By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Provocative, prolific, innovative and indispensable, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was nearly as well known for his clever comments on the art of cinema as he was for the groundbreaking contributions he brought to the form:
“The cinema is truth 24 frames-per-second.”
“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
Every edit is a lie."
All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun” (a quote that Godard himself attributed to the pioneering director D.W. Griffith).
Godard spoke a mouthful in his pithy asides, while also creating a filmography over 60 years to illustrate what he meant.
The filmmaker died on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at his home in Rolle, Switzerland. He was 91.
According to his legal adviser Patrick Jeanneret, Godard died by assisted suicide, suffering from what Jeanneret described as “multiple disabling pathologies.” Said Jeanneret, “He could not live like you and me, so he decided with a great lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, ‘Now, it’s enough.’”
Beginning as a film critic in 1950s France alongside such fellow soon-to-be-famous filmmaking writers as François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Paris-born Jean-Luc Godard rebelled against traditional European cinema in favor of a fresher and hipper style of filmmaking, much of it inspired by the popular American cinema of those years. Watching countless movies and then writing about them in the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard soon took a seat in the director’s chair and, after a handful of shorts, directed his first feature film, 1960’s Breathless.
An energetic tale about the romantic entanglement between a small-time Parisian hoodlum with a penchant for Humphrey Bogart (Jean-Paul Belmondo), and an ambivalent American journalism student (Jean Seberg), Breathless was an eye-opener. Embracing a radical visual style that included dynamic, handheld camera work and jittery jump-cut editing that soon influenced everyone from Bertolucci to Scorsese to Tarantino, as well as a reportage approach to storytelling, Breathless’ immediate approval and the repercussions of it being the coolest new film in the world were extraordinary.
The French press labeled the movement, which included Breathless and other films by Godard’s colleagues, as “La Nouvelle Vague,” or as it was known on English-speaking shores, “The French New Wave.” The movement was to dominate French cinema throughout the Sixties, while its youthful spirit spread to filmmakers around the world.
Godard, like other great artists of the 20th Century who went through a number of experimental and formal periods (Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis immediately come to mind), changed his style, focus and vocabulary as the years rolled by. It was his first eight years of feature filmmaking and the dozen or so films he produced that would remain his most exciting and influential, and the ones I enjoyed the most.
The comedic heist thriller Band of Outsiders (1964), the lovers on the run crime-romance Pierrot le fou (1965) and the dystopian sci-fier Alphaville (1965) are the finest of these. And the 1966 romance Masculin Féminin and surreal middle-class couple road-trip adventure Week-End (1967) are right behind them. They're all a blast--and quite different from one another, to boot.
Following Week-End and his sweeping impact on cinema, Godard shifted gears and became obsessed with revolutionary politics, virtually abandoning the kind of commercial cinema that he had altered over the previous decade. In May, 1968, he joined other filmmakers in protesting the Cannes Film Festival to show solidarity with France’s striking students and workers. By that time, he had begun making what he described as “revolutionary films for revolutionary audiences.”
Though many of his films of that era, which include Vladimir and Rosa (1970), Numéro Deux (1975) and Here and Elsewhere (1976) didn’t make much noise, their very existence confirmed the power of cinema to promote political ideologies and personal freedoms.
More changes were to come over the next decades, with Godard later backing away from his politics and philosophy of that period and partially finding his way back to the kind of cinema that established his legend in the Sixties. Having derailed his commercial prospects in the Seventies, he rarely found it easy to get these later, far less accessible films any significant distribution opportunities around the world.
But Godard was still capable of an occasional shock or smile, even as most of his later works—features, shorts and TV projects shot on both film and video—failed to find large audiences and seemed to baffle those who actually saw them. His 1995 drama Hail Mary, which depicts an occasionally nude Virgin Mary as a gas station attendant, opened to protests around the world, including outside Lincoln Center during its U.S. premiere at that year’s New York Film Festival. (Nearly 40 years later, the film isn’t nearly as shocking as it was considered to be then.) And his expressionistic, mostly silent 2014 fantasia Goodbye to Language, uses 3D technology to dazzling effect as it offers a dog’s-eye view of the world.
One of Godard’s most ambitious and fascinating projects was the TV mini-series Histoire(s) du Cinéma, which he began in 1988 and took a decade to complete. Set to an off-and-on score of classical music with occasional commentary by Godard, Histoire(s) is filled with clips from all manner of films—Hollywood classics, documentaries, animation, pornography and so on—as it chronicles the history of cinema, not chronologically, but conceptually and emotionally, and as the world’s best vehicle for the possibility of real-life storytelling. At one point in this dense, nearly five-hour whirl of images, a few moments of Nazi death camp footage pop up next to Rita Hayworth singing “Put the Blame on Mame” from 1946’s Gilda.
Some might question the filmmaker’s editorial and structural choices, but for Godard, it was simply all about the movies.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.