The Greats: Jean-Luc Godard

Movies Features Jean-Luc Godard
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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

It’s challenging to write about Jean-Luc Godard, not because his legacy doesn’t warrant consideration but because he’s more of an idea than a person in a lot of film lovers’ minds. He represents a spirit of personal, uncompromising moviemaking that inspired a generation of writers and directors to look at Hollywood history in a new way. But when you look around film culture today, that spirit of adventurousness is sadly in short supply. Too often nowadays, there’s a pronounced lack of engagement, a disinclination to be challenged. Even when Godard hasn’t made great films, he has always stood against that narrow-minded mentality. Even when I haven’t liked his movies, I’ve always felt grateful that he’s around making them. Otherwise, who would?

Born in Paris in December 1930, Godard soon moved to Switzerland with his family when his father, a doctor, opened a clinic there. But he had grandparents in France and spent a good chunk of his childhood in that country, as well. “I’ve always been crossing borders,” he said in 1985. “I belong to two countries, even if I have only one passport, Swiss.” In film history, though, he’ll always be associated with France because of the cinematic movement he would help shape.

As a youth, Godard experimented with painting and writing but eventually turned to movies. “I’ve always been interested in technique, not in art for technique’s sake,” Godard said in 1995. “Cinema is neither an art nor a technique, but a mystery. That’s what differentiates it from painting, literature or music, all arts when undertaken by artists. Cinema is close to a religion. It is somewhat an act of faith, it is immediately perceivable, through photography, or a certain relationship between man and the world.” In the late ’40s, he moved to Paris for school, quickly getting swept up in the city’s filmmaking culture. Godard did some acting, appearing in Jacques Rivette’s short Le Quadrille and René Clément’s The Glass Castle. At the same time, he wrote criticism, particularly in Cahiers du Cinéma, perhaps the most respected of all film publications. Analyzing the work of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir, Godard (along with peers such as Francois Truffaut) forwarded the notion that the director was the chief author of a film, giving birth to what’s become known as the Auteur Theory. Suddenly, a director’s oeuvre was examined for themes, styles, distinctive quirks.

Godard was about to put the theory into practice. There are few filmmakers of the last 50 years whose movies are so distinctly theirs. Other prolific directors’ work can be spotted by certain visual flourishes or narrative similarities. Godard’s are joined by their unwillingness to sit still and behave properly. He pushes and annoys; he won’t let you just sit back and enjoy something passively. Because of this, anytime any later filmmaker has done something vaguely unconventional—say, Quentin Tarantino shuffling chronology in Pulp Fiction—it’s called Godardian.

(How did Godard feel about that nomenclature? “Yes, it felt strange, and it was awkward for me in my private life,” he told The Guardian in 2000. “But it started to change in 1968—I began to realize it was a label. I’m glad to have made lots of more or less successful films—but especially ones which weren’t successful, because that helps you to see yourself more or less normally. … John Cassavetes, who was more or less my age—now he was a great director. I can’t imagine myself as his equal in cinema. For me, he represents a certain cinema that’s way up above.”)

“Godardian” first showed itself in his feature debut, 1960’s Breathless, about a handsome knave (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his feckless lover (Jean Seberg). Based on an idea by his pal Truffaut, who’d become a sensation the previous year for The 400 Blows, Breathless is almost impossible to watch now with fresh eyes. So much of contemporary cinema has been shaped by Breathless that its innovations have become part of the modern language: jump cuts, pop-culture riffing, consciously unsympathetic main characters, the freedom of anything-goes. That’s not meant to diminish Godard’s debut but to emphasize its importance—just about everyone who’s made serious cinema in its wake has had to contend with its legacy. That’s most obvious in the fledgling American auteurs of the ’70s who took Breathless and the rest of the French New Wave as their roadmap for how to reinvigorate Hollywood. From Bonnie and Clyde to Five Easy Pieces to Mean Streets, the celebration of outcasts and the rejection of traditional, tidy storylines flow from Breathless. Not since Welles has such a brash, young upstart made such a galvanic debut.

