Jean-Luc Godard obituary: a filmmaker of seismic impact and influence

Godard, who has died aged 91, was the legendary French New Wave director who dared film culture to keep up with his dazzling, era-defining reinventions of the medium.

Jean-Luc Godard at the Cannes Film Festival with Éloge de l’amour in 2001Pool Benainous/Duclos/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

With the death of Jean-Luc Godard, we have lost the last remaining member of the New Wave, the best-known French director and one of the most influential and controversial of all filmmakers. The impact of his films, at the time and subsequently, the length and variety of his career (more than 100 films as director), his acerbic wit and penchant for aphorisms, his highly recognisable voice with his slow delivery and slight Swiss accent, the visibility of his well-cultivated image, with the ubiquitous dark glasses and cigarette, were extraordinary. As well as an iconoclastic film critic and director, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Godard was also a legend.

Godard was born in Paris to an affluent protestant family from Switzerland, where he spent his childhood. Sent to Paris after the war, he soon turned his back on his milieu, abandoned his studies and hooked up with the budding cinephile scene – occasionally stealing from wealthy relatives (and friends) to support himself. As a young film critic, he joined the so-called ‘Young Turks’, including François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, clustered around their mentor, the film critic André Bazin, and writing for the magazines La Gazette du cinéma, Arts and especially Cahiers du cinéma.

Breathless (1960)

Fed on a diet of American films shown at the Cinémathèque Française, and choice European works by, among others, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini and Ingmar Bergman, they elaborated the ‘politique des auteurs’, claiming the director as an artist with a singular vision. The novelty of their approach was to confer the title of auteur – after all obvious for people like Renoir – on filmmakers working in the Hollywood studio system: they perceived thematic and stylistic continuities in the work of genre filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray, erecting a new cinematic pantheon, in which idiosyncratic figures like Frank Tashlin also appeared. But while Godard, like Truffaut, enjoyed sparking off debate with often virulent articles on new releases, praising Hitchcock’s “exhibition of his own tricks” or the interdependence of editing and mise-en-scène, what he really wanted to do was make films.

Compared to his New Wave companions, Godard came relatively late to filmmaking. However, after a stint for Swiss television and a few shorts films, his first feature, Breathless, released in March 1960, was a sensation. Widely considered a landmark in postwar cinematic modernity, the film is an exhilarating Parisian riff on Hollywood film noir. The ‘breathless’ tempo of the hero on the run, memorably played by Jean-Paul Belmondo (instantly projected into stardom), is echoed by the jagged editing, often wrongly reduced to the famous jump cuts. The poster for the film, featuring Belmondo and co-star Jean Seberg on the Champs-Elysées, became one of the most iconic images of cinematic Parisian cool. 

Pierrot le fou (1965)

There followed the first, and for many the most successful, important and pleasurable phase of Godard’s career, often termed the ‘Karina years’, from the name of his leading star, muse and wife, Anna Karina. The Danish-born actress stars in Une femme est une femme (1961), Vivre sa vie (1962), Le Petit Soldat (1963), Bande à part (1964), Alphaville (1965) and Pierrot le fou (1965). While borrowing variously from the musical, sociological drama, Algerian war film and science-fiction, the films share the New Wave features of location shooting, spontaneity and innovative camerawork, as well as a touching and desperate romanticism, making Godard’s films of that period both ‘intellectual’ and lyrical. 

2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (1967) poster. René Ferracci, FranceFrench New Wave Collection

Godard’s 1960s work evidences three characteristic trends. One chronicles the modernisation (read Americanisation) of France and how this affects both the urban environment and human relationships – as in Une femme mariée (1964), 2 or 3 I Know About Her (1966) and Masculin-Féminin (1966). Another offers a gallery of seductive, yet ambivalent portraits of women, offering a penetrating analysis of their oppression under patriarchy and at the same time deploying gendered stereotypes (as in his recourse to the figure of the prostitute) – being thus both critical and complicit with the ambient misogyny. A third trend, as in Vivre sa vie, where Karina weeps at a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), celebrates the director’s love of the cinema. 

The high point of this cinephile phase, although without Karina (she and Godard divorced after three years in 1964), is perhaps Le Mépris (1963), a film which also marks his growing preoccupation with ‘the end of cinema’. Deemed “the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe” within the pages of Sight and Sound by film scholar Colin McCabe, Le Mépris stages a dramatic encounter between a popular star (Brigitte Bardot), a master of classical cinema (Fritz Lang), a bombastic American producer (Jack Palance) and a would-be scriptwriter/Godard alter-ego (Michel Piccoli) – against the background of the Cinecittà studios in Rome in the first half of the film and then the stunning Villa Malaparte in Capri. Lamenting the death of the medium (in his most beautiful film) of course did not prevent Godard from working with sounds and images for another five decades.

