Jean-Luc Godard: the director of the ‘nouvelle vague’ whose priority was always cinema

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ANDn his later years, Jean-Luc Godard increasingly became the Prospero of world cinema. The director, who died today at the age of 91, lived in seclusion in Rolle, Switzerland, with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville and had no communication with his former colleagues and friends. All of his contemporaries from the golden age of the 1960s, when the new wave revolutionized world cinema, they had died before him. Actually, he had long ago turned his back on most of them. His work had become increasingly experimental and self-reflective, drifting further and further from the mainstream. What it means for today’s young moviegoers is debatable. Yet Godard is a monumental figure in film history, as influential in his own way as Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, or Sergei Eisenstein.

Godard lived by and for the cinema. On a human level, that was a problem. His relationships often failed because he always prioritized the movies. Some collaborators like his muse and ex-wife Anna Karina, who starred in one of his most important early films, Live Sa Vie (1962), they always said that they got along much better while making movies than when they were in their spare time trying to really make a life together. He fell out with his former comrade-in-arms, François Truffaut, who referred to him as “a piece of sh*t on a pedestal” for Godard’s terrible treatment of his friends and collaborators. However, in his work, he never compromised. He, too, never cared about popularity…and never stopped. When asked why he made so many movies, he replied that he was like the “soldiers in the Russian war who kept marching… they knew if they lay down, they wouldn’t get up again.”

breathless (1960) is probably his best-known feature film. With her jump cuts, her arrogant star Jean-Paul Belmondo, her female lead Jean Seberg, and her reckless, anarchic energy, she was stunning and very stylish. Godard’s phrases (“all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” and “cinema is the truth at 24 frames per second”) quickly went down in cinema history.

He was an arch provocateur but with a very lyrical look. The sequence showing Karina and her friends Sami Frey and Claude Brassuer dancing in a cafe in her 1964 feature film, band to part , has been described as one of “the coolest movie scenes ever”. He was a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company A Band Apart after the film. It also inspired an affectionate parody on Le Week-end (2013) by Roger Michell, where Jin Broadbent, Jeff Goldblum and Lindsay Duncan reprized Karina’s movements.

Then there is the extraordinary widescreen shot of Brigitte Bardot nude at the beginning of Le Mepris (1963). Depending on the point of view of each one, it is an extreme voyeurism or another example of how the director reveals the exploitation of stars like Bardot by a sexist film industry. He was always willing to expose the financial aspects of his work. His 1972 film Tout Goes Wellstarring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, and co-directed with Jean-Pierre Gorin, opens with footage of checks being extended to cast and crew.

However, Godard was capable of enormous extravagance when looking to get a shot that interested him. While he was making one of his most subversive movies, weekend (1967), in which he criticized the middle classes for their cruelty, deception, and general hypocrisy, staged a famous sequence showing a huge rural traffic jam. Its about traveling longest in the history of French cinema. To the fury of the other directors, he hired the entire supply of track rails in the country to shoot it.

Despite his grim reputation, Godard was perfectly willing to give interviews, as long as they were in support of a film. With his cigars and surprising frame of reference, he was entertaining company. He enjoyed the sport. When asked about the great 1950s Hungarian football team that beat England 6-3 at Wembley (a game briefly referenced in his 2004 film, Our Music), said that seeing Puskas and company was like “discovering the free jazz”. As for England, he admired his famous right winger, Stanley Matthews. He also enjoyed tennis. In private, it was said that he was very funny and that he told many jokes. However, in all the press images that have been shot of him over the years, that humor hardly appears. In all the archive material, he often appears participating in protests, joining student marches or causing the Cannes Film Festival to be closed, as he did in 1968, in a gesture of solidarity with the workers.

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Breathless’ in 1959

(NANA PRODUCTIONS/SIPA/Shutterstock)

At last week’s Venice Film Festival, just days before Godard’s death, Cyril Leuthy’s new documentary about him had its world premiere, Godard Seoul Le Cinéma. Many of his former collaborators participated in the film. It’s a testament to his genius, but it also reveals how isolated he ended up being. He didn’t see anyone. “If I’m in a waiting room at the station and I’m alone, if a guy and a girl walk in… and I want to talk to them, the only way, a direct way, right now, is to hire them for a movie,” the manager admitted. Without the cinema, it seems, he had no means of communicating with the outside world.

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