Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Jean-Luc Godard, 1930-2022

The director of Breathless and Pierrot Le Fou, who relished breaking the rules of cinema, has died at 91.
September 13, 2022
Jean-Luc Godard, 1930-2022
Jean-Luc Godard with Brigitte Bardot on the set of Mepris.

Jean-Luc Godard has died at the age of 91. He was the last of the French New Wave, a group of critics turned filmmakers who, under the guidance of André Bazin, cofounder of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, challenged the staid cinema they saw in France. They argued for cinema as art which, counterintuitive to most moviegoers’ idea of art, meant not the bloated, award-winning “respectable” movies but the genre movie, the low-budget B movie, or the Hollywood factory product given new vitality by directors like Howard Hawks, working within a studio system but creating a new language of cinema in the process. Manny Farber would later define these two opposing ideas as White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art but the idea sprang from critics like Godard. Perhaps most importantly, Godard, in every possible way, practiced what he preached.

His first feature, Breathless (À Bout de Souffle), began as a script treatment by his friends and colleagues François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, who based it on real events they had read about. When they became frustrated with the story structure, they gave up and Godard took over. The result was a film that felt so fresh, so new, so at odds with the accepted way to shoot and edit a film, that it became the face of the French New Wave despite debuting a year after Truffaut and Chabrol’s early efforts.

The jump cuts that Godard used in Breathless introduced an editing concept that appeared disjointed and rushed to filmmakers of the time but has become a staple of modern cinema, a simple yet powerful way to inject adrenaline directly into your movie. From there, Godard would only flout the rules even more.

To say his style changed from movie to movie is an understatement. His style sometimes changed within the same movie, or within a scene. It was not uncommon for a musical number to appear in a non-musical, or to watch characters point to the titles of books as a substitute for conversation, or for the entire color palette of a scene to shift from room to room. Godard, at every step, wanted you to know you were watching a movie. In 1956, he wrote of Hitchcock, “People say that Hitchcock lets the wires show too often. But because he shows them, they are no longer wires. They are the pillars of a marvelous architectural design made to withstand our scrutiny.” This was Godard’s idea of cinema: The artificiality could only be overcome by exposing it, by showing it for what it was.

Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.

Of course, Godard also knew how to keep things light and entertaining, at least to the extent that it enabled his films to get financed. There’s rarely a movie of his starring Anna Karina that doesn’t feature her in a lively dance at some point, whether with friends (A Band Apart) or by herself joyously kicking up her legs around a pool table while, shockingly, no one seems to care (Vivre Sa Vie). And with Contempt (Les Mepris), following a suggestion by producer Carlo Ponti that it would probably mean better box office if they showed off star Brigitte Bardot’s body, Godard humorously begins the movies with a scene in which Bardot asks Michel Piccoli if he likes her butt, her breasts, her nipples, and so on, while the camera lovingly tracks back and forth over her naked bottom. It is the epitome of gratuitous nudity, completely uninterested in masking it as “necessary to the plot,” and fitting that it should be Godard to expose that artifice as well.

He even delved into science fiction with Alphaville, and while a sci-fi movie might be another director’s opportunity to allow themselves more experimental freedom, it is easily one of Godard’s most conventional films—or, at least, conventionally made.

By 1965, with Pierrot le Fou, the rules of cinema no longer applied in any meaningful way to what Godard was doing. The plot shifts, tone shifts, flagrant discontinuity, and inexplicable images thrown at the viewer frame after frame signaled that Godard was quickly leaving behind any chance of being a “successful” filmmaker in favor of persistent cinematic deconstruction. And still, he innovated in ways that influenced filmmakers to come even while doing everything in his power to make himself inaccessible.

Breaking the fourth wall—that is, characters addressing the camera and, therefore, the audience—is damn near a trend as of late, but it’s a stylistic tic that ran through Godard’s work. The technique was at the core of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but it popped up in and out of multiple Godard movies, including the politically charged Tout Va Bien, and was most charmingly employed in A Woman Is a Woman, with Anna Karina’s knowing wink at the camera before turning out the lights on the movie itself.

Jane Fonda in Tout Va Bien.

By the Seventies, Godard had moved on from the cinema of the iconoclast to the cinema of the radical. The student protests of 1968 had a profound effect on him, inspiring him to lead a protest that resulted in Cannes being shut down that year. He famously shouted at those who would keep the festival going, “We’re talking solidarity with students and workers, and you’re talking dolly shots and close-ups. You’re idiots!” His films following this, from the previously mentioned Tout Va Bien, with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, to oddball works like Vladimir and Rosa, didn’t find big—or any—audiences, but they did allow him to be more overtly political than he ever had been (not that he’d ever held back that much: the film he chose to follow his breakthrough of Breathless was The Little Soldier, a political work about the Algerian War, banned in France immediately after he completed it).

Tout Va Bien is interesting more for what it produced in its wake than the film itself. After production wrapped, Jane Fonda traveled to North Vietnam—a visit that would lead to her nickname “Hanoi Jane” and years of antipathy from the American right. Godard made a short film, Letter to Jane, about one of the photographs of her speaking to the North Vietnamese and openly admitted that the photographs of her were far more politically successful than Tout Va Bien.

During the Eighties, Godard shifted back to mainstream filmmaking, or as mainstream as one can imagine Godard doing. He became increasingly fascinated with video and made several short films, in which he would discuss ideas and themes in art and even compiled his own film history, so to speak, with the eight-part series Histoire(s) du cinéma. As with his shorts, this “history” was more a collection of images, clips, and audio with Godard talking about them, and art, and cinema, and politics. Don’t go here to get the backstory on the making of The Wizard of Oz.

Godard was something of a curiosity with the generation of filmmakers that arose in the twenty-first century, those who found themselves more at home with the formal cinema of Scorsese and Spielberg, Nolan and Fincher. His films had a cultural importance that didn’t translate to demonstrable filmmaking influence. In 2010, Godard made Film Socialisme and screened it at Cannes in what seemed to many as a direct statement on how formalism had won. If there is a plot to it, it has so far eluded discovery. Roger Ebert, who championed everything Godard did in the Sixties, wrote in his one-star review, “It is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies.” Ebert admitted that this was on purpose—“All of that is part of the Godardian method, I am aware”—but added “I feel a bargain of some sort must be struck. We enter the cinema with open minds and goodwill, expecting Godard to engage us in at least a vaguely penetrable way.”

Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect Godard to meet the viewer halfway, part of the way—or at all. From the moment he eschewed established editing techniques in Breathless, it was clear that Godard was not here to entertain moviegoers looking for a good time. He was not averse to that—as anyone reading his excellent criticism of the Fifties will know—and this is not to say that Breathless itself isn’t “entertaining.” He simply understood there were filmmakers out there who could do that and somebody had to break the rules and blow the whole thing up, if only just to see what would happen.

Or if you could put it all back together.

Greg Ferrara

Greg Ferrara writes about film for Turner Classic Movies.