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13 September 2022

How Jean-Luc Godard changed cinema

The pioneering French New Wave director has died at the age of 91. It is impossible to overestimate the breadth, originality and impact of his work.

By Ryan Gilbey

At the end of her 2017 documentary Faces Places, the late Agnès Varda, then aged 89, calls at the Swiss home of her nouvelle vague peer Jean-Luc Godard for a pre-arranged appointment. The whole film has been leading up to this moment, which carries so much baggage: Varda had a difficult history with Godard (was there ever any other sort?), whom she directed in her 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7. When she arrives at Godard’s home, there is no reply, just a note to say he is out. She is tearful and angry. (She later called him “a dirty rat”, and said she believes he was home all along.) In his disdainful absence, though, he has turned someone else’s experience into a kind of “Waiting for Godard”. It feels as if he did that a lot: in his vicious falling-out with his friend and fellow French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut, or the stretches when he disengaged with narrative cinema, turning his back on the form that had won him so many admirers.

Now he really is gone, dead today, 13 September, at the age of 91. It is impossible to overestimate the breadth, originality and impact of his work, or the uncompromising intensity of its political discourse. His revolutionary 1960 debut, À bout de souffle (Breathless), filtered the Hollywood gangster movie through his provocative sensibility, its jump cuts electrifying film grammar (though they only came about because he had to somehow hack the picture down from around 150 minutes to the required 90). And I’m still taken aback by his leaps from the joy and innocence of Breathless to the operatic, lacerating pain of Le Mépris (Contempt) of 1963, with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli falling apart on Capri, Italy, and the savagery of the anti-capitalist Weekend (1967), notorious for its seven-minute-plus tracking shot along an increasingly surreal and violent traffic jam.

This was all in the space of seven years, with so many other groundbreaking pictures in between, including Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), La Chinoise (also 1967), the innovative science-fiction detective thriller Alphaville (1965), and Pierrot le Fou (also 1965), a lovers-on-the-run caper that resembles a more jaded Breathless.

Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier), his first movie with Anna Karina – who was directed by Godard on eight occasions before, during and after their brief marriage – addressed death squads in the Algerian War. Made in 1960, it was not released in France for another three years. Une Femme est une Femme (1961, A Woman Is a Woman) was light and vibrant, Vivre sa vie (1962) a deeply plangent character study, both revealing new complexities in Karina. In 2001 she called him “fun but tough”, and said: “It was much easier to work with other directors after you’d worked with Jean-Luc.” One problem was the dialogue, which he would often change or complete only at the last moment, calling out lines for the cast to parrot while the cameras were rolling.

Jean-Luc Godard on the set of “Le Mépris”. Photo by Jean-Louis SWINERS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

When people say they love Godard, it is this astonishing batch of films from the 1960s that they are really referring to, all shot by the cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Aside from Tout va bien (1972), starring Jane Fonda, which again expressed societal collapse in the form of a protracted and coolly robotic tracking shot, the 1970s was a bit of a wilderness period, at least for fans of his pre-1968 work. He achieved traction again in the 1980s, with narrative-oriented movies such as Every Man for Himself and Hail Mary, about a modern-day immaculate conception. The 21st-century comeback years, if so crude a term can be used about a director who could never be accused of currying favour with anyone, included Goodbye to Language, a 3D mixture of essay and fiction that won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2014.

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The list of filmmakers whose work would have been markedly different without his influence is long and esteemed: Chantal Akerman, Pedro Almodóvar, Wes Anderson, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfonso Cuarón, Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, Claire Denis, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino. All were shaped by him. After seeing Pierrot le Fou, Akerman “felt like it was talking to me. It was poetry… I walked out of the cinema thinking, ‘I want to make films, too.’”

Some have paid direct homage to him on screen. De Palma (who once said, “If I could be the American Godard, that would be great”) did so most obviously in the confrontational political comedy of Hi, Mom! (1970). So too did Hartley and Tarantino in Simple Men (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) respectively, both of which borrow from the café dance in Godard’s 1964 film Bande à part. (In his days as a jobbing actor, Tarantino supposedly added Godard’s 1987 King Lear – which starred Woody Allen – to the credits on his CV, figuring correctly that no one would have seen it anyway.)

What is often overlooked in the race to mimic Godard is that he rarely let his audiences have their pleasures unadulterated. The breeziness of that dance scene is undercut by narration referring to what the characters are thinking or feeling, a device later borrowed by Cuarón in Y tu mamá también (2021). It is also usually forgotten that the tracking shot in Weekend is interrupted repeatedly by title cards. In other words, Godard could either have courted the audience’s admiration by showing the virtuoso sequence in one go, or made his life easier by shooting it in sections, knowing it would be broken up on screen anyway. Doing it the easy way was never the point.

Weekend closes with a title card: “End of film/End of cinema.” In dying, Godard doesn’t quite take the art form with him into oblivion, though there is no doubt that postwar cinema has lost one of its most irascible, penetrating and radical architects. Not perfect, sometimes not even palatable. But – shall we just admit it? – the coolest by a country mile.

[See also: “Official Competition” review – Antonio Banderas and the art of self-parody]

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