Jean-Luc Godard, the influential French New Wave screenwriter-director who broke new ground in cinematic expression in the 1960s with films such as ‘A bout de souffle’, ‘Contempt’ and ‘Weekend’ and became a guide for fellow filmmakers throughout his career spanning more than six decades, has died. He was 91 years old.
Several French media outlets reported hearing the news of Godard’s death from the filmmaker’s relatives on Tuesday. French President Emmanuel Macron hailed Godard as a “national treasure” who had “invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art” with his pioneering works.
Always happy to give up commercial success in exchange for artistic freedom, Godard was the most inventive and radical director of the French New Wave, which turned European cinema upside down in the 1950s and 1960s, reflecting their personal visions and challenging traditional cinematic conventions.
Like his fellow New Wave directors François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol, the film-obsessed Godard came to filmmaking after being a critic. He was an early contributor to the influential French film magazine Cahiers du cinema, the cradle of the auteur theory, which asserts that the director can be the “auteur” of a film, similarly way a writer is the author of a novel. .
“Godard was one of the inventors of auteur theory and perhaps the most rigorous of New Wave filmmakers in putting the idea into practice,” film critic David Sterritt told The Times in 2006. .
“Each of his films and videos are intensely personal to him and represent his own unique take on the world and its people,” Sterritt said.
Godard had already made several short films when, at age 29, he captured international attention in 1960 with his first feature, Breathless, a boldly innovative homage to American gangster B movies.
Filmed on location in Paris, the low-budget romantic crime drama starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as an amoral young thug with a Humphrey Bogart fixation who is on the run after stealing a car and killing a cop. His love is an American girl, played by Jean Seberg, who ends up betraying him.
“Breathless” became famous for its groundbreaking use of hand-held cameras that circled the action, natural lighting, direct sound recording, skipped editing and a sense of spontaneity – as well as its unabashed references to Hollywood movies.
“Modern movies start here,” wrote Roger Ebert, the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic, of “Breathless” in 2003. “No first movie since 1942’s ‘Citizen Kane’ has been so influential. “
During the 1960s alone, Godard made nearly 30 short and feature films, including “Le Petit Soldat”, “A woman is a woman”, “My life to live”, “Les Carabiniers”, “Band of Outsiders” , “A married woman”. “, “Alphaville”, “Masculine Feminine”, “Pierrot Le Fou”, “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” and “Weekend”, which presents a tragi-comic tracking shot of seven minutes of a traffic jam created by a horrible crash.
By the late 1960s, Godard had embarked on what Sterritt called his “ultra-radical political phase” as a filmmaker.
As Julia Lesage wrote in her 1979 bibliography, “Jean-Luc Godard: guide to references and resources”: “Godard seemed to be seeking both the best way to make a political film and the best way to integrate his profession , cinema, with militant Marxist-Leninist political activity.
By the late 1970s, Sterritt said, Godard had returned to making films slightly more suited to a theatrical audience, although the films remained artistically radical.
“The important thing about Godard is that he broke all the rules, and he showed that anything could be cinematic if your conceptualization – your ideas – were bold enough,” said Marsha Kinder, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The Times in 2006.
“No matter how apocalyptic or dark his vision may be, his films gave me hope because his genius and inventiveness were so dazzling,” Kinder said. “He just redefine the kind of pleasures that cinema could give you.”
But for the public, Kinder acknowledged, Godard breaking the rules “could also be very infuriating.”
Indeed, Godard was well known for challenging his audience.
“I don’t really like telling a story,” he once said. “I prefer to use a kind of tapestry, a background on which I can embroider my own ideas.”
And starting with the ideas, Godard said in a 1995 interview with The Times, “doesn’t help with the audience. But I still prefer a good audience. I prefer to feed 100% of 10 people. Hollywood prefers to feed 1% of a million people. Commercially speaking, my path is no better.
Godard’s films have influenced countless filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese. While watching Godard films as a film student in the 1960s, Scorsese said he was taken by “the feeling of freedom, of being able to do anything – there was a kind of joy that invaded me when I saw the films”.
Another well-known fan, director Quentin Tarantino, named his production company A Band Apart after the French title (“Bande a Part”) of Godard’s 1964 film “Band of Outsiders” and took into account the one of Godard’s maxims when he filmed “Pulp Fiction”. : “A film must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
The late director Bernardo Bertolucci put it simply: “We all wanted to be Jean-Luc Godard.”
“There’s no one like him in all of movie history,” Kinder said. “He took revenge on Hollywood. He never stopped really attacking the dominance of Hollywood cinema, and he never stopped expanding the language and the subversive possibilities of cinema.
“That makes him, I think, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of world cinema. He made everything possible.
One of four children, Godard was born in Paris on December 3, 1930. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy Parisian banker and his father was a Swiss doctor, who split his work between Paris and Switzerland.
In 1933, Godard’s family moved permanently to Switzerland after his father landed a job at a clinic near the village of Gland. Five years later, they moved to Nyon, Switzerland, where they lived during World War II.
After the war, 15-year-old Godard moved to Paris to study at the prestigious Lycée Buffon, a school focused on the physical and biological sciences. He returned to Switzerland to attend college in Lausanne in 1948, but a year later was back in Paris, where he enrolled at the Sorbonne for a certificate in anthropology.
By this time, however, Godard was so enamored with cinema that he paid little attention to his studies.
He said he was an occasional film buff until he began frequenting a Left Bank film club run by critic André Bazin, where he met future New Wave directors Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette. He and his friends also regularly attended the Cinémathèque française.
“We systematically saw everything there was to see,” he told Jean Collet, author of the 1970 book “Jean-Luc Godard”.
In 1950, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette co-founded the short-lived La Gazette du Cinéma, which published their film reviews; it only lasted five issues. After Bazin co-founded the Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, Godard published essays there. He also began to learn cinema by acting in his friends’ short films.
For many years Godard was also a petty thief, stealing repeatedly to support himself and was frequently caught, according to Colin MacCabe’s 2003 book, “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy.” .
Godard, writes MacCabe, claims to have financed Rivette’s first short Robbing an Uncle. And in the early 1950s, after working for a dam-building company in the Swiss Alps, Godard spent three days in prison after stealing the Swiss television he then worked for in Zurich.
After Godard’s release from prison, his father convinced him to go to a Swiss psychiatric clinic specializing in psychotherapy.
After several months at the clinic, Godard returned to the construction company in the Alps, where he made his first film, a 20-minute documentary on the construction of the dam, “Operation Concrete”. He then directed a 10-minute comic short film in Geneva before returning to Paris.
In 1961, Godard married Anna Karina, who starred in “A Woman Is A Woman”, “My Life To Live”, “Band of Outsiders” and other Godard films in the 1960s. His marriage to Karina s ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Anne Wiazemsky, who starred in several of his films, including “La Chinoise” in 1967. Godard later began a long-standing relationship with his collaborator, Anne-Marie Mieville. The two moved to Switzerland in the 70s.
Over the past decades, Godard has worked in both film and video. And, said Sterritt, “what some consider his magnum opus, the crowning achievement of his career”, is Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma, a multi-segment video work released in 1989. His later films include “Goodbye to Language”. », a fragmented 3D film about a young couple who communicate through their pet dog.
Towards the end of his life, Godard seemed happy but disconcerted that critics were still scrutinizing his work. He admitted, however, that the audience for his films had become small.
“I never understand why people remember me,” he once told The Times. “I always wonder why I’m still famous because nobody sees my films now. Well, hardly anyone.
McLellan is a former Times writer.