Few filmmakers have had so profound an effect on the development of the art as Jean-Luc Godard, almost certainly the most important filmmaker worldwide to emerge since the end of WWII. From his early days as a critic and thinker in the pages of Cahiers du cinema and elsewhere, through the great age of the New Wave in the 1960s, continuing (with a lesser impact) in the 70s and 80s, Godard has redefined the way we look at film. An essayist and poet of the cinema, he makes the language of film a real part of his narratives.
With a prodigious sense of exploration, Godard has worked his way through no less than four artistic periods since his days as a critic in the 50s: The "New Wave" Godard (still the most influential) lasted from "Breathless" (1959) to "Weekend" (1967). The "Revolutionary" Godard stretched from "Le Gai savoir" (1968) to "Tout va bien" (1972), encompassing the "Dziga-Vertov" period. Godard the "Videoaste" lasted from the formation of the Sonimage production company with Anne-Marie Mieville in Grenoble through 1978. Finally, the "Contemplative" Godard began with "Sauve qui peut (la vie)", his return to features in 1980, and has extended through "Helas Pour Moi/Woe Is Me" (1993).
Godard's critical examination of international film masters, American auteurs and American genre films in the 50s was paralleled by his own early incursions into the medium. He acted in and produced early short films by fellow critics Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette and himself directed a series of shorts: from the documentary "Operation Beton" (1954), through the whimsical "All Boys Are Called Patrick" (1957), to the editing exercise, "Une histoire d'eau" (1958), shot by Truffaut but handed over to Godard after the former had given up on the material. These reciprocal forces, the back-and-forth from production to criticism, led to a series of homages, reinventions and variations which helped us all to understand what film had been--and what it was to become.
In "Breathless", his landmark feature debut, Godard broke with established narrative conventions, spontaneously mixing elements from the detective, comedy and suspense genres. "A Woman Is a Woman" (1961) applied this critical intelligence to the musical genre, as "Alphaville" (1965) did to science fiction. In a fresh, new way, a director was making films that were "about" other films (as well as about themselves), often with very modest resources. "Alphaville", for instance, created a uniquely menacing, futuristic look out of largely contemporary settings. At the same time, Godard was developing the essay form as he began to speak more directly to his audiences. The philosophical discussion Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo hold in their bedroom in "Breathless" was a precursor to more extended ruminations in such films as "Vivre Sa Vie/My Life to Live" (1962), "The Married Woman" (1964) and "Masculin-Feminin" (1966).
With the exception of "A Woman Is a Woman" (his lovesong to then-wife Anna Karina), the subject matter of these films is downbeat and darkly modernist. Godard's couples are alienated both from each other and from their environment; driven by uncertainty and mistrust, surrounded by the crass commercialism of late 20th century capitalism, they act arbitrarily, often with tragic results. Fleeing the disorder of the city for refuge in nature, as in "Pierrot le fou" (1965), characters still cannot escape death. Language, inherently ambiguous (as discussed by philosopher Brice Parain in "Vivre Sa Vie"), serves as a barrier to communication and precludes love. Even body language fails: in "Contempt" (1963), Godard's cynical satire of mainstream filmmaking, a husband's insecurity makes him suspect his wife's every facial gesture. Prostitution becomes the incessant metaphor.
Godard himself, however, was capable of broader understanding--if his characters couldn't communicate, he himself was getting better at it with every film. He best expressed this positive aspect in "Anticipation," his episode of the portmanteau film "Le Plus vieux metier du monde" (1967). In this parable, a soldier of the "Sovietoamerican" army of the future (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is sent to receive treatment from a "spiritual" prostitute (Anna Karina). Together, they reinvent the kiss (using the one part of the body that can both speak and make love). The authorities declare them dangerous, because "they are making love, progress, and conversation--all at the same time!"
