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Ranking the 10 best films of Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard is still referred to as the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, but I imagine it must be hard for the director to look at that moniker without smirking, especially since he is now 91 years old. Starting out as a film critic, Godard ushered in a new age of filmmaking along with his French New Wave contemporaries who refused to believe that a director was any less authoritative than a writer by moulding the cinematic medium according to their distinct styles.

Starting with Breathless, Godard broke the rules of filmmaking with his trademark irreverence which, paradoxically, became the primary rule for most New Wave surges in global cinema. His oeuvre can be broken down into various periods which espoused vastly differing artistic sensibilities but they all had his revolutionary spirit in common. Through his films, Godard created a fantastic blend between the political and the human which few filmmakers had done before him and fewer have managed to do since.

Earlier this year, Godard finally announced his retirement from the world of cinema which came as a surprise to his fans who thought he would never let go of the directorial chair. However, Godard will go kicking and screaming into that good night by making two final projects which will be his farewell to the only thing he understood throughout his life – cinema.

After the brilliant 2018 film Image Book which reminded audiences that the French New Wave was still alive, Godard has proven that he is still capable of thinking outside the box. As a tribute to the pioneer, we take a look at some of the most definitive cinematic masterpieces that Godard produced over the course of his illustrious career.

Jean-Luc Godard’s 10 best films:

10. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)

A fantastic meditation on modernity during Godard’s phase of highly political filmmaking, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is a biting critique of consumerism, the Vietnam War and existential emptiness. The film revolves around a bourgeois housewife who tries to break out of the mundane domestic life she leads through prostitution.

However, Godard transforms the erotic into banal by insisting that there is no escape from this cultural decay. If you are unconvinced of his genius, there is one moment in the film which proves he was way ahead of his time. It features Godard engaging in ASMR by whispering his commentary on Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations to a cup of coffee.

9. A Woman Is a Woman (1961)

The first Godard film featuring the use of colour cinematography, A Woman Is a Woman is probably the second-greatest collaboration between Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo. A typical early Godard film, A Woman Is a Woman explores the nuances of romance and our evolutionary instincts by telling the story of a woman who wants to bring a child into this cruel world.

By revealing the atmospheric ennui with comedy, Godard fashions a hilarious cinematic essay on 20th-century feminism and the mind-numbing performative gender roles pushed by Hollywood at the time. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography is mesmerising in Cinemascope, providing us with glimpses of a strange world.

8. Breathless (1960)

The film that started it all and set the ball rolling for the French New Wave, Breathless is often cited as one of Godard’s greatest achievements which also makes some people dismiss the director after exclusively watching Breathless. While Breathless is important, it is certainly not representative of the heights that Godard has reached as a filmmaker.

Having said that, it is certainly one of the most essential landmarks in the history of cinema because it was through Breathless that Godard announced the arrival of a new cinematic language formed by delightful discontinuity and irreverence. This film was Godard’s statement of purpose which declared that he was going to do things his way and his way was certainly fascinating.

7. Masculin Féminin (1966)

Starring the likes of Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya, Masculin Féminin is a document of the youth consciousness in the ’60s. Filmed with avant-garde visual styles, the film follows a young idealist who falls in love with a self-absorbed pop star only to, allegedly, fall to his death from a high-rise apartment.

Godard constructs a paratextual labyrinth which facilitates a beautiful system of self-reflexivity, even featuring a cameo by Brigitte Bardot. Described by the filmmaker as “the children of Marx and CocaCola,” Godard attempts to point out the inevitable commodification of the revolutionary dream in a capitalist system.

6. Vivre sa vie (1962)

The apotheosis of Anna Karina’s mesmerising acting career, Vivre sa vie stars her as an aspiring actress whose dreams are crushed under the weight of a sombre reality. When she realises the inherent truths of modern society, she becomes a prostitute to survive but is treated like a docile body by her uncaring pimp.

Coutard’s cinematography has a different flavour in Vivre sa vie, evoking an irreversible sense of despair in the minds of the audience which never really goes away. Like many of his other films, Godard bridges the gap between academic discussions on the limits of language and the fate of a lowly sex worker by making the two worlds collide.

5. Band of Outsiders (1964)

Even more than Breathless, it is this 1964 crime drama by Godard which can be referred to as the very definition of cinematic freedom. Through a charming little story about three youngsters attempting to commit robbery, Godard strings together a completely fresh interpretation of the gangster genre.

There is one unforgettable moment in Band of Outsiders where the whole world stops as Anna Karina does “the Madison dance” in an overflowing cafe which can only be described as pure cinema. Quentin Tarantino loved this scene so much that he used it in Pulp Fiction and even named his production company after the film.

4. Alphaville (1965)

One of the greatest and most unusual science fiction films of the last century, Godard’s Alphaville is one of those rare cinematic gems that builds an unusual world by making the audience feel rather than exposing them to the elaborate crudity of the genre.

Shot in Paris and devoid of any artistic excesses, Alphaville is a unique noir experience which draws the audience into a world ruled by a supercomputer. Featuring Godard’s take on the ancient battle between logic and love, Alphaville will haunt you for the rest of your life.

3. Contempt (1963)

The crystallisation of Brigitte Bardot’s marriage with the cinematic medium, Contempt follows the Kafkaesque life of a screenwriter who is hired to work under Fritz Lang for an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey by an obnoxiously American producer.

However, everything falls apart as he undertakes this project as if expedited by cosmic forces. Coutard’s mesmerising cinematography and the thoroughly moving score by Georges Delerue transforms Contempt into one of the finest cinematic reflections ever made on the impossibility of love.

2. Pierrot le Fou (1965)

Pierrot le Fou is one of Godard’s most beloved films and rightly so. This delightful romp stars Belmondo and Anna Karina as they seek to escape the confines of their respective worlds, driving off into the wilderness of uncharted territory in a dead man’s car.

Although Belmondo’s character is called Ferdinand, his lover Marianne (Karina) insist on calling him Pierrot (sad clown) which makes this film about each and every one of us. Very films have been able to weave together so many memorable images, ranging from a sad clown blowing himself up by the ocean to the shot of an incomplete overpass in the middle of nowhere.

1. Weekend (1967)

There is no other masterpiece that shows what Godard is all about better than Weekend. One of the most difficult yet rewarding cinematic journeys ever curated by the French master, Weekend is undoubtedly the best that the French New Wave has to offer.

Beautifully apocalyptic in a way that threatens to destroy the integrity of the cinematic medium, Weekend is generated from the void of a political crisis that sets fire to everything it touches. A morbidly comical take on France’s sociopolitical climate, only Godard can make a film about a bourgeois couple on a weekend trip and turn it into a metafictional commentary on the human condition.