Jean-Luc Godard turned 87 on Sunday – a good time as any to look back on the director’s unique career and influence on French and global cinema.
Godard’s films have influenced much of the vocabulary of avant-garde cinema since the 1960s as well as the approach of non-narrative arthouse cinema. His films constantly challenge the boundaries separating art from cinema, narrative from documentary and commerce from cinematographic expression.
For Godard, cinema is neither an art nor a science but a “mystery”. Starting from his early work through his political and video phase, Godard remains the singular iconoclast who has repeatedly been successful in creating a new form of cinema that does not fit into convenient definitions of offbeat narrative cinema or formalist experimentation.
Belonging to the Young Turk critics of the French magazine Cahier du Cinema, Godard’s early writing seem more like notes to himself to study cinema and refine his concepts. The most curious addition to the language of film criticism is his comparison of varying and opposing aesthetics from cinema, both eastern and western, to arrive at a consistent method of viewing cinema irrespective of representational context.
Godard’s early interest in capturing the in-between space between documentary and fiction is reflected in his debut Breathless (1960). The off-the-cuff tribute to the American film noir genre is a study of the relationship between juxtaposed images and the narrative scenario through the inventive use of the jump cut. As with his writing, Godard’s approach was to shock the bourgeois dictum of storytelling and character study in order to create a more organic and accessible approach to film form, in the tradition of such theoretician-film makers as Sergei Eisenstein and Vselovod Pudovkin. Breathless was Godard’s only commercial success and to his chagrin, he would realise that his attempts at an accessible yet specific cinema restricted him to elite cineastes.
Godard’s key to filmmaking was process: a film is constructed during its shooting, unlike Hollywood, which privileges the script. The French maestro often had his characters look into the camera and break the fourth wall. Sometimes, he would mediate the forwarding of the story through jagged sounds and other interruptions such as fragmented intertitles or distracted voice-overs. His films are about a text laid open, in the process of being completed, since textual closure in itself is a bourgeois convention.
The other films from his early period brought about a new relationship between cinema and literature – cinema being considered as an elaboration of the aesthetic of the novel. Godard preferred to work with the stream-of-consciousness techniques of James Joyce and the French nouveau roman authors to give the impression of an incomplete work.
For example, his significant film from the 1960s, My Life to Live (1962), uses the literary chapter format to destroy the conventional assumptions made by Hollywood: the camera is subservient to the actions; the cutting is in sync with the storytelling; the axis rule provides a continuous notion of space. Godard functions within the tradition of Cubism: his attempt is at showing us different sides to the object to, in effect, destroy its construction.
The filmmaker’s early period was brought to an end by Band of Outsiders (1964), the last of his playful metatextual films in which the heist is just a premise for exploring philosophical ideas in improvised ways. Most famous is the sequence in which his lead characters perform the Madison folk dance with Godard interrupting the flow of the song in order to reflect on the characters and their thoughts, much like a novelist who breaks away from the storyline to reflect on the forwarding of the narrative.
The early films of his second phase saw a sense of seriousness. Godard had already shown his admiration for Michelangelo Antonioni’s work in his Hollywood-style magnum opus Contempt. Its most famous sequence recreates a scene from a Greek tragedy in a Mondrianesque colour co-ordinated bathroom, recalling the spoofish approach to high art that was characteristic of the Dadaists.
Godard’s admiration for modernist international cinema is evident in his minor work A Married Woman (1964) and his early masterpiece Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), in which the figure of the prostitute, earlier seen in My Life to Live, becomes a metaphor for Paris and capitalism itself.
Godard developed a keen sense of colour in these films, using bright reds, blues and most notably yellows in obsessively framed images. His increasing political concern was reflected in La Chinoise (1967), whose engagement with students preempted the May 1968 protests in an uncanny way. Embarrassed of his earlier fascination with Hollywood, Godard now believed in a dissonant form of cinema in which an increased number of sounds distracted the “false” images so as to produce a hyper-real form of cinema. Godard’s ambitious attempt in A Film Like Any Other (1968) was to make a movie that would actually change reality.
At this point, Godard entered a morbid spell as he collaborated with Jean-Pierre Gorin to form the Dziga Vertov collective, in memory of the Russian filmmaker. Godard’s films from this period such as British Sounds, Wind from the East and The Gay Science marked a radical shift in direction. He took a purified approach to cinema’s more commercial non-artistic elements in order to pursue a political agenda. His increasing engagement with video produced a distinct approach of unity and duality to produce an intellectualised understanding of the human body and especially the act of making films as being linked to the act of procreation.
This engagement is best seen in his second masterpiece Numero Deux (1975), in which the linkage between film and video is used to study the dynamics in a bourgeois family.
Godard’s third phase was launched by his film Every Man For Himself (1980), in which he used slow motion for the first time to capture an “abstract pornography”, one in which the film form was seen as a violation. His increasing concern was natural light, using techniques seen in such master painters as Edgar Degas and Diego Velasquez, and motion, which was used to create forces between images, an idea from silent cinema. His films from this period used music in more original ways, such as Passion (1982), Prenom Carmen (1983), Detective (1985) and Keep Your Right Up (1987).
The most recent phase of Godard’s work was inaugurated by his magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988), in which Godard attempted to write a history of cinema through moving images. He captured the relationship between cinema and the other arts, at the same time reinforcing the idea that film practice is equal to a philosophical practice. His other notable films include his bitter critique of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, titled In Praise of Love (2001), and Notre Musique (2004), a ruminative politico-philosophical work loosely structured around Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Godard’s recent films such as Film Socialism (2010) and Goodbye To Language 3D (2014) in some ways capture the failure of modernism as well as cinema to providing an elevated level of consciousness as Godard often boorishly displays his disdain for contemporary popular culture.