Because of Breathless’s reputation, it’s risked overshadowing some of his other ’60s gems. Band of Outsiders is a crime film that’s really about being young and in love. It starred Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time, who starred in several of his movies. Her beautiful, smart eyes and melancholy expression humanized his experiments—her vibrant life force ensured that his cinematic exercises had a heart. She’s also crucial to Pierrot le Fou, which reunited Godard with Belmondo in a tale of lovers on the run, and Alphaville, his snazzy sci-fi/noir mash-up. Godard didn’t just belong to two countries in real life—his films transcended borders, marrying different genres as he saw fit.

He has never stopped thinking about how films do what they do to us. “The problem that has long occupied me, but which I don’t worry about while shooting, is: Why do one shot rather than another?” Godard confessed to Cahiers du Cinéma around Pierrot le Fou’s release in 1965. “Take a story, for example. A character enters a room—one shot. He sits down—another shot. He lights a cigarette, etc. … Maybe this is why Pierrot le Fou is not a film but an attempt at film.”

It’s a great way to describe Godard’s canon: attempts at film. As much as he loved American movies as a young man, he’d never be suited to Hollywood: He prefers the unconventional choice or the politically provocative stance, which isn’t popular at the studios. (He condemned the industry’s lowest-common-denominator mindset in his widescreen beauty Contempt, where Jack Palance plays a blowhard Hollywood producer who, of course, ends up with the girlfriend of our hero, the lowly screenwriter.) According to Godard, during Hollywood’s heyday in the first half of the 20th century, the industry “could make films like no one else could.” His opinion of Hollywood soured over time, though: “Now,” he stated, “even the Norwegians can make films as bad as the Americans.”

Rather than making a “proper” or “good” film, Godard tries to create something that isn’t what we’ve seen before. After first despairing of video—“We have a strong feeling that video has nothing to do with film,” he declared in 1972—he experimented with the form in the mid-’70s with Numéro Deux, a movie about both film financing and members of a family telling their individual stories. He’s played around with slow-motion in 1980’s stunning Every Man for Himself and produced essay projects such as Histoire(s) du Cinema, which sought to tie the history of movies to the history of the 20th century. Some mainstream filmmakers will attempt a change-of-pace movie by shooting with a low budget or no stars. This is seen as “brave” and “risky.” That’s where Godard has always resided.

This makes him a hero, even if it doesn’t make him particularly beloved. The combative, didactic quality of his films, particularly the recent ones, gets him labeled a pretentious misanthrope. Even his most ardent supporters can become exasperated with him. Writing about 2010’s Film Socialisme, which uses nonsensical subtitles and divides its story into three seemingly unconnected segments, Roger Ebert groused, “This film is an affront. It is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies.” (Ebert seemed to fall into the same trap he warned others to avoid back in the day. Here’s Ebert in 1969: “The films of Jean-Luc Godard have fascinated and enraged moviegoers for a decade now. The simple fact is: This most brilliant of all modern directors is heartily disliked by a great many people who pay to see his movies.”) Speaking generally about Godard’s oeuvre, David Thompson observed, “He is the first director, the first great director, who does not seem to be a human being.”

That’s cruel, but not entirely inaccurate. Godard has always preferred the intellectual to the emotional, the chilly to the reassuring, no matter the depth of feeling that comes from Contempt or Every Man for Himself or even Film Socialisme. It’s that rather than being overly sentimental, Godard thinks passionately, flipping ideas back and forth in his head and working them out through his movies. In that way, he’s never stopped being a movie critic. “I don’t make a distinction between directing and criticism,” he said to Film Comment’s Gavin Smith in 1996. “When I began to look at pictures, that was already part of moviemaking. If I go to see the last Hal Hartley picture, that’s part of making a movie, too. There is no difference. I am part of filmmaking, and I must continue to look at what is going on.”

He very much remains a part of what is going on. He debuts his latest film, Goodbye to Language, at the Cannes Film Festival. Ostensibly a love story, in 3D no less, the movie will also include, according to Godard, “people talking of the demise of the dollar, of truth in mathematics and of the death of a robin.” If that description annoys you, it’s meant to. This is what he does. And we’ll miss him once he’s gone.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.

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