When Billy Wilder informed him of the death of director Ernst Lubitsch with the pithy line “No more Lubitsch,” William Wyler quipped in reply, “Worse than that, no more Lubitsch films.” It’s a sentiment that has since often been echoed by cinephiles when hearing of the loss of a cherished filmmaker, and it no doubt ran through many minds this week upon hearing that Jean-Luc Godard had passed away, at the age of 91, by means of assisted suicide.
For more than six decades, Godard’s work had reached us like cinematic UFOs. Utterly unlike anything else at the film festivals, art house theaters, and cinematheques where they were screened, his films were singularly able to stimulate, provoke, and divide audiences, winning over viewers receptive to his challenging output — many of whom became Godard diehards — while repelling those with more conservative tastes.
While Godard had a shifting relationship with the political left during his time as a filmmaker, his works were always a strident riposte to the status quo. But it is above all for his restless formal innovation, repeatedly reinventing the very language of cinema, that Godard’s films gained such acclaim during his lifetime, influencing multiple generations of aspiring cineasts. This is why they still demand to be watched today. An avatar of cinematic modernism, it is little exaggeration to claim that Godard is to his art what Picasso is to painting, Stravinsky to music, or Joyce to literature.
Starting a Shot
Renowned the world over as a French director, Godard actually grew up and spent most of his life in francophone Switzerland, and spoke French with a distinctive Swiss accent. It was nonetheless in Paris where, as a student, he first developed an obsession with cinema. In the postwar era, the French capital had a thriving film culture, and Godard soon became an habitué of the cinémathèque run by Henri Langlois, sitting in the front row of the theater and imbibing the history of cinema through its nightly double bills. It was here that he first met fellow cinephiles François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and the slightly older Éric Rohmer. Together, they would go on to form the nucleus of the nouvelle vague (the term itself came from a newspaper article about the social mores of French youth), a movement of novice filmmakers that took the world by storm in the late 1950s and rejuvenated what had by then become a stale French film industry.
Earlier in the decade, however, they were preoccupied with watching and writing about films, holding Hollywood auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray in particular esteem. Godard himself frequently contributed to the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, founded by film theorist André Bazin. His articles, now available to read in the seminal collection Godard on Godard, were replete with citations, literary allusions, in-jokes, wordplay, and gnomic messages: “If direction is a look, montage is a heart-beat” is but one striking example. They presaged many of the hallmarks of his films to come. Later, Godard would even refuse a clear distinction between criticism and filmmaking, declaring, “As a critic, I thought of myself as a filmmaker. Today I still think of myself as a critic.” The two practices informed each other: not only would he accompany each release with a steady stream of interviews, giving his idiosyncratic views on cinema and the world more broadly, but his films themselves abound with on-screen text in the form of punning title cards, billboards, book covers, or handwritten missives to the viewer.
Once his friend Truffaut graduated to feature film direction with The 400 Blows in 1958, Godard’s itch to step behind the camera became irrepressible. When his debut, Breathless, hit the screens in January 1960, it had an explosive effect. A B-movie narrative featuring a raffish French gangster enamored with an American journalist, the film furnished Paris with iconic images of stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg traipsing down the Champs-Élysées. But its impact also came from its effervescent energy and Godard’s carefree willingness to break the conventions of mainstream filmmaking. Editing scenes as he saw fit rather than as directorial manuals dictated, Breathless had a syncopated rhythm matching its jazz score, an approach that gave the world the “jump cut,” where a scene cuts between shots taken from the same camera axis but with temporal gaps between each shot noticeable to the viewer, which Godard used with aplomb at several key moments in the film.
Breathless initiated a run of fifteen features from 1960 to 1967, which even today are the films Godard is most readily associated with in the popular consciousness. With their focus on young characters — played by Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Brigitte Bardot, and his first wife, Anna Karina, among others — his films in this period exhibited a Jean-Paul Sartre–inflected existentialism among its profusion of references to literature, art, and philosophy. Left-wing critics, however, were far from being unanimously supportive of these films. While Godard later claimed that his early films were “cinematically” on the Left, in these years he tended to move in dandyish right-wing circles.
His second film, The Little Soldier, was banned by the French authorities for addressing the Algerian War, but those looking for an anti-colonialist manifesto in the film will be left dissatisfied: its protagonist, Bruno Forestier, is caught up with the Algérie française movement, and then tortured by Vladimir Lenin–quoting members of Algeria’s National Liberation Front.