In "Two or Three Things I Know About Her" (1967), considered by some as the greatest of his masterpieces, memorable for such stunning set-pieces as the coffee-cup cosmos and the model city built of consumer goods, Godard himself, the filmmaker/narrator, is a major character, commenting on the dysfunctional bourgeois universe he depicts via a housewife who works part-time on the sly as a prostitute. By "Weekend" (1967), the alienation has become absurd: the married couple openly cheat on each other in a disintegrating world, rendered explicit by endless traffic jams and car crashes. Human dignity and respect are absent from this savage vision of middle-class barbarians and murderous, aimless revolutionaries who become cannibals.
At this point, deciding that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way we lead our modern lives, Godard was ready--like so many of his contemporaries--to turn to political action as a solution. Politics had in fact often been part of the background of the earlier films. "Le petit soldat" (1960), his second film, was actually banned by the government for several years because it dealt with the Algerian situation. "Les Carabiniers" (1963) discussed the politics of war in absurdist terms, with a screenplay co-scripted by one of Godard's key influences, Roberto Rossellini. "Masculin-Feminine" was concerned about the role of youth in contemporary France. "Made in USA" (1966), meanwhile, was a dense and deliberately fragmented attempt at a political suspense film (with references to the Ben Barka affair). "La Chinoise" (1967), meanwhile, one of his more exquisite and fondly remembered films, was a collage portrait, in colorful, pop-art strokes, of the French new left student movement one year before the "events" of May '68. Now it was time to act.
Rejoining his colleagues from "Cahiers du Cinema", Godard participated in the 1968 demonstrations over the dismissal of Henri Langlois as head of the "Cinematheque Francaise" which for them tied in with the famous nationwide worker strikes and student unrest which came to a head in May. Then, from 1968 through 1972, Godard made 11 films, over half in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin (whose involvement varied from project to project), and most released as signed by the "Dziga-Vertov Group." By invoking the name of one of early Soviet cinema's most inventive filmmakers, Godard and Gorin were, they said, "making political films politically." Although they claimed, "we have no answers, only questions," these films appear to address and support militant issues. Yet, in the end, it's clear Godard and Gorin have more concern with the process of filmmaking than with the process of revolution. Throughout their collaboration, they are obsessed with the job of turning theory into practice. "British Sounds" (1969) is perhaps the most successful of Godard's "revolutionary" experiments, a collection of images and sounds meant to incite discussion about workers, about women (and the female body itself), about students, about revolution. Godard and Gorin went on tour with their films, trying to directly engage their audiences in the dialogue.
The Dziga-Vertov period culminated with two films: "Tout va bien" and "A Letter to Jane" (1972). "Tout va bien", with Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, was one of his more accessible films from this period and meant to summarize something of what the group had learned from their experiments in a commercial movie, complete with international stars. As if in reaction, "Letter to Jane" is an essay about an image of Jane Fonda in Vietnam which had appeared in the magazine "L'Express". A 45-minute monologue by Godard/Gorin, "Letter to Jane" explains much about their theories of images and sounds and how they might relate to politics. Following the line of thinkers whose most influential spokesperson had been Bertolt Brecht, the Dziga-Vertov Group politicized the kind of cinema Godard himself had been creating all along, one which established critical distance and reflection on a film's subject matter through constant disruption of any "invisible" realistic style,
The Dziga-Vertov Group disbanded in 1973. (Gorin moved to California to teach, later turning out a number of bold, engaging films, notably 1979's "Poto and Cabengo".) Godard moved to video, both because it was a better medium for the essays and experimentation he had in mind and because TV had by this time become the best way to communicate with the largest number of people. In 1975, he left Paris for Grenoble, and collaboration with Anne-Marie Mieville, his third wife.
In an alternate life, Godard might have "gone Hollywood." It wasn't for want of trying. Robert Benton and David Newman had approached him in the mid-60s about directing "Bonnie & Clyde." Godard couldn't make a deal with the producers. A while later, again with Benton and Newman, he was set to direct "The Technique of a Political Murder", about Trotsky, for producer Raoul Levy. Levy died unexpectedly, and plans fell apart. Godard was considered as director for Jules Feiffer's "Little Murders" until Elliott Gould realized Godard didn't want to make that movie; he wanted to make a movie about making that movie. In the early 80s he attempted to get an elaborate American production about Bugsy Siegel off the ground. It would have starred Diane Keaton, but it didn't come to pass.
