“He who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” – Jean-Luc Godard
Very few moments in the history of cinema have been as influential as the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) and at the centre of this rebellion against mainstream filmmaking was Jean-Luc Godard. In his films like Breathless (1960) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), Godard challenged conventional editing by pioneering his own brand of realism: employing not-so-subtle jump cuts to critique the deception of film editing, breaking the fourth wall and the use of long takes and deep focus.
It is almost impossible to completely trace the French New Wave’s overwhelming influence on contemporary cinema because their language of cinema has become widely appreciated, revered for their trademark irreverence. From Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino, some of the most acclaimed filmmakers have continuously asserted that watching the works of the French New Wave showed them how liberating the process of filmmaking can be.
Godard once said, “I don’t make a distinction between directing and criticism. 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. [With] American picture[s], more or less one every year is enough: they are more or less all the same. But it’s a part of seeing this is the world we are living in.”
Two months after the release of 1960 film Breathless, his first feature, Jean-Luc Godard told an interviewer, “I have the impression of loving the cinema less than I did a year ago—simply because I have made a film, and the film was well received, and so forth. So I hope that my second film will be received very badly and that this will make me want to make films again.”
In order to gain a better understanding of Jean-Luc Godard’s overwhelming influence on the world of cinema, we take a look at 10 films that are spiritual successors to his unique sensibilities.
10 films influenced by Jean-Luc Godard:
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch – 1984)
Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 black and white absurdist deadpan comedy features John Lurie as a New York hipster Willie who forms an unexpected bond with his young Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) when she comes to visit him unannounced. Eva, Willie and his sidekick Eddie (Richard Edson) embark on a road trip to Florida, undertaking a physical as well as a philosophical journey. The film is noted for being shot in entirely single long takes.
Jarmusch said, “Breathless was really inspiring to me formally. With that one, he didn’t have enough money to shoot a film with sound. It’s all dubbed after the fact, so he could go out on the street and just shoot in a guerrilla style, which is how I started out. And he used jump-cutting to facilitate the ability to edit something out of whatever he shot.
“When I made Stranger Than Paradise, I did an inverse of that. I had so little film stock to shoot with, and I realized if I make each scene one single take, I can make a feature film with the amount of material I have. Part of that came from Godard’s inventiveness and letting the form be influenced by the limitations you have of shooting.”
Buffalo ’66 (Vincent Gallo – 1998)
Say what you want about the controversial filmmaker Vincent Gallo, Buffalo ’66 is definitely his magnum opus. The delightfully irreverent film explores the effects of a traumatic childhood through interesting cinematic ideas. The disruption of continuity through mise-en-scène and the grungy aesthetics make Gallo’s film a notable work of art that deserves to be revisited.
Like the works of the French New Wave, plot becomes a secondary element when compared to the infinitely nuanced visual narrative that Gallo employs. It is an intentionally problematic exploration of a dysfunctional man who has been rendered incapable of feeling anything but aggression. Although Gallo denied that his ideas were influenced by Godard or Cassavetes, the film would be relegated to the realm of derivative works if it is looked at any other way.
Gallo reflected, “Most of the character himself, his feelings are true to things I’ve felt, and most of the situation with his family is very similar to how my mother and father are, and the concept that l would want to make someone love me, even if by force, is not that far-fetched. But it’s not purely autobiographical: there’s also a very clever screenplay there.”
Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh – 1996)
Steven Soderbergh’s 1996 surrealist experimental comedy film follows the exploits of a man (played by Soderbergh) who works for the unpleasant guru of a Scientology-like movement. The film uses a non-linear narrative and tells the same story from three different perspectives (like “The Rashomon Effect”).
The director used frequent jump cuts to give the film a “sloppy feel”, much like the characteristic techniques of the French New Wave. Soderbergh uses these subversive visual elements to provide a temporal ellipsis and unconventional narrative techniques like in the scene where the man and his wife are arguing, the man starts speaking in various languages while the wife continues talking in English. This casually humorous depiction of a literal breakdown of communication is reminiscent of Godard’s Band of Outsiders when all three main characters resolve to be silent for a moment and Godard makes the scene mute of all sound.
Soderbergh sets the tone for Schizopolis by uttering this warning at the beginning of the film, “In the event that find certain sequences or ideas disturbing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again, until you understand everything.”
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese – 1973)
Scorsese’s 1973 crime drama is an innovative look at the gritty lives of lower echelon Mafiosos, unbalanced punks, and petty criminals in Little Italy. Mean Streets broke a lot of rules that were exclusive to mob films and presents an existential deconstruction of the identity of a gangster.
In the film, he uses the same subversive editing techniques in the opening sequence that Godard used in Breathless. The stylistic jump cuts work well with the independent, dirty atmosphere to create a cinematic sensation of discomfort, suffocation and occasionally disgust.
The director said, “It took me years to realise Mean Streets was more about my father and him than myself and my old friends because my father was constantly making sure he wasn’t going to get killed or beat up.”
He added, “I wondered how you balance that, how you live a life like that. I don’t know…My father didn’t go to church or any of that. He didn’t have to. This was what it was all about.”