Over the course of the 1960s, however, Godard moved in a distinctly more radical direction. By the mid-1960s, Masculine Féminin showed the filmmaker’s interest in the generation younger than his own (the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” as one title card memorably put it), while in interviews for Pierrot le Fou, he declared that he would denounce the Vietnam War in every one of his films until the withdrawal of US troops from Indochina (a promise he essentially kept). At the same time, his political trajectory also unsettled his own conception of his status as a filmmaker, leading him to call Pierrot “not a film, but an attempt at a film,” and musing that “the only great problem in cinema” was “when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.”
The ’68 Years
The May ’68 uprising famously caught the country’s political establishment by surprise: its newspaper of record, Le Monde, had proclaimed only a few weeks earlier that “France is bored.” But anybody watching Godard’s films would have been primed for the revolt. With Weekend, which premiered on the eve of 1968, he delivered a scathing satire of the modern bourgeoisie, depicting a married couple who plan to murder each other for inheritance money before being attacked by a band of cannibalistic hippies. The film concluded with the bracingly categorical message, “End of story, end of cinema.” His previous release, La Chinoise, was a more direct portent of the period of militancy initiated by the French May. And yet Godard felt vexed when his semi-parodic, Dostoyevsky-inspired parable of a cell of Maoist students holed up in a Parisian apartment was rejected as a provocative affront by actual “pro-Chinese” activists.
During May, Godard was personally involved in the protest movement: having already gained political experience in the campaign against Langlois’s dismissal from the cinémathèque in February, he took part in the shutdown of the Cannes Film Festival before heading to the street barricades of Paris’s Latin Quarter. While the Gaullist regime was able to reassert its power in the June elections, Godard reacted to the events as a symbolic “return to zero” for his own activity as a filmmaker, which led to a self-imposed exile from the film industry for the following decade.
Experimental works such as Le Gai Savoir, A Film Like Any Other, and British Sounds were made for television (but usually shelved by the broadcaster) or screenings in far-left circles, and before long, Godard was unambiguously identifying as a Marxist-Leninist. Turning to Maoism may seem strange from today’s standpoint, but in France it was a particularly vibrant strain of the student left, and attracted a range of intellectuals into its orbit, including Philippe Sollers, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, and even Sartre himself — who had become disillusioned with the orthodox communist movement and took inspiration from their perception of the events of the Cultural Revolution incited by Mao Zedong.
In 1969, together with the young Maoist student Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard sought to bury his auteurist aura within the collective work of the Dziga Vertov Group (or DVG, named after the silent-era Soviet filmmaker). Although his then wife (and actress in many of the films) Anne Wiazemsky later described it as the “Dziga Vertov Couple” due to Godard and Gorin’s dominant presence, the group was remarkably prolific: Pravda, Wind from the East, and Struggle in Italy were made in 1969, Vladimir and Rosa and the unfinished Until Victory in 1970, and Tout Va Bien and Letter to Jane in 1972. An audience for this work would prove to be elusive, however. Even its target public of Marxist activists tended to be resistant to the group’s formal stringency, and today these titles are among Godard’s most neglected films. This is, however, unjustified. Elements of these films are undeniably challenging, but when viewed in the context of the DVG’s overarching project, they are objects of tremendous historical value for anybody interested in developing a Marxist cinematic practice.
Godard and Gorin’s stated method consisted not of “making political films” (that is, providing dominant narrative forms with supposedly progressive content) but of “making films politically”: bourgeois ideology, they argued, had impregnated our very understanding of how images and sounds function, and so the task of a materialist filmmaker was to experiment with new ways of editing sequences (montage) in order to undo and overcome this ideological hegemony in the audiovisual sphere. While Pravda is an ostensible report on Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion and Wind from the East a subversive twist on the spaghetti western, both films contain three-part, dialectical structures that critique their initial premises and then attempt to construct an alternative model of the cinematic image. Struggle in Italy, a loose adaptation of the philosopher Louis Althusser’s essay on the “ideological state apparatus,” was the most successful of these efforts, but even here Godard and Gorin recognized the difficulty they had in communicating with the viewer through such work, and with Tout Va Bien they sought to sweeten the pill with the presence of big-name stars (Yves Montand and Jane Fonda) and a more recognizable fictional storyline involving a pair of middle-class intellectuals encountering a strike at a sausage factory.
The influence of the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s practice of injecting his plays with “distancing effects” was palpable in this film, most notably with an iconic dollhouse-style shot illustrating the class relations governing the different spaces of the factory while also exposing the illusory nature of cinematic representation itself (despite its Brechtian quality, the shot was more directly lifted from Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man).
