There can be only so many “greatest living filmmakers” roaming the Earth at once. With the death of French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, the world has lost one of the greatest of all time, an artist who moved the boundaries of what a camera could do, whose prickly wit and defiant radical politics electrified moviegoers in the 1960s and continue to inspire succeeding generations. He was both irritant and innovator, a filmmaker whose work and persona weren’t always easy to like—and still, there have been few directors so worthy of passionate defense. He was big in the biggest way. There was only one Jean-Luc Godard; more than that and the universe would have exploded.
Godard, who died on Sept. 13 at age 91, began his career with the movie equivalent of a cannon shot: Breathless, his 1959 feature debut, took the conceits of classic American gangster films and intensified them, magnified them, wrought them into a form, and a work, both playful and devastating. Breathless also helped give birth to a movement, the French New Wave: along with his counterparts François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Agnès Varda, to name just several, Godard set a new standard for what cinema could be. You could take complete fiction and set it ablaze with the immediacy of documentary filmmaking. You could juxtapose an enigmatic philosophical or political slogan with an image that would jumpstart new thoughts. You could present an everyday moment—the stirring of coffee in a cup, a woman’s pausing to survey herself in the mirror—as both quotidian and life-altering. Across roughly six decades, Godard’s films did all that and more.
That said, if you were to start with Godard in the middle of his career, or almost anytime after 1967, you’d likely find yourself lost. He always sought to express his political leanings through artistic expression, but his ideas could emerge in murky ways. Godard clung to Maoist ideologies, trendy among French intellectuals of the 1960s, long after their sell-by date, and strains of anti-Semitism often leaked through, and soured, his later works. Films like 1983’s First Name: Carmen (written by Anne-Marie Miéville, a filmmaker in her own right and Godard’s longtime partner), a loose, modernized version of Bizet’s Carmen, or the 2004 Notre Musique, an exploration of violence and morality blending fiction and borrowed documentary footage, could befuddle if you weren’t already hip to Godard’s filmmaking language, or even if you were.
But if Godard had given us nothing more than the films he made between 1959 and 1967—a stretch that began with Breathless and ended with the end-of-civilization road-trip satire Weekend—he would still be leaving us with an incomparable treasure, a mini body of work so rich and provocative that no filmmaker has since replicated it, and it’s doubtful anyone ever will. In Breathless, he told the story of a sensitive cad-slash-hero (Jean-Paul Belmondo) undone by a gamine femme fatale in capri pants and ballet flats (Jean Seberg), in a style as brash and as inexplicable as a sunburst. The jump cut—an editing technique that essentially creates a blip in time—has become so standard that we don’t think twice when we see one. But Godard’s use of the device in Breathless must have made those first audiences feel as if their brains had been hotwired and highjacked by a brilliant thief.
Once he got started, Godard couldn’t stop: His Vivre Sa Vie (1962)—starring his muse and collaborator Anna Karina, also his first wife—is an emotionally and structurally complex portrait of a woman who leaves her family to become an actress, only to segue into prostitution. In Contempt (1963), he used one of cinema’s most enduring emblems of desirability, Brigitte Bardot, to explore, among other things, the death of love and desire. The picture, shot largely on the island of Capri by Godard’s frequent cinematographer Raoul Coutard, is gorgeous to look at, a symphony of Mediterranean yellows and blues; its pure beauty is part of what makes it so shattering. The 1965 Pierrot Le Fou features Karina and Belmondo as a runaway couple on a crime spree; it ends with one of the most unforgettable images in all of cinema, a tragicomic metaphor for the eternal futility of just trying to live. And with Masculine Feminine (1965), Godard traced the wriggly, intersecting contours of love, sex, politics and pop culture among young people in Paris through the faces of two performers, Jean-Pierre Léaud, the perpetually youthful face of the New Wave, and kittenish pop singer Chantal Goya. The film is structured in 15 chapters that glide by as effortlessly as a pop song, though it also feels combustible, presaging a revolution already in progress and destined soon to explode.
Godard made 15 feature films between 1959 and 1967, many of which are the ones we think of first in any survey of his work. But his later years did yield one near-masterpiece. Shot in 3D—Godard used the technology more innovatively than almost any other modern-day practitioner—the meditative collage Goodbye to Language, from 2014, reflects on the purpose, and the possible erosion, of human language. It’s filled with declarative sentences that sometimes lecture, in that sometimes exhausting Godardian way, but often only tease: “Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming out of their own mouths.” These declarations are often accompanied by Maxfield Parrish-vivid images of landscapes and flowers. A man and a woman (Héloise Godet and Kamel Abdeli, a dead ringer for Serge Gainsbourg) discuss the elusive nature of equality; some of these pronouncements are made while the guy sits on the can. Godard’s own dog, Roxy Miéville, appears in the film and becomes its star: in one highly dramatic scene, he goes to a stream for a drink. “Animals are not naked, because they are naked,” is the maxim Godard asks us to ponder here. There are flashes of despair in Goodbye to Language, driven, perhaps, by a filmmaker’s feelings that he may be losing his sense of the world. But the film ultimately comes down on the side of joy, perhaps because not even Godard, notoriously curmudgeonly, can fail to find joy in the face of a dog.
Then again, even if we think we’ve grasped what this or any other Godard film means, we’re surely mistaken. To feel inadequate in the face of a Jean-Luc Godard film marks us as human. If he has sometimes been maddeningly obtuse in a superior, condescending manner, he has also been great in a way that makes us reach out, asking Why? and How? To continue to draw from art, we need to keep faith in our own humility.
It’s also worth noting that, according to biographer Richard Brody, the avowedly anti-capitalist Godard made two commercials for Nike in the early 1990s. They never aired, but the fact that Godard took on the challenge—and was presumably paid—only enhances the mercurial and mischievous qualities of his character. Are the artists we love best always trustworthy? Godard, both awe-inspiring and aggravating—and, reportedly, often unpleasant as a person—is your answer. But then, what do we mean by trust? It’s a notion Godard himself would explode. To trust an artist implies that he will always meet some base level of our approval. Godard needed neither our approval nor our love. He sought only to speak, sometimes in riddles, but also in images, in shifts from one visual idea to another so potent that they have probably changed the way some of us dream. He was so modern in 1959 that he will be modern forever, youth found not in a jar but in a film can. It’s we who grow old around him.
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