Godard’s films were perhaps the first to try to capture the ‘real’ by drawing attention to cinema as artifice rather than an unmediated recording of experience.
Jean-Luc Godard passed away on September 13, 2022, aged 91
Last Updated: 02.57 PM, Sep 19, 2022
Jean-Luc Godard’s name is inextricably bound to the film movement called the French New Wave which came of age in the early 1960s. Some of its best-known filmmakers were critics in the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma, and could be termed students of the great critic Andre Bazin (who edited the journal). There were others outside the Cahiers group, like Agnes Varda and Alain Resnais, who were also associated with the French New Wave. But it was the Cahiers group that was more visible, with Godard becoming the most celebrated and visible among them.
The filmmakers of the New Wave were avid cinephiles and attended the Paris Cinematheque founded by Henri Langlois, so it is not surprising that their films are all peppered by references to cinema. The film to announce Godard’s arrival was Breathless (1960), scripted by Francois Truffaut, also a leading director of the New Wave and another avid cinephile.
Breathless is intended broadly as a crime film — perhaps noir — but given that Truffaut’s own films are different, it is likely that Godard turned it into something completely unexpected. It is filmed on location, always in natural light and put together roughly, as though the seams of filmmaking were deliberately left visible.
Breathless tells the story of a petty thief named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and the film begins with him stealing a car and fatally shooting a policeman on the way. It is essentially about the relationship between Michel and an American named Patricia (Jean Seberg), who is in Paris and sells the New York Herald Tribune on the streets.
The film’s plotting is loose and we do not understand many of the connections – the criminals Michel is dealing with, the police’s dealings with the criminals, and how the police get to Michel. Much of the dialogue between Michel and Patricia revolves around Michel wanting Patricia to sleep with him and giving her reasons why she should. Michel lives for the moment while Patricia has ambitions of some kind. The film ends with Patricia betraying him to the police and Michel being gunned down in the streets in her sight. Michel grimaces as he has earlier before a mirror and, as a last gesture, he closes his eyes with his fingers while dying.
Godard’s films, in a way, betokened the arrival of ‘modernism’ into cinema. A characteristic of many modernist movements in art (e.g. Impressionism) is self-consciousness: the sense that objects and events cannot be caught as though unmediated by human perception (i.e. ‘as they are’) but that what is caught will be restricted by man’s perceiving apparatus. Godard’s films are perhaps the first to try to capture the ‘real’ by drawing attention to cinema as artifice rather than an unmediated recording of experience. His film-making seems, in fact, paradoxical; the films look casually staged but he insists on ‘real conditions’ — filming on the streets, using natural lighting, for instance. There is, hence, always a tension between the staging and the reality he strives to catch. One could argue that instead of the uncomplicated aesthetic of realist cinema, he emphasises the artifice of cinema in order to seize upon a fragile ‘truth’.
Godard’s film-making is different from that of most other major film-makers in that he seems to exclude deliberation and allows for accidents. His films, which are inventive and sometimes truly poetic, are also like a trash heap of indiscriminate cultural references ranging from French poetry to Marquez’s magical realism. Further, where other film-makers might depend on careful planning for the effects they want, Godard relies on the small miracles of the moment. His films are not rigorously constructed and, by his own admission, he tries to ‘capture the definitive by chance’. His films are more like blueprints for films than actual films exploring objective reality.
After his first two features, Godard started veering towards political issues but his films only give us mixed results. The Little Soldier (1963) is an exquisite film about a French secret agent Bruno who falls in love with a woman, Veronica, from the Algerian side and while both are tortured by their enemies, Veronica dies. The emphasis on Godard’s ‘realism’ is manifested in a sequence where a woman delivers laundry to the apartment where Bruno is being tortured. ‘Reality’ is inherently banal Godard is trying to say and not dramatic as other spy films make it seem. Someone also declares in it that actors are grotesque because they do what people tell them — laugh or cry when required.
As if to sustain this, Godard has hardly any acting in his films; the actors mouth the lines they are expected to, smoke incessantly and drive around. It is as if cigarettes and cars keep them away from histrionics. While I would rate this film alongside My Life to Live (1962), which is about the life of a prostitute, and Contempt (1963), a story set in the film industry, as Godard’s greatest, his effects are not always reliable and many films, despite brilliant segments, are not watchable. The satire of The Carabineers (1963) is too obvious and A Woman is a Woman (1961) — which tries to do for the musical what Breathless did for noir — is mundane.
After the political upheaval in Paris in 1968, Godard became even more political (Marxist) in his views and eventually broke away from mainstream filmmaking altogether, making political documentaries (with Jean-Pierre Gorin) on socio-political matters such as those pertaining to the Vietnam war (Letter to Jane), Palestine (Here and Elsewhere) and working-class issues (British Sounds). Some of the films are highly provocative intellectually but they pertain to that moment. ‘Brechtian’ was a term applied to his films and, like Brecht’s plays (e.g.: The Life of Galileo) they have dated. Godard had the great Raoul Coutard as his cinematographer but with his political opinions overriding everything else, he broke off with Coutard and with many others; even the other members of the French New Wave began to regard him ambivalently. Those like Rivette and Truffaut eventually remained truer to cinema than Godard.
Godard, one could say, took an oppositional position to cinema (as art or entertainment) the way people knew it and he cultivated a personality in tune with it. He appeared unshaven and usually with a cigarette between his lips. He wore dark glasses all the time; this personality — and his youth — gave him a degree of glamour that the older filmmakers were unable to match. His quips were witty but on deeper scrutiny do not yield very much of significance (like this one: “A film must have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order”).
After his political phase Godard returned to mainstream filmmaking but there is a new kind of cynicism to his work. His films are always witty but it is as though cinema itself hardly matters any longer. Godard reportedly planned a project one or two decades ago, to make a film with Marlon Brando and Gerard Depardieu (the most bankable stars then) not release it anywhere but have the reels auctioned by Sotheby’s. Virtually every IFFI had a Godard film till some years ago but I always avoided watching them and even the few I did were too forgettable to be great cinema.
Godard was influential but I would say that his impact was immediate and did not continue after the 1970s. In India his films have had little discernible influence and people respond more to his towering political reputation which lends him an enormous amount of glamour; his irreverent persona also appeals to younger cinephiles. When he was honoured for lifetime achievement at the IFFK in 2021, the 91-year-old Godard smoked a cigar during the online interview and he was not serious enough to say anything important; but the hushed reverence with which he was approached by the Marxist organisers was nonetheless palpable.
Godard’s films are not complex in terms of content but he discovered a new idiom that suited the times. His earliest fertile period makes sense in the specific context of the 1960s because it was an age that demanded social engagement from intellectuals and artists. Godard was fond of quoting Lenin: ‘Ethics are the aesthetics of the future.’ What this suggests is that all artistic criteria will be reducible to ethical values because ‘beauty’ cannot exist in a vacuum and must depend on the notions of liberty and justice.
Godard’s best films are personal explorations of the moral issues of their times and he gets wonderfully poetic effects as in My Life to Live. His obsession with the real is essentially an ethical concern. But, overall, his films also draw attention because of their beauty — often unrelated to his moral preoccupations. We must recall that a film like Breathless depends enormously on his actors, the music and his cinematographer and Contempt is unimaginable without Georges Delerue’s magnificent musical score. Godard’s earlier films are perhaps most memorable today for the visual beauty that these others infused them with, but the political questions he raised have gradually lost their relevance, although film academicians still study him.
MK Raghavendra is a well-known film critic who has authored eight books on Indian and international cinema.