A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order: Jean-Luc Godard
One of the last living auteurs of the French New Wave cinema, Jean-Luc Godard passed away on Tuesday at the age of 91 at his home in Rolle, Switzerland. French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to the legend, and called him the “most iconoclastic of the New Wave directors” who “invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art form.”
French daily Liberation, which first reported the news, said Godard chose to end his life through assisted suicide, a practice allowed under Swiss law, citing a person close to the family as saying “it was his decision and it was important to him that people know about it,” news agency Reuters reported.
Alongside a group of fellow directors and critics including François Truffaut, Godard rewrote the rules of cinema with his unique filmmaking techniques that shaped the French New Wave. The director and writer of over a 100 films, Godard came to prominence with his 1960 film Breathless.
Godard’s film journey
Defying conventional processes of making films, Godard’s career began in the 1950s as a film critic. His association with Cahiers du Cinéma magazine and fellow critics paved the way to film direction. The directors associated with the magazine include Eric Rohmer, Andre Bazin, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette.
After critiquing films for long, Godard became so well-versed with the grammar of cinema that he challenged the distinct style of making it. The French-Swiss director once said that you can make a film with ‘a girl and a gun,’ which he proved right with his 1960s feature debut, Breathless. Along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), Godard’s Breathless set the unique tone for French cinema aesthetics.
À bout de souffle, well known by its English name, Breathless, is a crime drama featuring actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, written by François Truffaut. Godard collaborated with Belmondo on several occasions. The film brought international acclaim to the newly-invented French New Wave techniques. With an unconventional editing style, multiple jump cuts and ‘character asides’, Breathless became one of the most important films of the French New Wave.
After Breathless, Godard directed Vivre sa vie (1962), Le petit soldat (1963), Les Carabiniers (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Week-end (1967). His career can be distinguishably divided into two phases, one where he made conventional films with unconventional techniques, and the other when he made political films.
Godard switched to directing films filled with Leftist, anti-war politics through the 1970s. His most significant collaborator was Jean-Pierre Gorin, a Maoist student. Together they made Tout va bien (1972), a French-Italian political drama film, starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand.
Later on, Goddard also worked with Ugo Gregoretti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini on the Italian movie Let’s Have a Brainwash, with Godard’s scenes portraying a disturbing post-apocalypse world. Godard’s The Little Soldier stirred controversy as the film was filled with references to France’s colonial war in Algeria. It was not allowed to be released until 1963, a year after the conflict ended.
After the 1980s, Godard came back to more traditional fictional films. His filmmaking didn’t change till the last years of his career in 2018. His most recent works included Goodbye to Language (2014) and The Image Book (2018).
French New Wave
Breaking away from the traditional style of making films and seeking inspiration from Italian Neorealism, a bunch of French critic-turned-directors shaped the future of cinema during the late 1950s. The agitation by the bunch to involve new techniques in filmmaking gave birth to an art film movement called La Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave.
Jean-Luc Godard was one of the important figures of the New Wave cinema. He, along with Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol, constituted the right bank of the New Wave. Meanwhile, the left bank filmmakers included Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Chris Marker. The co-founder of Cahiers magazine, André Bazin, was a prominent source of influence for the film movement.
The idea of the wave was based on ‘auteur theory’ in which the director is like an author and the camera his pen. The wave, with its unconventional approach to sex, violence, anti-war politics, and explorations of the counter-culture, introduced new techniques in film-making.
Both Godard’s film and the French New Wave complemented each other perfectly. The subtle playfulness of the ‘content’ and ‘form’ made his films unique.
Jean-Luc Godard is recognised as the one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema. The films made by him during the French New Wave have inspired filmmakers from across the globe to invent and experiment with new techniques. One of them is Quentin Tarantino, the director of popular cult films such as Pulp Fiction (1994) and Reservoir Dogs (1992), who took up the task initiated by Godard. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) also portrays some glimpses of Godard’s technique of filming.
Godard’s films have won him several awards including the Golden Lion, Golden Bear, Honorary Academy Award and Honorary César.
However, Godard was not appreciated by everyone; one of his sharpest critics included late Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. According to the Bergman Foundation’s website, he once said, “I’ve never gotten anything out of (Godard’s) movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring.”