitchen table. According to Aragno, shooting has already begun on one of them.

Whether or not that cigar has thwarted the virus, the virus has definitely thwarted a good number of plans for celebrating Godard’s ninetieth birthday. Kino Rex in Bern is hoping to be able to reopen in two weeks, and if it can, it will be paying homage with a series of twenty films. The retrospective at the Cinémathèque suisse in Lucerne has been postponed to early next year. And sentiments, signes, passions – à propos du livre d’image, an exhibition delving into the editing of Godard’s 2018 film The Image Book, opened this summer at the Château de Nyon this summer as part of the Visions du Réel festival and was to have traveled to other European venues. Those plans, too, are on hold.

This year marks another significant anniversary, the premiere in Cannes sixty years ago of Godard’s debut feature, Breathless. Writing for the Chicago Reader some time ago now, Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that Breathless “lays down most of the Godardian repertoire that the later films would build upon: male bravado spiced with plug-ugly mugging and amusing self-mockery (brought to perfection in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s wonderful performance); a fascination with female beauty and treachery (the indelible Jean Seberg as the archetypal American abroad); an emulation of the American gangster movie, and a love-hatred for America in general; radically employed jump cuts that have the effect of a needle skipping gaily across a record; and a taste for literary, painterly, and musical quotations, as well as original aphorisms.”

Throughout the 1960s, Godard worked at furious pace, producing two or three features a year. “Where the young Godard of Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965), and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was the first and greatest of postmodern filmmakers, the old, irascible, stogie-chomping Godard is akin to the encyclopedic high modernists (Joyce, Pound, Pessoa, Benjamin), shoring up fragments against his ruin,” wrote J. Hoberman for the New York Review of Books early last year. “Montage, which is to say juxtaposition, has become Godard’s first principle.”

One major turning point was Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–1998), an eight-part series that might be seen as a work just as foundational to the audiovisual essay in its current form as Breathless was to the immeasurably influential French New Wave. In his 2005 book Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, Colin MacCabe wrote that he found it “difficult to find a comparison for this work, which certainly has no parallel within film or television, but perhaps the most apt is Dante’s Divine Comedy which takes the elements of one life to provide a perspective on human history. Dante is also apt because it is the writing of the Divine Comedy in Italian which signals the beginning of a recognizable European culture; it is not an exaggeration to say that Histoire(s) du cinéma marks its end.”

That’s a hefty claim, but in the preface to his 2009 book Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody argues that “no other director has striven so relentlessly to reflect in his work the great philosophical and political debates of the era: World War II and its political aftermath in France; the uses and abuses of existentialism in the postwar years; the structuralist revolution; the demise of Stalinism and the rise of the New Left; the growth of modern consumer society and its political fallout in May 1968; the vast sea change and social heritage of the late 1960s; the hopes and disappointments of the Mitterand era; Holocaust consciousness and the recuperation of historical memory; new fronts of battle after the end of the Cold War; and the current era of big media and what might be called the American cultural occupation of Europe.”

When Kent Jones was appointed director of the New York Film Festival in the fall of 2012—he stepped down last year to devote his time to making films—one of the first projects he took on was the launch of a major Godard retrospective at the festival the following year. A conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum at IndieWire in early 2012 makes it clear that the project was already simmering in the back of his mind. “To characterize Godard in purely political and historical terms is, paradoxically, to do him a disservice,” said Jones. “Given the fact that he has fought so hard for the image and against the dominance of the text, this is more than a little ironic. Godard is a poet of the image and a great one, and that is more than enough—he doesn’t have to be everything else.”

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