10 great films that influenced Jean-Luc Godard

Godard was one of the first great magpies of film history, borrowing and stealing from other movies in order to forge his own revolutionary kind of cinema. These are 10 films that fired him up.

17 December 2015

By Patrick Gamble

Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang, Jack Palance and Jean-Luc Godard in production on Le Mépris (1963)
It’s very good to steal things. Bertolt Brecht said art is made from plagiarism. Jean-Luc Godard

Beginning his career as a film critic Jean-Luc Godard brought a vast knowledge of cinema to his films and revelled in opportunities to display diverse cinematic influences in both his work and his writing. When he first began to make films, Godard looked at the history of cinema as a toolbox in which to mould his own distinctive style; his early work often described as an intertextual deconstruction of popular American genre films.

Godard’s debut, Breathless (1960), is a treasure trove of cinematic references, from name-dropping Bob le flambeur’s Bob Montagne, to star Jean-Paul Belmondo’s loving homage to Humphrey Bogart. Throughout his early-cinematic period, from Breathless, through to Week End (1967), mischievous references like these would be ever-present in his work.

As the years passed it became increasingly harder to pinpoint Godard’s influences as he famously rejected cinema and looked further afield for inspiration, embracing a whole range of political, philosophical and theoretical ideas. This departure, often referred to as Godard’s revolutionary period, saw a noticeable evolution in his filmmaking, with films such as Tout va bien (1972) formulated around Maoist theory and Godard’s growing interest in the class struggle. Godard’s return to traditional fiction in the 1980s, marked by the release of Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), would be followed by a deeper exploration into the relationship between film and history, displayed best in his iconoclastic, eight-part video project Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). This article aims to give a taste of the films that influence the ever-evolving style of cinema’s most radical and innovative director.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Director: Dziga Vertov

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

It’s difficult to pinpoint the films that influenced Godard’s later work, as he began distancing himself from the medium and focused instead on philosophy and Marxist theory. However, in 1968, when Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin gathered a small group of Maoists to form the Dziga Vertov Group, the influence behind their politically active collective was easier to isolate.

At the time, Gorin recalled: “The name of the group was originally a joke, but at the same time it was, of course, a political act in aesthetics.” Godard and Gorin felt Vertov’s aesthetics were more revolutionary than Sergei Eisenstein’s, believing narrative, character development and dramatic realism were all ideologically suspect. Gorin stated: “We adopted the name of Vertov after careful thought. We didn’t want the vulgarity of narrative. If there are characters, it’s bourgeois.” Vertov’s aesthetics helped shape the socialist-idealist shorts the group would create in the late 60s and influence Godard’s proactive participation in the class struggle.

Orphée (1950)

Director: Jean Cocteau

Orphée (1950)

There is a rumour that when Godard first arrived in Paris he proclaimed: “I shall be the Cocteau of the new generation.” Whether this was true or not, there’s plenty of evidence in Godard’s writing and interviews where he acknowledges his deep respect for Jean Cocteau. Photos of Cocteau at different stages of his career can be spotted throughout King Lear, although the best place to find this influence is in Alphaville (1965).

Godard, inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), had initially wanted to make an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, however he would eventually filter various elements of genre cinema to create a film far more aligned to Orphée, Cocteau’s updating of the myth of Orpheus. Lemmy Caution’s search for Harry Dickson in Alphaville parallels Orphée’s search for Cégeste in Cocteau’s film, with the use of poetry by both protagonists to vanquish their foes aligning both director’s intelligent blend of social critique and their shared belief in the capacity of art to incite change.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Director: Nicholas Ray

Johnny Guitar (1954)

In the 50s, the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma turned their gaze upon Hollywood, with Nicholas Ray an undeniably important influence on the French new wave. Godard famously wrote in a review of Ray’s Bitter Victory (1957), “Cinema is Nicholas Ray”, a statement that epitomised both his admiration of a certain type of maverick American filmmaker, as well as his disdain for a nation unable to recognise its artistic greats.

Ray’s influence, although evident in Godard’s writing, is difficult to isolate in his films. However, there are numerous references to his work. In Le Mépris (1963), Michel Piccoli’s character claims to have written Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956), and in Pierrot le fou (1965) Belmondo’s character allows his maid go and watch Johnny Guitar for the third time because “she must educate herself”. It could be argued that Godard’s abrupt editing style is where Ray’s influence is best observed, an argument supported by Godard’s dedication of Made in U.S.A. (1966) to both Ray and Samuel Fuller, who “taught me respect for image and sound”.

Voyage to Italy (1954)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Voyage to Italy (1954)

Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy was greatly admired by the writers of Cahiers du Cinéma, lauding its ability to unite cinematic classicism with the confessional authenticity of documentary filmmaking. Godard was particularly impressed by the film’s intimate style, proclaiming: “Once I had seen Journey to Italy, I knew that, even if I were never to make movies, I could make them.” 

Godard and Rossellini had a tempestuous relationship and they disagreed on several major issues. Rossellini was reportedly hostile towards cinephilia, with Godard once stating: “I love the cinema. Rossellini no longer loves it, he is detached from it.” However Rossellini’s influence remained a factor in Godard’s work throughout the 60s, especially on his fifth feature, Les Carabiniers (1963), based on the play I carabinieri by Italian playwright Beniamino Joppolo. Rossellini had staged a version of the play in 1962 but faced hostile reviews and complaints by the actual carabinieri, Italy’s military police force. According to Rossellini’s biographer, screenwriter Jean Gruault recorded a tape of Rossellini narrating the play’s story and passed it on to Godard. This, however, would be the extent of Rossellini’s input.

