There can be only so many “greatest living filmmakers” roaming the Earth at once. Jean-Luc Godard (French-Swiss filmmaker) has died. He was an artist who pushed the limits of what a camera can do. His prickly wit, radical politics, and sarcastic humor electrified filmgoers during the 1960s, and continues to inspire the next generation. 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. His impact was immense. Jean-Luc Godard was the only person; more would have exploded the universe.
Godard, who was 91 years old, died Sept. 13, at the age of 91. Breathless,In 1959, his feature-length debut took the ideas of American gangster films, amplified them and made them more powerful. 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. Complete fiction could be made to blaze with documentary filmmaking’s immediacy. An image could be used to juxtapose a mysterious political or philosophical slogan and one that sparks new ideas. 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. Although he tried to communicate his political views through art, his ideas might emerge as murky. Godard was a firm believer in Maoist ideology, which were popular among French intellectuals during the 1960s. Later works showed signs of anti-Semitism. Films like 1983’s Carmen is Carmen’s first name (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 BreathlessAnd ended with the road-trip satire about end-of civilization 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. You can read the entire article here. Breathless,Jean-Paul Belmondo told his story about a sensitive Cad-Slash-Hero. He was overthrown by Jean Seberg, a gamine female fatale dressed in ballet flats and capri pants (Jean Seberg), with a style as outrageous 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 BreathlessThe first viewers must have felt as though their brains were being wired up and highjacked.
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 Don’t be inconsiderate (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 FouKarina Belmondo stars as Belmondo, and the film concludes with one of the greatest cinematic images of all time. It is a sadomic symbol for the endless futility that comes from trying to live. You can watch it 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. It is divided into 15 chapters, which glide along as easily as pop songs, but it feels explosive, revealing a revolution that’s already underway and about to burst.
Between 1959 and 1967 Godard produced 15 feature films. Many of these are what we remember most when looking at his works. His later years produced one masterpiece. Shot in 3D—Godard used the technology more innovatively than almost any other modern-day practitioner—the meditative collage Goodbye LanguageFrom 2014, it reflects upon the function and 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. You can feel despair at times. Goodbye Language driven, perhaps, by a filmmaker’s feelings that he may be losing his sense of the world. The movie ultimately decides to be joyful, possibly because Godard can’t help but find joy in the company of dogs.
Then again, even if we think we’ve grasped what this or any other Godard film means, we’re surely mistaken. We are human if we feel inept when confronted with Jean-Luc Godard films. Although he can sometimes be maddeningly ignorant in a superior and condescending way, he is also great in a way which makes us want to reach out, ask Why? How?For art to be a constant source of inspiration, one must keep believing in their own ability to humble themselves.
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. Do the people we love most always trust artists? Godard, both awe-inspiring and aggravating—and, reportedly, often unpleasant as a person—is your answer. What does that mean? trust? It’s a notion Godard himself would explode. An artist who is trusted must be able to meet some level of approval. Godard didn’t need either our approval nor love. His only goal was to talk, often in riddles but also in images. They were so effective that some people have changed their dreams. In 1959, he was modern enough to be considered modern. Youth is not found in a glass jar. It’s we who grow old around him.
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