You Can’t Imagine Modern Cinema Without Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard was the last radical working in cinema during an era where the medium of movies still genuinely had the power to shock.

Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Paul Belmondo on the set of Pierrot Le Fou in Hyères, France in June 1965. (Reporters Associes / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, the great French filmmaker who passed away last week at the age of ninety-one, remains singular. His work embodies the idea that the personal is the political, as Godard’s politics, for a time, would become totally intwined with his filmmaking. His personal growth as he transformed from a contrarian gadfly provocateur to a Marxist humanist is almost as unexpected as the narratives of some of his films. But the radical approach to filmmaking he developed along the way changed how we think about film entirely and is a primary reference point for many of the great filmmakers that followed him.

Love or hate Godard — and often it was easy enough to do both over the course of one of his films — he changed the rules of the game forever. Even if sometimes through sheer infuriation, his films stay with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.

Godard’s work, much like the man himself, feels like a series of contractions. Born the scion of a petit bourgeois family, he turned film critic, then filmmaker, then explicit Maoist propagandist before finally ending up as a humanist documenter of human conflict. Throughout it all, Godard remained aggressively confrontational, making films that sought to both please and infuriate audiences in equal measure. This carried over to his personal life, where he could be quick to criticize, resulting in several major rifts with friends and peers.

The desire to stir the pot and provoke an emotional response lay at the heart of his classic work, a tendency that seemed to dissipate as Godard became more secure in his ideology. He was the edgelord who likely adopted radical politics as part of a spiky pose — only to discover that they were actually meaningful to him.

Beginning his career in film as a critic in 1951, Godard is well-remembered for his work with the influential French film journal, Cahiers du Cinéma. Finding to be of like minds with two other future filmmakers, the proto-Lynchian Jacques Rivette and the more earthy François Truffaut, Godard was part of a movement in French film criticism that looked beyond the typical prestige pictures and championed European and American genre film, particularly noir, Westerns, and crime film. Godard’s heroes included Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, and Jean-Pierre Melville (the latter who would enjoy a memorable cameo as himself in Godard’s debut film, Breathless), while disparaging more overtly “artistic” filmmakers and films that he felt lacked a certain popular appeal. Often, the filmmakers Godard did not care for were those championed by Cahiers founder (and Godard’s employer) André Bazin.

Part of Godard’s goal was likely to democratize the tastes of film critics. But given his innate contrarian sensibility, it likely also stemmed from a desire to swim against the tide.

Godard eventually moved away from theorizing about cinema toward action, making a series of short films throughout the ’50s before finally landing his debut feature, Breathless, in 1960. His timing was impeccable, and along with several other young filmmakers, including several of his colleagues from his Cahiers days, the film helped spearhead the French New Wave film movement.

Breathless starred the boyishly handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Humphrey Bogart–obsessed criminal who, while on the run for killing a policeman, falls for an American student played by Jean Seaberg. The film manages to be playful, melodramatic, a bit meta, and carry with it a Greek sense of eminent tragedy which looms over the whole picture.

The film also mashes up high and low, with nodding winks to both American B pictures, literary work by William Faulkner and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others, and using impressionistic art and classical music to give the film additional heft. It remarkably begins with a dedication to Monogram Pictures, the notorious “Poverty Row” Hollywood studio that ground out the cheap noir crime films that Godard loved, before cutting directly to our protagonist reading a newspaper while declaring aloud, “After all, I’m an asshole.”

Still from Breathless (1960).

Most revolutionary was Godard’s use of editing, including a series of languid, long shots punctuated by jump cuts that lend a sort of jaunty energy to the film. Another important stylistic choice was the use of handheld cameras, which both gave Godard more flexibility in capturing atypical shots, but which also give Breathless an almost guerrilla documentary quality.

Godard also did away with many of the visual narrative conventions of the time. These include not just the use of jump cuts, but details such as a complete lack of eyeline matches between characters, making it difficult to place characters in the same location interacting with one another. These would all be filmmaking techniques that Godard would further refine throughout his career and without which much of the language of contemporary filmmaking is simply unimaginable. While these techniques have become mainstream in the hands of the likes of Martin Scorsese and others who were heavily influenced by Godard, this must have been hugely disorienting and unnerving to audiences of the time.

Early Radicalism

Breathless was an immediate critical hit, winning the prestigious Jean Vigo prize and ushering in Godard as a major filmmaker. His next films dealt with gender relations (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961), the life of a sex worker (Vivre Sa Vie, 1962), French colonialism in Algeria (Le Petit Soldat, 1963), and an antiwar fable (The Carabineers, 1963). These films saw the early formation of Godard’s political radicalism, with Le Petit Soldat especially a pointed shot at French polite society for its enablement of colonialism in North Africa. We see an interest in humanity and in the plight of the downtrodden, but Godard at this point retained a certain reticence to be pigeonholed as part of a greater political project.

Still from A Woman Is a Woman (1961).

Following a brief dalliance into bigger budget melodrama with Contempt, starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, and one of Godard’s heroes, Fritz Lang (as himself), Godard made three genre films that would help to determine his style for the next few years with Band of Outsiders (1964), Alphaville (1965), and Pierrot Le Fou (1965). These films saw Godard perfect his elliptical and often infuriating narrative style. In all three films, though the stories originate from well-worn genre film tropes, plot points become increasingly hazy, as the unlikely happens and events are more often carried along by the film’s own internal logic than by narrative coherence. This sense of subversion of narrative expectation was there from the beginning in Godard’s films but would explode by the late ’60s.

