Jean-Luc Godard: 10 essential post-new wave films

Even those who know Godard’s classic early films can struggle knowing where to dive in with his later, even more radical film and video work. Here are 10 to get you started.

Craig Williams
Updated:

King Lear (1987)

King Lear (1987)

In the popular consciousness, Jean-Luc Godard is defined by the cinematic milestones he made between 1960 and 1967. But the French new wave is only one chapter in a career spent pushing cinema to its very limits. In the decades that followed, he made collectivist political works and pioneering video experiments, before returning to esoteric, postmodernist fiction films. If the nouvelle vague films are his Songs of Innocence, then the post-68 pictures constitute his Songs of Experience. These films – opaque, form-defying and bracingly innovative – are self-reflexive works of cultural criticism, concerned with the power of the moving image, as well as the artistic trajectory of the director himself.

Schick Aftershave Commercial (1971)

Godard’s decision to make a commercial for aftershave brand Schick at the very height of his Marxist period may seem like a curious one, but he did in fact direct several commercials during his career, including ones for jeans, cigarettes and electronics (as well as a trailer for Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, 1967). While the money was typically used to fund the production of new films, the commercials themselves – always innovative, often self-sabotaging – still form an integral part of his body of work, offering provocative critiques of the use of the moving image to sell products. Starring Juliet Berto, the Schick advert – involving a couple arguing while a news story about Palestine plays in the background – is a typically Godardian affair, with the unique context creating a discomfiting sense of the uncanny.

Tout va bien (1972)

Tout va bien (1972)

After declaring the end of cinema at the end of Week End (1967), Godard embraced a more experimental, revolutionary aesthetic with the Dziga Vertov Group, a Marxist filmmaking collective he formed with leftist radical Jean-Pierre Gorin. Though ostensibly the last of the group’s features, Tout va bien marks the stylistic halfway point between the collective’s Brechtian approach to political discourse and Godard’s more accessible, fiction-based work of the 1980s. Indeed, the plot, featuring a strike at a factory and a film director, shares certain similarities with Passion (1982), but, unlike the more elusive political narratives that would follow, Tout va bien is a specific reflection of the years following the events of May 68. Letter to Jane (1972), a mid-length postscript to the film, was the final Godard-Gorin collaboration, and is more in keeping with the collective’s ethos.

Numéro deux (1975)

Numéro Deux (1975)

While Anna Karina and Raoul Coutard were instrumental to Godard’s new wave work, his partner Anne-Marie Miéville is his most important collaborator. Founding the Grenoble-based production company Sonimage in 1972, the pair produced some of the greatest works of Godard’s career, including several boundary-pushing video experiments. In Numéro deux (1975), much of the narrative unfolds on two screens within the frame, anticipating the way we will consume media in the future – in fragments and with our minds fixated on what might be on the other screen. As with much of his post-nouvelle vague work, the focus on form and process is paramount, with Godard making an appearance to discuss how he made the film, likening it to factory work – “Now there are only machines. I am the boss, but I am also the worker.”

Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980)

Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980)

Co-written with Miéville and frequent Luis Buñuel’s collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, Sauve qui peut (la vie) was touted as Godard’s “second first film” (he even made an awkward appearance on The Dick Cavett Show to promote it) after focusing on more experimental cinema throughout the 1970s. With French rock star Jacques Dutronc playing a director (called Godard, naturally) in crisis, it is tempting to see the picture as a fragmentary, allusive take on the themes of Le Mépris (1963) for the post-new wave era, both critical and reflective of Godard’s artistic development during the intervening years. It is, along with Détective (1985), Godard’s best work of the 80s, and it is no coincidence that both betray a conflicted relationship with the director’s nouvelle vague milestones.

