Jean-Luc Godard (born 1930) may be one of cinema's greatest names, but his films remain consistently abstruse and unseen by mainstream audiences. This is a situation the French-Swiss screenwriter, director, and occasional performer most likely prefers. Critics have cited the years prior to 1967 as Godard's most masterful period, when he and other young French directors broke new ground in what came to be known as cinema's New Wave movement, hallmarked by fresh conceptualization and technical tricks that challenged viewers' perceptions.
Though a true Hollywood outsider vociferously critical of directors like Steven Spielberg, Godard has always paid homage to American film's golden era by including fleeting references to its bygone works-a poster on the wall, or a bit of dialogue-in his own films. In turn, Godard has influenced a new generation of film-makers. Elements of his style-the arch dialogue, the quirky camera work-can be seen in the films of Quentin Tarantino, Gregg Araki, and John Woo, among others.
Godard was born in Paris on March 12, 1930, but grew up in Switzerland. He attended school in Nyon and, as a young man, returned to Paris for his university education. He studied ethnology at the Sorbonne, but also experienced the heady intellectual and freewheeling spirit of the Latin Quarter, the Parisian neighborhood that is home to the Sorbonne and its students. His primary interests were in theater and the written word, but "little by little the cinema began to interest me more than the rest," Godard told Jean Collet for his biography, Jean-Luc Godard. He began frequenting the Cine-Club du Quartier Latin, where he became friends with Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette. Like Godard, the other three would also achieve fame as the most influential of France's postwar filmmakers. The group skipped their classes for visits to the Cinematheque Francaise, France's museum of film, with its steady program of classic works. "We systematically saw everything there was to see," Godard told Collet.
With Rohmer and Rivette, Godard co-founded La Gazette du Cinema in 1950, which published their criticism of mainstream French films and their directors. It survived only five issues. Godard had yet to make his own film."I had ideas, but they were absolutely ridiculous," he commented to Collet. Instead he acted in the short works his friends were making in order to observe and learn. In 1954, Godard made his first foray into directing with Operation Beton, a short film centered around the construction of a dam ("beton" means concrete); Godard had worked as a laborer on the very project in order to save the money to make the film.
With his next short, 1955's Une Femme Coquette, comes evidence of Godard's interest in experimentation-the hand-held camera, jump-cutting from one scene to another, and other quirks which would later become hallmarks of his style. By 1956, Godard was writing regularly for France's respected journal of film criticism, Le Cahiers du Cinema, and becoming well-known for his polemics on mainstream filmmakers. He directed a project from after a script by Rohmer, Tous les Garcons s'appellent Patrick (title means "All Boys Are Called Patrick"), in 1957; the following year's short Charlotte et son Jules was both written and directed by Godard. He also appeared briefly, but its real star was a young French actor with a swagger, Jean-Paul Belmondo.
New Wave Cinema
The year 1959 marks the formal birth of France's Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) cinema, when Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer and the others obtained the means to make the quirky, unconventional films they desired. Perhaps Godard's most famous film, and considered his first full-length feature, was made that same year and realized New Wave's concepts memorably. A Bout de Souffle (also known as "Breathless") premiered in March 1960 and was an immediate sensation. It pioneered the use of hand-held cameras, filming at actual, recognizable locations. Most radically, it was shot with the barest of script. "Breathless" made stars of Belmondo and his co-star, American actress Jean Seberg. They each appear as entirely vacuous characters, seemingly roused only by images from pop culture.
In the famous opening shot of "Breathless," Seberg's character, an American student living in Paris, is walking down the Champs-Elysees selling the New York Herald Tribune. She encounters her intermittent boyfriend, Belmondo's handsome thug who has just arrived in Paris to hide out from the authorities after a shoot-out in the countryside with police. Though there is talk of the two fleeing to Italy, and a hint that she may be pregnant, she realizes that Belmondo is wanted for killing a cop. In the end she turns him in. When Godard began the film, it was almost a freeform experiment, as he said in a 1962 interview in Le Cahiers du Cinema. "I had written the first scene, and for the rest I had a pile of notes for each scene. I said to myself, this is terrible. I stopped everything. Then I thought: in a single day, if one knows how to go about it, one should be able to complete a dozen takes. Only instead of planning ahead, I shall invent at the last minute."
