Jean-Luc Godard, who defined the French New Wave, dies at 91

Jean-Luc Godard photographed by Patrick Messina in 1996 (used with permission)

Jean-Luc Godard, one of the essential filmmakers of the French New Wave of the 1960s, died on September 13 at the age of 91, leaving behind him a breathtaking filmography made up of dozens of feature films, short films , television series and film-essays. According to a press release given to New York Times by his lawyer, Patrick Jeanneret, Godard died by assisted suicide after suffering from “multiple disabling pathologies”.

Godard, like his colleagues in the New Wave, entered the realm of cinema as a critic, but unlike his peers, he never gave up that craft, preferring to see his own films as the purest expression of his criticism. Although the director is best known for his early postmodern, freewheeling deconstructions of genre, his six-decade career can be seen as an ever-adapting project to examine film’s relationship to the other arts, as well as the aesthetic responsibilities and morals inherent in creation. pictures.

Even his first films, more accessible, reveal the director already dismantling the conventions of traditional cinema with the curiosity of a watchmaker. His first feature film, Breathless (1960), borrows many conventions from Italian neorealism but reverses the genre’s emphasis on docu-fiction and social urgency in favor of a stream-of-consciousness approach that dissolved the barriers between character, filmmaker and audience. Tasked with turning Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel into a movie, Godard turned the glamorous, high-production-value studio production against himself with his modernist masterpiece. Contempt (1963), which is both an adaptation of the source novel, a retelling of both Homer and James Joyce Ulysses epics and a film about his own making. Godard heavily incorporates other cinematic touchstones, primarily the alienating interiors of Michelangelo Antonioni, but it also branches out in an ancient collision of other art forms, be it history-inspired literature or its degradation. classic greek statues with bright paint splashes.

The nascent protest movement in Vietnam and the riots of May 1968 galvanized leftist Godard politically in the late 1960s, catalyzing a shift in focus for the director who increasingly subjected his own methods to scrutiny and revision. . This played out at times on a personal level, such as the gradual shift from his chauvinistic attitudes towards women in his collaborations with his first wife Anna Karina to his more respectful and progressive portrayals following his romantic and working partnership with feminist director Anne-Marie Miéville. . More broadly, Godard rejected the joyful, insular cinephilia that defined his more modest early films in favor of a more holistic engagement with all the arts that regularly considered the historical roles of painting, theater, literature and film for reflect their times. Around this time, the director also began to recognize how artists’ limited perspectives and biases, conscious or unconscious, could distort their portrayal of reality.

For Godard, who once had a persona who said “photography is the truth, and cinema is the truth 24 times a second”, it was this admission of the innate subjectivity of art that propelled his thought-provoking and under-seen but perpetually stimulating. Beginning with his attempts at socialist realism with the propaganda documentaries of the Dziga Vertov group, Godard doggedly sought the possibility of some sort of objective image. To find it, he stayed at the forefront of cinematic technology, regularly incorporating breakthroughs in video formats that promised less bulky filming than traditional celluloid and above all taking advantage of improvements in editing to create split-screen collages and overlays matched with a contrapuntal use of stereo audio that pits each channel against each other.

François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in two in the wave (2010) directed by Emmanuel Laurent (still courtesy of Kino Lorber)

Often Godard mixed his own dialogue and imagery with literary quotations and scans of paintings and statues, attacking a single idea from multiple angles in a way that blended the philosophical tenets of Marxist dialectic with the aesthetic tenets of Cubism. And just as Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” contained a whole history of the art form, so does a work like Godard’s. socialism movie (2010) cite various eras of cinema, fine art and literature, offering a prismatic view of the ongoing political struggle and the question of European identity. Admitting that the pursuit of truth is asymptotic, always just out of touch, Godard often sought poetic free association over simple facts.

It can all be exhausting, and many critics and viewers washed their hands of Godard when he ironically declared the “end of cinema” with 1967’s. Weekend. But to treat his final period as a purely intellectual exercise is to miss his almost whimsical sense of humor and sense of pun. socialism movie, for example, opens with a long discussion of the lost Spanish gold and a first image is that of a parrot. (In Spanish, the word for gold is “oro,” while that for parrot is “loro.”) Godard’s unclassifiable 1987 “adaptation” of Shakespeare King Learin which the room is reassembled from memory fragments after being lost, deconstructs Cordelia’s “nothing” promise to her father into “nothing”, transforming her statement that love cannot be verbalized into an object concrete to be defined by its absence.

Patti Smith as “The Singer” in socialism movie (2010) (still courtesy of Kino Lorber)

While Godard will always be best known for his first pleasures as Breathless Where Pierrot le fou (1965), his true magnum opus in this quixotic quest for “truth” is the video project of the decade in the making History(ies) of cinema, begun in 1989 and completed in 1999. A dense collage piece in which Godard exploits the double meaning of “story” as both factual history and narrative narrative, the multi-part series explores various aspects of cinema from the evolving from genres like film noir to more philosophical questions about how each shot is conceived, filmed and ultimately selected for final editing. It illustrates these ideas via a dense web of overlapping quotes and images, allowing the filmmaker to expand his inner critique across a range of subjects that both praise and condemn cinema’s ability to express sentiment, ideas and social reality. Compared by Jonathan Rosenbaum to James Joyce’s inscrutable last novel, Finnegans Wake (1939), the film over four hours History(ies) of cinema shares with this book a language of pure play on words expressing ideas as frivolous and pleasant as they are profound. The man who once wrote his female characters as destructive fatal women admits that most women in genre films eventually die, and her youthful belief in cinema to improve the world clashes desperately with its documented use to mask or sentimentalize some of modern history’s worst horrors. It is a crowning statement and bravery of aesthetic and moral vision, and a perfect blessing for his career. Like Godard, he continued to build on and critique this statement for another quarter century.

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