Jean-Luc Godard: The life of the French New Wave maestro
“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 1960 effort Breathless and 1965 picture Pierrot le Fou, 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. On his 90th birthday, we revisit the maestro’s life as a celebration of one of the most daring revolutionaries of cinema: Jean-Luc Godard.
Born in December of 1930, Godard was the second of four children and was raised in Switzerland but the family made occasional trips to France, even during the Second World War. The filmmaker would later reflect on his childhood and describe it as “a kind of paradise”. He belonged to an affluent family, Godard’s father was a physician and his grandfather was one of the most prominent bankers in France, an influential figure in literary circles whose closest friend was the writer Paul Valery. As a child, Godard did not frequent the cinema theatres but he was an avid reader and that’s how he was introduced to the world of cinema: André Malraux’s essay Outline of a Psychology of Cinema and his reading of La Revue du cinéma. By the age of 14, he had moved on from children’s books to the philosophical works of Malraux and André Gide. In 1946, Godard began his academic pursuits at the Lycée Buffon in Paris where he engaged with the cultural elite because of his family connections. Although he intended to enter engineering school after studying advanced mathematics, Godard failed his first attempt at clearing the baccalaureate exam in 1948 and returned to Switzerland. Not allowing immediate issues to set him back, Godard returned to Paris the next year and registered for an anthropology course at the University of Paris (Sorbonne). However, he rarely attended the class because he was too involved with the young group of film critics at the ciné-clubs who started the New Wave and, from that moment on, his attentions had been turned. After abandoning his studies, he applied to the city’s leading film school IDHEC but his application was rejected. Godard educated himself by watching films at Henri Langlois’ Cinématheque Francais and the Ciné-club Quarter Latin where he first befriended two other cinephiles: Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. They watched three or films a day, sometimes spending an entire day in a theatre. Godard later wrote:
“The cinema screen was the wall we had to scale to escape from our lives.”
After the Second World War, France found itself liberated from Nazi censorship. Foreign films as well as previously banned French films like those of Jean Renoir were easily accessible to the public once again. Hollywood greats like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Orson Welles were intensively studied by French critics who idolised the manifestation of their unique artistic visions in the films they made. Influenced by prominent film critic André Bazin who praised auteurs like Welles and existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who criticised the influx of American films by calling it American imperialism, Godard started formulating his own views on cinema and began writing articles on film in 1950. Other than these two intellectuals, another younger critic also had a formative influence on Godard: Maurice Schérer (later known as Éric Rohmer). Along with Rohmer and Rivette, Godard founded the short-lived film journal Gazette du cinéma but it was only when he started writing for Bazin’s influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma that he properly entered the world of film criticism. Godard and his friends were not content with just writing about films, they wanted to make their own. Buoyed by new motivation, his first job came in 1953 when he landed an opportunity, with his mother’s help, to work as a cameraman for Swiss television in Zurich but he was jailed and then sent to a psychiatric clinic after he was caught stealing money from the company’s safe. The following year, he started working as a construction labourer at the Grande Dixence Dam where he envisioned the possibility of making a documentary.
Godard started his filmmaking career with the short documentary Opération béton (Operation concrete) and a 10-minute short in 1955 called Une femme coquette. He made several other short films before his feature film debut which would change cinema forever: À bout de souffle (Breathless). Godard’s contempt and disregard for the classical conventions of cinema made itself known in his 1960 masterpiece and paved the way for the French New Wave, along with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959. Self-reflective and eager to deconstruct its own myth, Breathless still remains one of the most unique films in the corpus of world cinema. The cinematic merits of the film can be debated for hours but what cannot be denied is the fiercely original artistic vision of Godard and the irreverent nonchalance with which he transformed the cinematic medium. His early works are still considered by many critics as the highlight of his filmography, including gems like Le petit soldat: a controversial film that marked the start of his iconic collaboration with Anna Karina. He had first seen Karina, then a successful young model, in a soap advertisement for Palmolive in 1959 and had offered her a small part in Breathless but she had turned it down. She soon became his muse, appearing in many of his critically acclaimed masterpieces such as 1962 film Vivre sa vie and, three years later in 1965, Bande à part. She co-starred with Jean-Paul Belmondo, the star of Breathless, in Godard’s seminal film Pierrot le Fou and put in a fantastic performance in Godard’s beautiful interpretation of the sci-fi genre: Alphaville.