Banned by Government
Godard's next film, 1960's Le Petit Soldat ("The Little Soldier") was banned by the French government. At the time, France had been fighting a nationalist uprising in its North African colony of Algeria for several years, and Le Petit Soldat is set amidst this political backdrop. It chronicles the dilemma plaguing a right-wing terrorist assigned to kill a journalist sympathetic to the Arab cause; instead he falls in love with an operative for the other side, the Algerian liberation movement. "The burning political issue in France at that moment, the Algerian war, Le Petit Soldat addressed with an implicative urgency summed up in the image of a hesitant assassin walking behind his victim with a large pointed pistol along a crowded street without attracting anybody's notice-a startling image of the daily unbelievability of political violence," wrote Gilberto Perez in The Nation of the film and its message.
In 1961, Godard married the female lead of Le Petit Soldat, Anna Karina. She went on to play several leading roles in his subsequent works: she was the exotic dancer who wants a child from her unwilling boyfriend in 1961's Une Femme est une Femme ("A Woman Is a Woman"). In 1962's Vivre sa Vie ("My Life to Live") she was a record-shop clerk who drifts into prostitution for extra money with predictably disastrous consequences. In these and subsequent films of the decade, Godard perfected the signature elements of his work. The theme of alienation is prevalent in his films: Godard's protagonist is nearly always an outsider of some sort or at odds with "normal" (i.e., bourgeois) society. The techniques Godard and his camera operators developed were similarly revolutionary: in some cases, the camera would follow a character walking down a street for minutes on end-virtually unheard-of experimentalism at the time. Godard also had no qualms about confounding viewers with nearly inaudible dialogue.
Absence of Plot
Une Femme Mariee ("A Married Woman"), released in 1964, typified the absence-of-plot style that Godard came to favor. It chronicles a twenty-four hour period in the life of a bored French fashion editor, and serves as a commentary on the seductive power of advertising imagery. The alienation of bourgeois society was a theme continued in Pierrot le Fou, a 1965 release that starred Belmondo as a man who escapes his tedious life with his criminal minded mistress, played by Karina. Alphaville, released the same year, was Godard's foray into science fiction. The film's hero is Lemmy Caution, played by American actor Eddie Constantine. Caution is posing as a journalist for a paper comically titled "Figaro-Pravda"-in the 1960s, the leading papers of France and the Soviet Union, respectively. He arrives in bleak Alphaville in a Ford Galaxy to track down the scientist in charge of Alpha-60, the computer that controls Alphaville and robs its citizens of individuality. Called at times Godard's only optimistic film, in the end Caution falls in love with the scientist's daughter and the pair flee.
Increasing evidence of Godard's left-leaning politics came with the 1967 film, La Chinoise. His real politicization occurred with the 1968 student riots in France, a week of street and labor unrest that galvanized the entire country and brought it to a virtual standstill. The following year, Godard released Un Film Comme les Autres, parts of which-interviews with workers at a car factory, for instance-were shot during the days of protest. At this point Godard began to make short films in 16mm he called cinetracts, which crystallized his radical political views and offered up a heavy dose of propaganda; they are almost like commercials for a revolution. He also became involved with the militant Dziga Vertov group, who would finance many of his works of this era.
Another famous Godard work from these days was 1970's One Plus One, described by some critics as one of his dullest cinematic experiments. To make it, he traveled to England immediately after the May 1968 demonstrations. In the middle of nearly three months of filming a movie that basically showed the behind-the-scenes genesis of the Rolling Stones song "Sympathy for the Devil," band member Brian Jones was arrested, and production was held up by both fire and rain. "The result was Godard's most disjointed film to date," noted The Oxford Companion to Film. Godard also journeyed to the Czech capital of Prague to shoot Pravda ("truth" in Russian), which depicted the nation in the year since invading Russian tanks had arrived to quell a democratic uprising.
Godard was involved in a serious car accident in 1971, and for a time ceased to make standard-format films. He was still a political rebel, however. In the 1972 short Letter to Jane, he lets loose a 45-minute invective against American actor and activist Jane Fonda, then known for her similarly leftist politics. In the film, Godard discusses a photograph of her published in a French newspaper. "The narration calls attention to her facial expression which, Godard claims, differs from that of a North Vietnamese soldier in the background because she is the product of a jaded, capitalist society," according to The Oxford Companion to Film. Rather than full-length feature films, much of what Godard produced over the next few years were video collaborations with his partner, Anne-Marie Mieville. These include Numero Deux, filmed in a television studio and ostensibly intent on examining relationships within a traditional family. What instead occurs is that Godard "makes explicit the relationship between home video and pornography-the fetishization of the primal scene," wrote Amy Taubin in the Village Voice.
