The Reinventions of Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard

“To return to zero is a desire Godard has reiterated throughout his career,” wrote Amy Taubin a few years ago, and the astute observation hits differently—and a bit more painfully—now that we know that Jean-Luc Godard died on Tuesday at the age of ninety-one by assisted suicide. His legal adviser, Patrick Jeanneret, tells the New York Times that Godard was suffering from “multiple disabling pathologies. He could not live like you and me, so he decided with a great lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, ‘Now, it’s enough.’”

The news is difficult to take in because, as Glenn Kenny writes at the Decider, Godard’s “world was one of perpetual unrest.” After the era-defining seven-year sprint from Breathless (1960) to Weekend (1967), Godard teamed up with Jean-Pierre Gorin to “make films politically” rather than make “political films,” and then partnered with Anne-Marie Miéville on a series of innovative but underseen features and works on video for European television before concentrating on his densely allusive and technically dazzling final films.

In the New Yorker, Richard Brody, the author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, writes that “leaving his legend behind, his work has become, very simply, the central reality of the modern cinema.” When Brody visited Godard in 2000, he “told me that he thought the cinema was nearly over: ‘When I die, it will be the end.’ He was wrong—and it’s his own fault.” Fernando F. Croce puts it succinctly on Twitter: “Again and again, he killed cinema to magnificently resurrect it.”

“What to make of the Godardian mind?” asked J. Hoberman in an essential piece for the Nation in 2015. The occasion for the essay, which traces the influences of André Bazin, Sergei Eisenstein, Roberto Rossellini, and several others on Godard’s work, was the publication in English of Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, a volume collecting a series of talks Godard delivered at Concordia University in Montreal in 1978. “The Godard who emerges from A True History,” wrote Hoberman, “is a quintessential twentieth-century high modernist—the author of an ongoing, not yet completed project comparable in ambition to In Search of Lost Time or The Cantos, composed in an idiolect that, as with Joyce or Picasso or Gertrude Stein, effectively reinvented a medium.”

Born into wealth—his French father was a physician and his mother was the daughter of a Swiss banker—young Godard developed a penchant for stealing, which briefly landed him in jail. His father arranged to have him transferred to a psychiatric hospital, and when he was released, his mother secured him a job at a Swiss dam, where he made his first film, the twenty-minute documentary Operation Concrete (1955), which he shot on 35 mm. By this point, he had met Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and most crucially, François Truffaut, whose 1954 essay “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” an all-out attack on the cinéma de qualité and cinéma de papa, became a foundational document of what became known as the politique des auteurs.

Skipping classes at the Sorbonne to watch and argue about movies at the Cinémathèque française, Godard championed Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, refining “his rhetorical critical style” and “producing articles that emphasized cinema as an intrinsically moral and democratic art,” as James S. Williams writes in the Guardian. Meanwhile, his fellow critics began making their first features.

Agnès Varda, a photographer associated with the Left Bank group that included Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, had already sent up the first flare with La Pointe Courte (1955) when Chabrol made his first two features, Le beau Serge (1958) and Les cousins (1959). Then, Truffaut and Resnais took Cannes by storm in 1959 with The 400 Blows and Hiroshima mon amour. But Breathless is “the definitive manifesto of the New Wave,” argues Dudley Andrew. With its twitchy jump cuts, light-footed on-location shots of Parisian streets and cafés, and a star-making performance from a relatively unknown former boxer (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as a knavish criminal who aims to run off with his disinterested American lover (Jean Seberg), Breathless “sealed the movement,” writes Andrew, “defining it as simultaneously aggressive and nonchalant, adolescent and sophisticated.”

It was also the biggest hit of Godard’s career, and rather than capitalize on his financial success, he went dark and overtly political with Le petit soldat, which was briefly released in 1960 before it was pulled from theaters. As Nicholas Elliott explains, French authorities objected to this story of Bruno, an apolitical photojournalist (Michel Subor) drawn into the conflict between the government and Algerian freedom fighters, because “it presented a sympathetic portrait of a deserter, depicted torture, and, most important, featured a scene in which it is said that the French will lose the war due to lack of idealism.”