Street of Shame (1956)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Street of Shame (1956)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s restrained long takes bear little similarity to the lively editing and unpredictable narrative jumps of Godard’s better-known work. Despite their stylistic differences both were drawn to similar subject matters, making films that were political and often drawn to the plight of women. The French critic Jean Douchet once stated: “Vivre sa vie would have been impossible without Street of Shame, Mizoguchi’s last and most sublime film.”

Mizoguchi used film to create atmosphere and feeling, giving the viewer a portal into the meaning of the film itself. It’s this transformation of style into substance that appealed to Godard stylistically. Mizoguchi’s preference for crane shots during scenes of violence gave the camera a haunting presence, allowing the audience to observe from a distance, bearing witness to the mechanical cruelty of the on-screen inhumanity. Mizoguchi’s style allowed Godard to impose Bertolt Brecht’s distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt) with tremendous effect, most notably in Week End’s famous traffic jam scene, a seven-minute tracking shot intended to jolt the passive viewer into a confrontation with the brutality of consumer society.

Forty Guns (1957)

Director: Samuel Fuller

Forty Guns (1957)

During a party scene in Pierrot le fou, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character asks Sam Fuller (playing himself): “What is cinema?” He answers: “Film is like a battleground: love, hate, action, death… In one word, emotion.” Fuller’s response apparently brought tears to Godard’s eyes. Fuller, who not only directed but wrote and produced his own films (the complete auteur) and was another of the American directors Godard championed in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, admiring the director’s brutal, political and pessimistic filmmaking.

Godard approved of Fuller’s raw cinematic style, his sharp dialogue, probing close-ups and inventiveness within the limitations of genre cinema – a clear influence on his early work, Godard would appropriate the rifle-framing of Eve Brent in Forty Guns in Breathless. Fuller’s, brusque yet intelligent approach to genre cinema would become the artistic stepping-stone between the type of American cinema the new wave admired and the postmodern filmmaking approach Godard would later develop.

Pickpocket (1959)

Director: Robert Bresson

Pickpocket (1959)
I would surely like to be moved now as much as I had been moved by Pickpocket. One thought: ah, such a thing can be done! Jean-Luc Godard

In his top-10 list for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1959, Godard cited Pickpocket – filmed on the streets of Paris at the same time he shot Breathless – as the best film of the year. Despite Bresson’s spiritual cinema being theologically opposed to Godard’s secular beliefs, his influence on Godard was profound and enduring, asking similarly deep and spiritually probing questions about politics and society.

Although Godard is quoted as stating Pickpocket was the main inspiration for Le Petit Soldat (1960), Bresson’s influence is perhaps best observed in Vivre sa vie (1962). Godard’s tragic portrait of a life told in 12 scenes set out to show rather than explain the plight of its young Parisian protagonist, trimming away all superfluous narrative and leaving the audience with 12 fragments of a larger story. This attempt at cinematic ‘objectivity’ is not dissimilar to Pickpocket, in which Bresson’s austere storytelling only shows what is necessary to gain an ‘objective’ perspective of the film’s story.

Life, and Nothing More… (1992)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Life, and Nothing More... (1992)

Of Abbas Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More…, Godard famously said: “Film begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” He would grow to regret this remark as he distanced himself from cinema, often critical of the Iranian director in interviews. However, there are elements of Kiarostami’s earlier work that clearly shaped Godard’s later period, in particular his 2004 poetic essay film Notre musique. Kiarostami’s film forces the audience to explore the line between fact and fiction, with the use of both of documentary and docu-drama, and thus questions the position of the auteur by inserting a fictional character as a stand-in for himself.

An important influence on Godard was Bazin’s 1945 essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, with his notion that all filmed images are, by definition, filmed reality, informing much of Godard’s oeuvre. It would become a richer inspiration on the juxtaposition of nonfiction and fiction in his late work, and goes so way to explaining his high praise for Life, and Nothing More…

Schindler’s List (1993)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Schindler's List (1993)

In 1967, Week End’s enigmatic and audacious end-title sequence announced the “End of Cinema”, marking not just an end to the narrative and cinematic period in Godard’s career but his rejection of the industry as a whole. It’s difficult to pinpoint the influences of his more avant-garde work, yet one well-publicised stimulus on his films was his ire for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

When the New York Film Critics’ Circle wished to honour Godard in 1995 he refused, sending back a list of nine aspects of American cinema that he had been unable to influence. Top of the list was the failure “to prevent Mr Spielberg from reconstructing Auschwitz”. The failure of cinema to prevent or record the concentration camps had been a major preoccupation of Godard and one of the major themes of Histoire(s) du cinema and Eloge de l’amour (2001). Godard found the reconstruction of the concentration camps for the sake of storytelling an obscenity and strived to correct this with his work.

From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses (2014)

Director: Rüdiger Suchsland

From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses (2014)

A slight cheat, but a little subterfuge feels in keeping within a list about one of cinema’s great provocateurs. There’s a strong probability Godard hasn’t seen Rüdiger Suchsland’s 2014 adaptation of the celebrated sociologist Siegfried Kracauer’s influential book From Caligari to Hitler, yet its source material is central to Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) and key to understanding Godard’s fascination with the interaction between cinema and history.

Part narrative, part essay film about German history and politics, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero – Godard’s loose sequel to Alphaville – looks to draw parallels between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Weimar-era Germany. In the film’s final act, ‘The Decline of the West’, Godard inserts clips from Weimar-era cinema. The shots from Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) point to Kracauer’s book, which linked expressionist cinema to the rise of the Nazi regime. Godard doesn’t replicate Kracauer’s analysis entirely, but instead uses films of the 1920s to understand the uncertain situation of Germany after the fall of the Wall, comparing the anxieties of the Weimar era with the effect of western capitalism in the former east. The notion that cinema haunts the peripheries of our collective history, silently documenting and foreboding our lives is a theme that would be prevalent throughout Godard’s later work.

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