So instead Godard stayed with his small-scale, intimate, idiosyncratic and challenging TV and video work. The main productions of the video period were the two series, "Six Fois Deux/Sur et sous la communication" (1976, ten hours), and "France-Tour-Detour-Deux-Enfants" (1978, six hours). Godard starts with the premise that "video is for those who do not see." These series comprise essays on commonplace, everyday subjects--including family, love, work, communication, and relationships--all as they are presented by the media for mass consumption. With some success, Godard challenges the passivity of TV viewers and their unquestioning acceptance of media messages.
Individual segments of the "Six Fois Deux" series examine the mass media's approach to such subjects as unemployment, farming, the language of images, photo news, relationships, math, madness and society, and, of course, filmmaking. In separate segments, real people with direct knowledge of each area of inquiry--including a farmer, a filmmaker and a mathematician--personally discuss these topics and their representation in the media.
"France-Tour-Detour-Deux-Enfants" juxtaposes philosophical interviews with two children (ages 9 and 12) from the same family about the meaning of daily activities against images of everyday life with their parents, including watching TV. For the first time, in these projects for the small screen, Godard takes on the role of teacher to share with a much larger audience his understanding of the complex language of film and TV.
In 1975, Godard had released two films--"Numero Deux" (notable not only for its bold sexuality but also for his spare usage of only parts of the frame) and "Comment Ca Va"--which indicated the direction for the future. More fully than ever before he here contemplated his own cinematic history. Starting in 1980, Godard continued the reinvestigation of concerns and themes he had first developed in the 60s. "Sauve qui peut (la vie)" (1980) and "Passion" (1982) give us portraits of emotional confusion mixed with commentary on the problems of filmmaking--a fusion of the 60s and early 70s.
With his next three films, Godard hit his stride again. "First Name: Carmen" (1983) imaginatively retold the old story, with Godard himself playing a role with wry amusement. "Detective" (1985), a challenging comic homage to the genre (dedicated "to John Cassavetes, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Clint Eastwood") brought Godard back with pleasure to his first cinematic love. But it was "Hail Mary" (1985) which really marked Godard's return to theatrical prominence. This modern nativity tale--placing the story of Joseph and Mary in modernist society, rampant with jealousy, loneliness, and divorce--was actually condemned by the Vatican. At the age of 55, Jean-Luc Godard was once again the enfant terrible. "Hail Mary" evinces the same sort of fresh, exciting--and often infuriating--narrative innovation that made the films of Jean-Luc Godard required viewing for anyone who cared about film in the 60s.
In 1987, the ever-prolific and experimental Godard turned out three more films. His segment of the omnibus feature "Aria" was one of the bolder, funnier exercises, setting Jean-Baptiste Lully's "Armide" in a gymnasium with brooding, nude female workers contemplating the murder of muscle-bound males. "Soigne ta droite" was a docu-essay on French pop group Les Rita Mitsouko, drawing comparisons to his earlier "One Plus One" (1968), which had intercut the Rolling Stones recording "Sympathy for the Devil" with fragments of contemporary English life. "King Lear", meanwhile, marked Godard's English-language and, in some sense, Hollywood debut but unfortunately was not one of his best films of this period. A striking take on the Bard nonetheless, it was shot for Cannon films in Geneva, with Molly Ringwald as Cordelia, Burgess Meredith as Lear, Woody Allen as "Mr. Alien" and stage director Peter Sellars as a bewildered "Will Shakespeare V."
While not a cause celebre, "New Wave" (1990), about big business machinations on a Swiss estate, continued Godard's very personal quest to understand the nature and meaning of the movies. His work seemed to become that of an artist in the twilight of his career, as in "Helas Pour Moi/Woe Is Me" (1993), which reworked the Greek myth of Amphitryon to explore, among other things, the issue of God's role in human lives. His affectionate video "History of the Cinema" and his feature "Germany Year 90 Nine Zero" (both 1991), which revisits both Rossellini's classic "Germany Year Zero" of 1947 and Godard's own "Alphaville", further confirm his singular position in any journeys taken to explore the relationship between cinema and life itself.