The last great modernist of the 20th century is dead. At last, Jean-Luc Godard had become like a charismatic but distant cult leader; it was as if Che Guevara had escaped assassination and grown old hiding in the Bolivian jungle: less visible, less important, but still able to foment from afar those bank robberies and those spectacular acts of armed resistance that recalled his revolutionary vocation. Godard was first revered and adored as a hero, then shrugged and yawned: as thoughtlessly mocked and mocked as he was once thoughtlessly passed out. He was influential in the sense that the French New Wave shook Hollywood and all filmmakers; his own rarefied experimental procedures have now migrated to video art.
Godard exploded onto world cinema with À Bout de Souffle, or Breathless, in 1960, from a treatment by François Truffaut, the story of a young American in Paris, played by Hollywood star Jean Seberg, and his doomed affair with a sexy tough guy on the run, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Godard tore up the rulebook without caring to read it: its wild digressions, its off-kilter dialogue scenes, its scouting, its non-narrative excursions and its “jump-cuts” – the inspired and semi-deliberate faux montage created by a intuitive and untrained author. .
The 1960s were his glorious period, when images and slogans could change the world; he made films with breathtaking fluidity and speed. Godard was talkative, effortlessly fashionable, the epitome of continental cool. This photo of him holding a roll of film and inspecting it is pretty iconic – but grumpy, unconvinced guys wondered if he couldn’t look better if he took off the dark glasses. Sexual morality and the agonizing impossibility of intimacy and love were his themes, combined with cerebral discussions of politics. Bande à Part (1964) and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) have wonderful energy and style: they jump for joy and defy gravity on their way down.
But my favorite Godard film of this period, in fact the favorite Godard film of all time, is his A Married Woman (1964), a mature but accessible masterpiece, comparable to Agnès Varda’s Cléo De 5 à 7 . Macha Méril is the gorgeous Charlotte, a young married woman having an affair with a handsome actor. It’s intensely erotic, with sheer freewheeling brilliance; it’s a digressive cine-essay and a wanderer’s stroll through Paris – where else? He has a Warholian interest in magazine interviews and advertising iconography, a fetishistic delight in underwear. Godard also uses subtitles for what Charlotte thinks while listening to two women talking about sex: prefiguring Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. It’s one of the sexiest and weirdest films ever made and I prefer it to the more cinephile film Le Mépris, or Contempt (1963) starring Brigitte Bardot.
Often a Godard film like Pierrot le Fou (1965) would be bewilderingly wild, almost incoherent, absorbing into itself some of the disputed mess of the shoot itself: the action would be frenetic, almost wacky – a satirical commentary about the childishness of Hollywood melodrama – and yet there was always time for long intellectual debates. Godard kept coming back to militarism and imperialism, to the French guilt and shame of war, to the horrible shadow of the death camps, and of course to Vietnam, that key issue of the 1960s that sent Godard in a conceptual thicket of radical Maoism and leftism from which it never fully emerged.
Unique among filmmakers, he was the director who was also theoretician, critic, guru, experimenter: a radical who was the first filmmaker in the short history of the medium to think seriously about what cinema was and what it meant. But disconcertingly, Godard would not celebrate cinema as an art form in its thrilling beginnings, but behave as if it were all over. The final credits of Weekend (1967) read: “End of history – End of cinema”. He was somewhat like the literary critic George Steiner in this respect, who controversially declared that tragedy was dead or that the German language was dead. Godard liked to provocatively and infuriatingly declare that the cinema was dead – a haughty “after me the deluge” assignment, which never stopped his own rampant productivity. Godard becomes the mysterious and exasperating magician who wants to make not films but “cinema”, in a way freeing sound and image from the four walls surrounding the screen. Inspired by the great critic André Bazin of Cahiers du Cinéma, he began his own career as a critic in this remarkable review, founder of the New Wave, where to criticize is to intervene decisively in cinema, and to make films, c is to intervene in life itself. Cinema was a grasp of reality.
The comparisons are irresistible. Godard was the harshly judging Robespierre of cinema, or he was a John Lennon – Paul McCartney being François Truffaut, that more soothing and commercial New Wave comrade with whom Godard was to fall out. Or maybe he was Godard was the Socrates of the medium, believing unexamined cinema wasn’t worth having.
Godard’s scholarly gift for guessing the spirit of the times never quite abandoned him. His film Goodbye to Language, gnomically discursive and enigmatic as always but playfully animated by 3D, was considered by American critics as the best film of 2014. His Film Socialisme (2010) was another collage of images and ideas , showing people on public holiday: stateless, insane. Much of the film took place on a cruise ship. What did Godard say about socialism, we wondered? Then history itself took over. The cruise ship Godard was filming on was actually the infamous Costa Concordia, which capsized in a spectacular disaster in 2012; many commentators have argued that the tall design, to accommodate more and more paying customers, makes pleasure craft of this type very heavy. For me, in these last films, Godard’s camera lens is almost like an incredibly powerful telescope. It is as if he is watching human beings from afar, perhaps from another planet.
Many have simply abandoned Godard, or been embarrassed by their former extravagant hero-worship of a 60s figure, who refused to sell, or grow, or make commercial films, or drift right, but continued in the same old stern way: though his sexual politics began to sound troglodytic and his hatred of Israel sometimes seemed to cross the line into anti-Semitism. For many, his coming-of-age masterpiece after Breathless was the epic eight-part video documentary project Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998) – a staggeringly ambitious text collage of quotes, a quilt of music videos with which Godard creates a personal landscape of cinema. , a passionate labor of cinephile love. Before that, I myself had never found much moving, exactly, in Godard – albeit a lot of formally brilliant, intriguing and exciting things. However, there is something mysterious and moving in the Histoire(s) du Cinéma. There is and was no one like Godard, and his loss makes this day dark. It’s a day to watch A Married Woman to remember how exciting and sexy her films were.