Returned to Longer Films
By 1980, Godard returned to longer films with Sauve qui Peut (la Vie) (titled "Every Man for Himself" for its American debut). Over the next few years he made several acclaimed works, including Prenom Carmen (also known as "First Name: Carmen") and Je Vous Salue, Marie ("Hail Mary"). This latter work was a retelling of the story of the Virgin Mary and the immaculate conception that received a great deal of publicity from Roman Catholic groups objecting to its nudity and sexual content. In 1987, Godard released his modern-day urban version of the Shakespearean family drama, King Lear. In the film, Burgess Meredith plays the doomed monarch, and Molly Ringwald his daughter Cordelia; Woody Allen also shows up. Time magazine's Richard Corliss called it "Godard's most infuriating, entertaining pastiche in two decades."
Godard contributed a segment to Aria, a 1988 film conceived as a series of vignettes based on well-known opera works. The following year he released parts one and two of an ongoing video-essay project, Histoire (s) du Cinema. Typically Godard, the quintessential anti-film, Histoire (s) blends bits and pieces from hundreds of films into a critique on the art form itself and a look at its relation to society. Katherine Dieckmann, writing in Art in America, called it "an expansive, densely layered, elegiac treatise on the fate of cinema." The title, which can mean either "history" or "story" in French, also serves to point out how filmgoers are beguiled by the false (the story) rather than the real (actual history), "and Godard struggles to expose how cinema's capacity to seduce and lull implicates it in certain atrocities of this century," Dieckmann wrote. In Histoire (s), she noted,"gritty newsreel footage of war mingles with an image of the 20th Century Fox logo and its sweeping klieg lights, with the none-too-covert message that these forms of spectacle aren't completely separate."
Two Godard films were released in 1990: Nouvelle Vague ("New Wave"), a pastoral work filmed in the Swiss countryside, and Allemagne Annee 90 Neuf Zero (also known as "Germany Year 90 Nine Zero"). Here Godard offers a sequel of sorts to Alphaville, set in a newly reunited Germany. Critics had once compared the bleak urban future-world of the 1965 film to the real East Berlin; in the latter work, Lemmy Caution tours the actual Berlin. In 1992, New York's Museum of Modern Art feted Godard with a retrospective of his work; not surprisingly, he did not attend his scheduled appearance, ostensibly because he was in the midst of finishing his next work, Helas pour Moi. The 1993 film starred Gerard Depardieu in the tale of the Greek deity Zeus and his transformation into human shape. JLG/JLG, released in 1995, shows Godard alone in a series of interviews. Some of it takes place in Switzerland, where the filmmaker has a home in Roulle with a large video studio and editing facilities.
Godard's 1963 film, Le Mepris ("Contempt"), was re-released in 1997. In this work, French actor Brigitte Bardot plays a woman married to a screenwriter, a man hired to adapt the Greek literary saga The Odyssey. Famed German moviemaker Fritz Lang plays the actual director of the fake film. Bardot hates her husband, a weak-willed man caught between Lang, who wants to remain faithful to the original story, and a crass American producer played by Jack Palance who wants nudity and mermaids. Godard's actual film had been partly bankrolled by a well-known Hollywood executive whom he hated, and Palance's character is an evident mockery of the real-life producer. The film was done in only 149 shots.
The year 1997 also marked the release of another work to American filmgoers, For Ever Mozart. Shot in 1995 in Sarajevo, Godard makes another film-within-a-film about a movie crew attempting to get their job done while battling the moral bankruptcy they feel all around, an after-effect of the former Yugoslavia's years-long civil war. "After 40 years, Godard can still astonish and amuse in the cinematic shorthand he virtually created," wrote Time magazine's Corliss in reviewing For Ever Mozart. The critic lauded Godard's "encyclopedic wit, the glamour of his imagery, the doggedness of a man who won't give up on modernism. His crabby films are, in truth, breathlessly romantic-because he keeps searching for first principles in the pettiest human affairs. Godard gazes at the intimate and finds the infinite."
Further Reading on Jean-Luc Godard
Collet, Jean. Jean-Luc Godard, Crown, 1970.
The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, Studio Vista, 1967.
Kreidl, John. Jean-Luc Godard, Twayne, 1980.
The Oxford Companion to Film, edited by Liz-Anne Bawden, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Art in America, October 1993, pp. 65-67.
ARTnews, February 1993, pp. 57-58.
Le Cahiers du Cinema, 1962.
Film Comment, March 1996, pp. 26-30, pp. 31-41.
Nation, February 18, 1991, pp. 209-212.
Time, February 1, 1988; August 4, 1997.
Village Voice, November 24, 1992, p. 45; July 1, 1997, p. 89.