Pierrot Le Fou is also notable in that it saw Godard reteaming with Belmondo and fully embracing color (though his previously made Contempt was a color film) using the pastels of the French Mediterranean backdrop set against striking, primary reds and blues that run throughout the film. Color symbolizes contrasts throughout the film, with blue serving as a metaphor for Belmondo’s character’s inescapable bourgeois upbringing and red his contrasting desires to reject that upbringing and achieve a greater freedom. Pierrot Le Fou is also a film that deals broadly with the idea of “freedom,” but one which does not seem to fully consider a framework for how that is to be achieved politically (though it does include a few passing nods to the then-current Vietnam War), and so concludes with another of Godard’s playful stabs at irreverence. This would soon change.

In 1967, Godard made two dark comedies that would see him shift away from merely provocation for its own sake toward a staunch Marxist critique, La Chinoise and Weekend. While both films retain much of the playfulness of vintage Godard, in both, explicit political messaging crept in.

Still from La Chinoise (1967).
Still from La Chinoise (1967).

La Chinoise deals with the often-irreverent trials and tribulations of a group of campus Maoists who soon decide that radical action in the form of terroristic violence is the only way to change the world to their liking. Weekend is a brutal attack on Western materialism and bourgeois values, wherein a well-to-do couple’s weekend plans to murder the woman’s parents to take her inheritance are disrupted first by an epic traffic jam that explicitly serves as a metaphor for the dysfunction of modern consumer society, then leftist paramilitaries. The film ends in cannibalism, very much a nod to that old French Revolutionary motto of “eat the rich.” The film also provocatively cites Karl Marx as an equal of Jesus Christ.

Both films were largely an amalgamation of Godard’s stylistic work to date, featuring his regular mash-up of high and low culture references. But now with newfound political purpose, Godard also began to further experiment with his already revolutionary stylistic choices. Godard began to become more and more elliptical in his filmmaking, taking the long tracking shots that he had developed in Weekend, in which the camera moves back and forth across a great expanse, often following a paramilitary of some sort delivering a lengthy lecture on the dysfunction of consumer society.

He also began to fuse documentary aspects with narrative. This technique featured prominently in both Sympathy for the Devil (1968), which featured studio footage of the Rolling Stones recording and iterating their hit song of the same name with political materials, and in Tout Va Bien (1972). These films are difficult to watch at times and can begin to try even a sympathetic audience’s patience, as Godard’s provocations cease to feel playful and more like they have reached their natural end point.

Godard had tired of them too.

A Pioneer Until the End

Inspired by the May 1968 upheavals and now outwardly identifying as a Maoist, Godard began to work anonymously among the Dziga Vertov filmmaking collective and sought to make films that were, by his own assertion, Marxist propaganda. While these films deal with some weighty issues, including documentaries about Jane Fonda and the Vietcong, decolonization in Mozambique and general class struggle, they lack the playfulness of Godard’s earlier work. He anonymized his own artistic voice in service of the political messages he sought to convey.

Godard would eventually emerge from this period to focus on making highly personal though more mainstream films in the ’80s, and later more universal films about humanism and human conflict toward the end of his career. He still managed to stir controversy with his 1985 film Hail Mary, which featured a modern retelling of the virgin birth which the Catholic Church declared blasphemous. Notre Musique (2004) was a highly humanistic hybrid narrative-documentary that dealt with war (including the war in Sarajevo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the American Civil War), violence and depictions of violence in film, and which saw Godard investigating the human consequences of these conflicts.

Still from Hail Mary (1985).

He continued to pioneer new filmmaking techniques, using the style he had crystalized in the ’60s and experimenting with new technologies, such as experiments with video and in his final major work, Goodbye to Language (2014), with 3D cinema. Never one to bow to convention, Godard used 3D in innovative ways, including the use of a separation shot in which a single, unbroken shot splits into two separate shots that can be viewed simultaneously through either the left or the right eye.

He also never lost his political edge or convictions, as the title of his 2010 effort, Film Socialisme, attests. The third act of Film Socialisme visits a number of important sites of human civilization and explores themes of our collective humanity — quite the departure from the arch provocateur who made Breathless fifty years earlier.

In the end, Godard outlived them all: his old colleague at the Cahiers du Cinéma–turned fellow filmmaker–turned sparring partner, Truffaut; his ex-lover and frequent leading lady, Anna Karina; his frequent leading man, Belmondo; his fellow leading lights within the New Wave film movement, Rivette, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Agnès Varda, Éric Rohmer, Louis Malle and Jacques Demy. He also lived long enough to see many of his conceptions of cinema become mainstream.

It is impossible to imagine modern cinema without Godard, and his passing genuinely feels like the real end of era. Godard was the last radical working in cinema during an era where the medium of movies still genuinely had the power to shock. He was also an artist who fully embraced and lived in accordance with his moral and political convictions. During an era where filmmakers increasingly are forced to acquiesce to a corporate vision for their work to reach large audiences, there is something that feels both a little quaint and deeply noble about Godard’s path.