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai – 1994)
Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express has become a cult-classic. It is an unconventional exploration of the concept of love, told in two subtly overlapping sequences involving two separate lovesick Hong Kong policemen mulling over their relationship problems.
Like Godard’s Breathless, Chungking Express is a portrait of lovers lost in the constructs of modernity that a big city has to offer. Wong Kar-wai uses unconventional editing techniques to make the story more immersive, an allegorical account of consumerism, violence and the impotence of being in love in the modern world.
“Every film [has] their luck,” the auteur revealed. “Certain films, the process is really difficult: the weather is not right, the cast is not right, the place is not right. So, there is a lot happening during the production. But for Chungking Express, it was the opposite. I would say it was a very lucky film. Why? Well, we shot the film in six weeks. Relatively, it was the shortest production time of all my films.”
Simple Men (Hal Hartley – 1992)
The final instalment of Hal Hartley’s Long Island Trilogy, Simple Men is a story about a New York crook and his philosophy grad brother who set out to find their pro-ballplayer-turned-terrorist dad. However, the get sidetracked after meeting hip epileptic Elina (Elina Lowensohn) and her pretty sidekick, Kate (Karen Sillas).
Hartley refers to the iconic scene from Godard’s Bande à part (1964) where Anna Karina and her companions dance to the music in a smoke-covered Paris jazz club. The promise of a classical crime narrative is subverted by Hartley, presenting us with juvenile digressions.
Hartley said, “I never start a project on a conceptual level, it’s always with character and situation. I read lots which inspires me to try to work out how I can bring new things in. The Greek chorus in the Berlin section of Flirt is in many ways the same gesture as in Simple Men, where they bust out into dance. Sometimes the fourth wall just needs to be knocked down for a moment.”
W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev – 1971)
Serbian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev’s satirical 1971 documentary intercuts footage from Soviet propaganda with a brilliant narrative about a highly political Yugoslav woman who seduces a visiting Soviet celebrity ice skater. It explores the relationship between communist politics and sexuality, as well as presenting the controversial life and work of Austrian-American psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.
The unconventional work is very similar in style to works from Godard’s second period, including Weekend (1967) and Tout va bien (1972). Makavejev goes further than Godard’s experimentations with the cinematic medium in this iconic film belonging to the Global New Wave, successfully blurring the lines between a film essay and a work of fiction.
Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax – 1986)
This 1986 film by French filmmaker Leos Carax (who was 26 when he made it) imagines a society that is ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease. The disease is called STBO and it is spread by having sex without emotional involvement, and most of its victims are teenagers who make love out of curiosity rather than commitment.
The dystopian explorations of Mauvais Sang bears a striking similarity to Godard’s unique interpretation of the science fiction genre, Alphaville (1965). Like Alphaville, Carax shows us a world where human relations are fragile and where humanity has lost all faith. The volatility of the editing, theatrical elements in the scenes and the dispersed narrative seem to be highly influenced by the French New Wave.
Carax explained: “I in no way feel contemporary with the films which are coming out . . . Mauvais Sang is a film which loved cinema, and which doesn’t love today’s cinema. And that’s important to me. Not to isolate myself or to be badly thought of by other filmmakers, but so that it is seen for what it is by the people who will love it.”
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn – 1967)
Arthur Penn’s 1967 biographical film about the notorious lovers/bandits Bonnie and Clyde is regarded as one of the first works of the New Hollywood Era. The seminal film broke many cinematic taboos and was bold in its counter-culture representation of sex and violence, dismantling the attitude of conservative censorship.
In a 24 Aug 1997 LAT interview about the making of Bonnie and Clyde, David Newman and Robert Benton (the writers) revealed that the detailed, seventy-five-page treatment was heavily inspired by the works of French New Wave filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. They wrote it in late 1963 while working for Esquire magazine. Bonnie and Clyde is the film that brought the sensibilities of the French New Wave to America.
“It was a time,” Penn said, “where, it seemed to me that if we were going to depict violence, then we would be obliged to really to depict it accurately; the kind of terrible, frightening volume that one sees when one genuinely is confronted by violence.”
He added, “The intention there was to get this kind of spastic motion of genuine violence, and at the same time, the attenuation of time that one experiences when you see something, like a terrible automobile accident.”
Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler – 1969)
Another film that is considered to be one of the most influential works of the New Hollywood Movement, Wexler’s 1969 political drama about a hardened TV news cameraman who manages to keep his distance while he captures daring footage of the social unrest in Chicago surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The cameraman manages to keep the illusory ideal of “objectivity” until he is forced to join the revolution himself.
The filmmaker cited Godard’s works as the primary inspiration for Medium Cool, employing cinema vérité to launch a metafictional examination of the cinematic medium. Wexler uses many other techniques championed by Godard, like breaking-the-fourth-wall and postmodern self-consciousness of the fictional nature of a film.
Wexler explained, “See, nothing is ‘real.’ When you take a camera down to Michigan Ave. and point it at what’s happening, you’re still not showing ‘reality.’ You’re showing that highly seductive area that’s in front of your camera. But there’s another element in the film. It has something to do with the professional, ‘just doing his job.'”