What lifts Le petit soldat from the gloom is the beguiling turn from Anna Karina as the mysterious woman Bruno falls for—and the permeating sense that, behind the camera, Godard was falling for her as well. Le petit soldat is the first of seven features Karina and Godard made together, and though it—and their marriage—ended bitterly, their vibrant collaboration is viewed by many as similarly consequential in the history of cinema as the partnership between Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann or Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.

In A Woman Is a Woman (1961), a brashly colorful néo-réalisme musical shot in CinemaScope by Raoul Coutard, Karina plays an exotic dancer who at one point sings “Chanson d’Angéla,” a song written by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Godard himself. As Nana, an aspiring actress who makes ends meet as a sex worker in Vivre sa vie (1962), Karina weeps as she watches Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In the essay accompanying our release, Michael Atkinson writes about “the impact this tiny moment had on cinema at large—in a stroke, Godard iconized the Cinémathèque française lifestyle, an entire generation’s discovery of film as an art form, the capacity of classic cinema-going to be tragic and romantic and supercool, and the quintessentially Godardian idea that movies are always about their own movieness, making them not an escapist alternative to our lives but part of them.”

Karina teamed up with Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur to play petty thieves in Band of Outsiders (1964), and “for all the sense of assemblage and borrowing,” writes Joshua Clover, “for all the silliness and set pieces, Band of Outsiders is a movie with a main motion—not that of a noir or a policier but of a love story. Like so many Godard films, it’s a love story with a bullet in it.” Karina is an emotionless programmer in Alphaville (1965), Godard’s sci-fi noir; a girlfriend on the run with Belmondo in Pierrot le fou (1965), the movie that famously inspired Chantal Akerman to become a filmmaker; and a private investigator in Made in U.S.A (1966), the last film Godard and Karina made together. “In Sternberg-Dietrich terms, this is certainly their The Devil Is a Woman, a frozen veneer over a lake of sadness,” wrote Fernando F. Croce in Slant in 2009. But Made in U.S.A is also an “astonishing pop panorama.”

Godard had “a unique ability to alight on an object and, through framing, dramatize its material existence and plasticity,” writes James S. Williams. “The multiple textures and ellipses of his work achieved with his regular editor, Agnès Guillemot, produced sudden flashes of often breathtaking simplicity and grace, and his ingenious use of signs, texts, and photomontages illustrated his exceptional skills as a graphic artist.”

The films Godard made without Karina during this madly prolific period include Masculin féminin (1966), with Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya; La chinoise (1967), with Léaud and Godard’s second wife, Anne Wiazemsky; and one of his grandest productions, Contempt (1963), featuring Michel Piccoli as a screenwriter juggling the demands of a director (Fritz Lang), a producer (Jack Palance), and his wife (Brigitte Bardot).

When Martin Scorsese put Contempt on his list of top ten Criterion releases, he noted that it “has grown increasingly, almost unbearably, moving to me. It’s a shattering portrait of a marriage going wrong, and it cuts very deep, especially during the lengthy and justifiably famous scene between Piccoli and Bardot in their apartment: even if you don’t know that Godard’s own marriage to Anna Karina was coming apart at the time, you can feel it in the action, the movement of the scenes, the interactions that stretch out so painfully but majestically, like a piece of tragic music.” Contempt is “one of the most frightening great films ever made.”

When Godard wrapped Weekend (1967), he told his regular crew to start looking for work elsewhere. He was about to retreat and reinvent his project—and himself. Weekend is “a premonition of the political explosion of May ’68 and its chaotic aftermath, a comedy of brilliant set pieces that cumulatively stage the collapse of Western civilization,” writes Gary Indiana. “Its acid depiction of consumer society and the middle class is exemplary of a complex, multilayered cinema of ideas that flourished in the 1960s and ’70s,” but what “sets Godard’s film apart is its sheer velocity, its outrageousness, and its exuberant disdain for almost everything.” The final title card reads “Fin de cinéma.”

But May ’68 revved him up again, and, with Gorin, he founded a Maoist film collective, the Dziga Vertov Group. “More than ever before,” wrote Robin Wood in the 1990s, “the films are directly concerned with their own process, so that the ostensible subjects—the political scene in Czechoslovakia (Pravda) or Italy (Lotte in Italia), the trial of the Chicago Eight (Vladimir and Rosa)—become secondary to the urgent, actual subject: how does one make a revolutionary film?” After all, “one cannot put radical content into traditional form without seriously compromising, perhaps negating, it. Hence the attack on realism initiated at the outset of Godard’s career manifests its full political significance: realism is a bourgeois art form, the means whereby the bourgeoisie endlessly reassures itself, validating its own ideology as ‘true,’ ‘natural,’ ‘real’; its power must be destroyed.”