Scénario du film ‘Passion’ (1982)

Scénario du film Passion (1982)

“What is cinema, Mr Coutard?” Godard asks his unseen cinematographer in Passion. In Scénario du film ‘Passion’, a short in which he reflects on the creation of the film, he suggests that the process is as much a part of cinema as the final product. Consumed by the idea of what making a film means in the age of shifting technology, Godard posits this document of creation as the cinema of an unspecified technocratic future. These types of sketches and critiques accompanying his features were prevalent throughout the 1980s, and form a key part of Godard’s filmography, not only as illuminating insights into the work, but as dialectics on its lack of finality. They are documents of creative restlessness.

Je vous salue, Marie (1985)

Je vous salue, Marie (1985)

Writing about Une femme est une femme (1961), critic Tom Milne argued that Anna Karina’s Angéla represented the “reductio ad absurdum of femininity in her single-minded desire to have a child”. In Je vous salue, Marie, Godard offers a playful critique of his use of female representation in film, conflating it with the myth-making of the Catholic church. Godard often used mythical representations of femininity – from Carmen to Mary – to explore his own relationship with women. His representations can be reductive, reactionary and, at times, hysterical, but they still constitute a genuine struggle for understanding. As Laura Mulvey noted: “For feminist curiosity, [Godard’s cinema] is still a goldmine.” Miéville’s related short Le Livre de Marie (1985) also serves as an interesting counterpoint.

King Lear (1987)

King Lear (1987)

The production of King Lear is the stuff of legend. The contract was drafted by Cannon Films on a tablecloth in Cannes and Godard was given a budget of $1m, most of which he spent flying back-and-forth to the US on Concorde to meet with potential actors for the film (he made 70 such trips during production). Godard even offered former president Richard Nixon $500,000 to appear in a sequence with Norman Mailer (Nixon never responded). The film itself is a miracle, with Peter Sellars starring as a descendant of Shakespeare seeking to restore his work in a post-apocalyptic age of cultural amnesia. The play itself remains in the background, serving as a thematic touchstone for the picture, in particular in its treatment of the central ideas of madness and legacy.

Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98)

Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998)

Perhaps Godard’s greatest achievement, Histoire(s) du cinéma is his take on the history of film, structured as four television episodes. It’s a film about the overwhelming power of the image, the key to which is the innovative use of juxtaposition, with stock footage of modern atrocities superimposed onto key cinematic works, shifting the meaning of both in the process. Godard prompts audiences to consider the canon in light of the tumultuous history of the century and vice versa. At the heart of the film is the idea that cinema has been something akin to a failed revolution for Godard, and yet the picture features some of the most uncharacteristically passionate and moving passages in his filmography. To quote Morocco in The Merchant of Venice: “I have too grieved a heart to take a tedious leave.”

JLG/JLG — autoportrait de décembre (1995)

JLG/JLG - autoportrait de décembre (1995)

One of the key facets of Godard’s second wave films in the 80s and 90s is the physical presence of the director himself. Though his authorial voice dominates his filmography, he himself began to appear in several films during this period, usually in the form of a fool (see Prénom Carmen (1983), Soigne ta droite (1987) and King Lear), with JLG/JLG — autoportrait de décembre going a step further in explicitly presenting itself as a “self-portrait”. Constructed with the usual Godardian distancing techniques, “self-portrait” is a predictable misnomer, but the picture still offers plenty of insight for those on its wavelength. It is biography through allusion, suggesting that the artist is a product not only of the art he makes, but of that which he consumes.

Goodbye to Language (2014)

Goodbye to Language (2014)

Thematically indebted to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Goodbye to Language is Godard’s take on the creation of a monster, with the director himself in the role of the mad scientist. While he lets his creation gather intellectual and emotional traction, he imposes his own will by disrupting the audio or visual fidelity of the picture. No scene is left uninterrupted; he is a meddler par excellence, always shifting perspectives, superimposing images and, of course, deploying every pun he can think of. He is the ghost in his own machine; the fly in the ointment of his own cinema. And this is cinema as we’ve never seen it before, with the 3D proving to be an invaluable addition to his visual arsenal, challenging the very limits of its capabilities, and changing the medium itself in the process.

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