To lovers of European cinema, the late, great Jean-Luc Godard will always be a name to be revered. His place in the history of French, and indeed world, cinema culture is assured because of who he was, and because, well, he was there at the right time.
The bare facts of the legend are reasonably well known. Godard was around in the 1950s and 1960s, and hung out with fellow future filmmakers Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, all of whom went to Henri Langlois’ legendary cinema and unofficial film culture centre The Cinematheque in Paris.
Godard and Truffaut became daring and innovative film writers. They were also critics with the journal Cahiers Du Cinema, in the pages of which they lionised Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford and generally banged on about the “auteur theory”, which stressed the singularity of one person’s vision, which they felt was essential to understand an artist’s oeuvre.
No matter that auteur theory, with its artistic individualism, relies on doing a certain violence to the process of filmmaking, which is by its nature collaborative. But without auteur theory and its flag bearers, we would not have those classic black and white ‘60s French films that we have come to refer to collectively as the “Nouvelle Vague” or “New Wave”.
It has to be said that some of these films, and even some of the directors, were of uneven quality. Godard himself was a sometimes willful artist who delights in not following the “rules”, but who also sometimes fails to give the audience a secure point of entry. Some of this can be put down to his appropriation of Bertolt Brecht’s notion of intentional alienation, but some of it just seems like the triumph of style over content.
Godard was also, at least in his most celebrated period, very much a child of the sixties. Being French, he inherited a tradition where politics was not only just wholly present in art but was also the stuff of everyday intense cafe conversation. This was Godard’s communist or, more accurately, Maoist period – long before history forced us to see Mao (and his version of communism) in a rather different light.
Godard, like many artists, loved to provoke (something he shared, for example, with Spain’s Luis Bunuel), and in Maoist dogma he found something that he knew would get up the noses of almost all of his non-pre-committed audiences. Thus we had a considerable collection of his ‘60s films (1966’s Masculin, Feminin, 1967’s La Chinoise, 1968’s One Plus One) where people basically sit around lecturing us in versions of Maoism 101.
Having said all that, Godard also had an unmistakable grasp of sheer style and a sure sense of how to enlarge the vocabulary of cinema, while his best films have a manic energy which is hard to resist. His legend is not harmed by the fact that he is eminently quotable (“Cinema is truth at 24 frames per second”; “Every edit is a lie” and so on). In the 1990s, Godard constructed a huge and rarely seen documentary series with Histoire Du Cinema, which will undoubtedly form part of his testament. Despite, or perhaps because, of his faults, Godard will remain an indispensable part of the history of the moving image.
JEAN-LUC GODARD’S BEST
A perfect mix of romance and film noir, this groundbreaker was influenced by 1950s American detective films. The young Jean-Paul Belmondo – with a cigarette permanently drooping from his lips – plays a young thief with great charisma and flair, while Jean Seberg’s blonde, boyish look started a whole fashion in itself.
VIVRE SA VIE (1962)
Godard’s one-time wife – the stunning Anna Karina – plays Nana, who wanders aimlessly around Paris looking for a new life after freeing herself from her possessive husband. Ironically, she eventually gets drawn into prostitution, which is another form of possession.
BANDE A PART (1964)
This focuses on the beautiful Odile (Anna Karina), a student who teams up with her classmate Franz (Sami Frey) and his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur) to plan a robbery. As with Breathless, American detective-style poses are once again much in evidence.
Alphaville is a deliberate collision of genres, with sci-fi and the detective story at the forefront. Given Godard’s Maoist leanings, the setting of a fictional state which aims to suppress love and self-expression is a little ironic, but there’s no denying the film’s visual and aural originality.
HAIL MARY (1985)
This reworking of the Bible myth shows that even in his later period, Godard had lost none of his ability to shock and question. The controversial film also shows the director at his most poetic and sensual, and ultimately tells us quite a lot about how today’s society would have difficulty accepting the very behaviours that the stories in the Bible speak of.