In Tout va bien (1972), Godard and Gorin cast Jane Fonda as a reporter and Yves Montand as her husband, a man once renowned as a New Wave director. The set was not a happy one. As Blair McClendon notes in a piece for n+1, Montand penned a furious letter to the directors, arguing that they had no “right to play dictator on the set in the name of the working class which will not go to see your film.” McClendon adds that the line “stings for being true and for revealing Godard’s great gift. His was never really a working-class cinema. He made films for class traitors.”

Godard could be prickly and unpleasant. He fell out—hard—with Truffaut, and there’s a whole generation that knows him only as the man who brought Agnès Varda to tears at the end of Faces Places, the film she made with the artist JR in 2017. Godard “was both irritant and innovator,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, “a filmmaker whose work and persona weren’t always easy to like—and still, there have been few directors so worthy of passionate defense.”

In 1980, Godard made what he called his “second first film.” Written by Jean-Claude Carrière and Anne-Marie Miéville and starring the popular singer and songwriter Jacques Dutronc as well as Isabelle Huppert and Nathalie Baye, Every Man for Himself is an “occasionally hilarious and almost as often grief-stricken social satire in which an asshole TV director named Paul Godard is the butt of the joke,” writes Amy Taubin. After Passion (1982), a lush ode to the masters of European painting, Godard cast himself in First Name: Carmen (1983) “and began to realize, instinctively,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “that his irascible middle-aged presence—waving that cigar, peering from behind those glasses, tossing out his counterintuitive cosmic pensées about the state of the world—made him the best character he’s come up with in decades.”

Introducing his “skeleton key” to Histoire(s) du cinéma, Adrian Martin wrote at Sabzian in 2018 that this eight-part video project, which Godard worked on from 1988 to 1998, is “unlike virtually any other major work in film. It is not fiction, it is not documentary, it is not simply a collage of bits and pieces. It is much closer to an essay—an audiovisual essay, written in sounds and images. But as an essay it does not track through a clear structure of premise, argument, elaboration, and conclusion.” Godard “wants you to feel the work, to intuit what you can, to let it wash over you.” For James S. Williams, Histoire(s) “stands as one of the great artworks of the last century, confirming the view of the critic Serge Daney that Godard was less a revolutionary and iconoclast than a radical reformer tirelessly correcting his own practice and cinema itself.”

Just before Film socialisme (2010) screened at the New York Film Festival, Eric Hynes wrote in the Village Voice that Godard’s “uniquely radical historical-political obsessions motivate” the film, “as they did Notre musique (2004), In Praise of Love [2001], and most of his work since the late 1980s.” But “despite their reputation for being ponderous and pessimistic, the recent films are still the work of a wry, frisky mind, as bounteous as Breathless with visual and verbal puns. Far from having abandoned his aesthetic gifts, his later films, including Film socialisme, are as visually accomplished as anything he’s ever made . . . As tiresome as his aphoristic, gnomic proclamations can be, Godard’s conflation of history, cinema, and the self gives each new film the feel of a strange new chapter in a personal memoir.”

Two more followed, Goodbye to Language (2014), Godard’s first 3D feature, and The Image Book (2018), in which clips from an extravagant array of films and works on video in a variety of formats are “counterpointed with literary texts and classical music, all of it partitioned into numbered, cryptically titled chapters,” as A. O. Scott described it in the New York Times. “I found it haunting, thrilling, and confounding in equal measure. It is a work of ecstatic despair, an argument for the futility of human effort that almost refutes itself through the application of a grumpy and tenacious artistic will.” Godard “played with that image of the gruff, cranky, cigar-chomping guru of cinema’s past while in reality he remained a prophet for its still-unrealized future,” writes the NYT’s Manohla Dargis. “Despite his reputation and all the scandals, the cynical aperçus and stinging air of pessimism, he was an astonishing optimist.”

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