To Godard’s credit, there are far too many films that he made at the start of his career which deserve much more than passing allusions. He also collaborated with another acting icon of that generation Brigitte Bardot in Contempt. One of Jean-Luc Godard’s finest early works, the 1963 film is based on Alberto Moravia’s eponymous novel. The best performance of Bardot’s career happens in the most philosophically challenging film that she has ever worked on. Beautifully shot in Technicolor in Rome and Capri, Contempt is a delightfully bizarre commentary on the nature of filmmaking and life itself. Although Godard and Bardot did not get along, their collaboration is a memorable product of the nouvelle vague. Among some of his other beloved cult-classics from this early period, Godard’s sociological essay on youth Masculin Féminin (1966) and his cinematic critique of American film noir Made in U.S.A feature on many ‘top 10’ lists from time to time. However, Godard was mentally disturbed by the conflict between the commercial nature of filmmaking and the political responsibility of an artist. This fundamental dichotomy marked the beginning of Godard as not just a revolutionary of cinema but as a political activist as well.
La Chinoise, released in 1967, was Godard’s declaration to the world that he was tired of commercial cinema. The film depicted his indulgence with Left Wing politics but if failed to impress both the critics and the Maoists. When Godard travelled with his wife Anne Wiazemsky to the US where he screened the film for college students at various universities. A young George Lucas was also present at one of these screenings who said: “When you find someone who’s going the same direction as you, you don’t feel so alone.” Some might argue that his next-film Week-end was his more political work and they would be right, it does not hold back any punches while showing the animalistic tendencies inherent in a capitalist system. It was already apparent that many of Godard’s works incorporated Marxist dialectics and investigated the fallacies of capitalism but scholars have called the period of 1968-1979 as his “revolutionary phase”. In May of 1968, Godard took to the streets with the student protesters and filmed the civil unrest. He also actively lobbied to shut down the Cannes Film Festival that year in solidarity with the students and workers, stating that the films in the selection were in no way representative of the widespread injustice. In a famous press conference, he said: “Not one, whether by Milos [Forman], myself, [Roman] Polanski or François. There are none. We’re behind the times.”
During his revolutionary phase, Godard made films in England, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Palestine and America, as well as France. His politically charged films inspired some but alienated many, a result of his association with the Dziga-Vertov cinema collective that was formed by Godard in collaboration with several other filmmakers including Jean-Pierre Gorin. This is the central focus of a recent biopic about Godard called Godard Mon Amour (2017) which implies that Godard the auteur was destroyed when he became a political ideologue. The most notable film from this period was the big-budget production Tout Va Bien, released in 1972, starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda. According to biographer Antoine de Baecque, Godard grew disillusioned with the unrealistic idealism of Maoism and attempted suicide twice. He returned to more traditional narrative styles with Sauve qui peut (la vie) in 1980 and went on to make more interesting films like Detective (1985) and King Lear (1987), a fascinating commentary on Shakespeare and the nature of language. It is almost tragic that some of his later works have been dismissed by critics as the ramblings of an ageing auteur, films like the autobiographical JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December (1995) and Goodbye to Language, Godard’s experiment with 3D technology and a riveting commentary on our inherent alienation.
The legendary filmmaker has kept the tradition of the French New Wave alive. Godard’s latest work, The Image Book, came out in 2018 and it is just as experimental (if not more) as his works from the ’60s. Maybe we can’t call it the French New Wave anymore because a movement cannot remain new for more than half a century but it is definitely worth paying attention to. 60 years after Breathless, is Godard still ahead of his time or are we mistaking the onanistic for the avant-garde? I strongly believe it’s the former.