Le Mépris (1963)

Prolonging his sociological vein, La Chinoise (1967), starring his second wife Anne Wiazemsky (they were married from 1967 to 1970), and Week End (1967) in many ways heralded the cultural and political upheaval of May 1968 and opened the filmmaker’s militant and most divisive phase, sometimes termed his ‘Mao years’. The next decade would chart Godard’s radicalisation, his anti-capitalist and anti-American positions echoed by the avant-garde form of his films, contrasting with his New Wave colleagues who at that point largely turned to more formally conventional filmmaking. This took the shape of ‘cinétracts’, collective films and documentaries about social struggles, sometimes produced by and for television, and militant action: supporting the threatened head of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois, in spring 1968, and helping to close down that year’s Cannes festival. 

Wind from the East (1970)

Equally radically, Godard undermined the notion of authorship he had helped put in place by merging his identity with that of Jean-Pierre Gorin in the Dziga-Vertov group, producing among others Wind from the East (1970). This radical phase was one of fading popularity and increasing marginalisation; he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and broke up with many friends (including, explosively, Truffaut) and with Wiazemsky.

Although he would continue, in one of his best-known phrases, to “make films politically” rather than “make political films”, he tried to turn to more accessible militant cinema, with Tout va bien (1972), starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand as a journalist and a commercials filmmaker kidnapped by striking workers, which the French critic Jacques Mandelbaum memorably dubbed “the death certificate of leftism in France”. Godard also began experimenting with video and television, notably with Numéro deux (1974) and the series France tour détour deux enfants (1977-78). If these all had a major impact on scholarship on Godard and French cinema, their mark with audiences either on television or in film theatres was more modest.

Scénario du film 'Passion' (1982)

Once more demonstrating his ability to reinvent himself, in the 1980s and 1990s Godard made a much discussed ‘return to the cinema’ with another high-profile string of films, several of them featuring major stars with whom he entertained ambivalent relationships at best. These included, after several aborted US projects, Every Man for Himself (1980, with Isabelle Huppert), Passion (1982, with Hanna Schygulla), Prénom Carmen (1983), Je vous salue Marie (1985), Détective (1985, with Johnny Hallyday and Nathalie Baye), Nouvelle Vague (1990, with Alain Delon) and Hélas pour moi (1993, with Gérard Depardieu). However, these films’ increasingly austere and demanding deconstruction of conventional narrative and exploration of the dichotomy between sound and image unsurprisingly led to mediocre box-office and some critical hostility, despite the starry casts. They did however illustrate Godard’s insightful reflection on his own practice, culminating in the strongly autobiographical JLG/JLG, Portrait de décembre (1995).  

Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98)

This period of Godard’s life and work was dominated by two things. One was the lengthy making of Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998), a monumental, eight-part, immensely rich and highly edited documentary conceived, in Godard’s words, as “an ultrasound scan of history through the cinema”. The other was the growing importance of his personal and professional collaboration with the filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, which began in the early 1970s. She worked as writer, editor, photographer and producer on a number of his films, while making her own, the couple having permanently moved to the Swiss town of Rolle in 1977. 

Godard in the 21st century continued to address history and politics, whether traces of the Holocaust and Americanisation, as in Éloge de l’amour (2001), which alternates between sumptuous black-and-white film and digital images in colour, and European conflicts, especially in the former Yugoslavia in Notre musique (2004) and other Mediterranean countries in Film Socialisme (2010). Thus while he ‘retreated’ to the tranquil shores of Lake Geneva, Godard was still fully in touch with the violent events of his time.

Film socialisme (2010)

Ever since Breathless, in which, as the historian Georges Sadoul put it, he “consigned all the existing grammatical and syntactical rules of the cinema to the dust-heap”, Godard has exerted an immense influence over the cinema and over the way we watch and write about the cinema, which he famously defined as “truth 24 times a second”. He has been called an enfant terrible and a superauteur, worshipped and detested probably in equal measure. Over the years, his films received many awards and he himself has been honoured – among others an honorary César in 1998, an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in 2006, an honorary Oscar in 2011 (typically controversial on account of Godard’s pro-Palestinian views, The New York Times called him “that most deeply confounding of European filmmakers”), more recently a special Golden Palm at Cannes for The Image Book (2018).

Perhaps the best tribute to Godard, paradoxically, is his failure to show up at the end of Agnès Varda’s Faces, Places (2017). Irritating at the time, his absence now seems premonitory and particularly poignant.

  • Jean-Luc Godard, 3 September 1930 to 13 September 2022
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