By the time of the film’s release in May 1972, however, the frenzy of militant activism in France following 1968 had ebbed away. The funeral of Maoist militant Pierre Overney, murdered by a Renault security guard in February 1972, marked a symbolic endpoint of the movement. When Tout Va Bien did not have the commercial success they had been banking on, Godard and Gorin acrimoniously parted ways, and Godard decamped to Grenoble, where he would set up the artisanal film studio Sonimage. He had been physically weakened by a serious motorcycle accident in 1971, and the move to the provinces represented a time of physical and intellectual recovery for Godard. The political doctrines of his Marxist period were now subject to renewed interrogation, thanks in part to his relationship with Anne-Marie Miéville, who henceforth cosigned many of his films.
Throughout the 1970s, Godard still broadly adhered to the far left. But following the lead of philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, his films of the mid-1970s would focus less on grand narratives of revolutionary class struggle and more on the “micropolitics” of domestic life, sexual relations, the family, and institutions such as the school and the media. Numéro Deux is a caustic, Germaine Greer–inspired vision of modern family life, while Here and Elsewhere reworks the footage of the Palestinian liberation movement shot for the Until Victory project (which was aborted after the Black September massacre) into an essayistic autocritique on the political uses of the visual image. At the same time, Godard delivered two remarkable television series mining similar thematic terrain: Six Fois Deux/Sur et Sous la Communication (1976) and France/touor/détour/deux/enfants (1978), the inimitable nature of which led Deleuze to remark that these programs were “the sole case of someone not being duped by TV.”
In the 1980s, Godard moved further into geographical exile, shifting his residence to the Swiss village of Rolle, where he led a reclusive lifestyle until his death, frequently styling himself as the last of a dying breed of filmmakers willing to resist the dominant cinema. But he also made a return of sorts to the French film industry. While making films for commercial release, often with stars attached, his narrative style was as abstruse as ever. In this decade, the politics of his militant era seemed remote, as spiritualist concerns dominated, particularly in his most notorious film of this period, Hail Mary (1985), which was branded as blasphemous by the Catholic Church.
This was also a time when Godard became preoccupied with film history, nurturing a controversial hypothesis that the cinema had effectively died as a viable art form due to its inability to prevent the death camps during World War II. This argument informed his work on the 4.5-hour video project Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988–1998), a magnum opus that should rightly stand as one of the most consequential artworks, in any medium, of the second half of the twentieth century.
The irony of Histoire(s) is that Godard’s kaleidoscopic redeployment of historical film footage is an exemplary rebuttal to the notion that cinema was dead (a discourse that had become widespread in the 1990s), and his own career continued well into the new millennium.
Despite exuding an aura of melancholic mournfulness in the latter decades, Godard’s most recent work also contains a more strident denunciation of contemporary capitalism. Set in Sarajevo, Our Music (2004) contained a vociferous critique of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which predictably drew accusations of antisemitism (preposterous, considering the traumatic place the Holocaust occupies in Godard’s historiography of cinema), while Film Socialisme (2010) not only anticipated the resuscitation of the word “socialism” in the 2010s but also the political flash points of the decade, with the film’s tour of the Mediterranean taking in Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Spain, and even the Ukraine. Most startling, Godard’s clairvoyance extended to the cruise ship he selected as a metaphor for the depravity of the neoliberal system: the Costa Concordia, which two years later sank off the coast of Italy due to its captain’s criminal negligence.
Watch All His Films
Always a technological innovator — he was a pioneer in working with analog video in the 1970s — Godard, in the 2010s, was notable for his brashly punkish use of digital imagery at the same time as he railed against the “dictatorship of the digital.” With Goodbye to Language (2014), he turned his hand at 3D cinema, but used a homemade rig setup to produce the stereoscopic images of the film. At certain points, the image comes apart from itself, as the left eye pans across the visual field while the right eye stays immobilized. When the film premiered at Cannes, these moments gave rise to cheers from the theater. As with the jump cuts of Breathless more than half a century earlier, the audience had witnessed a groundbreaking moment in film history, a technique that had never been seen before. Well into his eighties, Godard had lost nothing of his ability to use the cinema for acts of perceptual invention.
A barometer of his time, there have been phases in his career when Godard has forthrightly identified as a Marxist and other periods when he has shied away from the label, even vocally rejected it. But socialists should nonetheless watch his films — all his films.
Although a socialist vision of an alternative to the prevailing political order only appears fitfully in Godard’s oeuvre, it is his work itself which represents a profound challenge to the commodified content churned out by the commercial film industry. His unstinting impulse to articulate novel ideas, fashion unprecedented forms, and instigate new modes of viewing is a utopian message of creative freedom, even if it sometimes seems like it is coming to us from a distant planet. His films give us a glimpse into the art of the future, one where filmmakers and spectators alike are emancipated from the stultifying rigidity of capitalist cinema. As the international network of Godardians mourns his death, we can take this legacy as our solace.