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Waiting For Godard: He Changed The Way We Understood Cinema

'Being introduced to Godard’s work set me on the path towards a deeply rewarding relationship with cinema.'

Waiting For Godard: He Changed The Way We Understood Cinema
Jean-Luc Godard. 1930-2022
  • Prahlad Srihari

Last Updated: 01.09 PM, Sep 21, 2022


Jean-Luc Godard was my film school. As it had been pre-decided well before birth that I was to be an engineer, he was the only film school I could attend and afford. Introduction to the name came via a wrong answer to a question about “a French director with an Impressionist painter for a father” at a quiz in Bangalore. “Godard,” shouted the contestant who had mixed up his Jeans. It was Renoir — not that I knew either at the time. I had just turned 15 and my dad had gifted me my first PC. I had just discovered Kubrick. 2001: A Space Odyssey had bowled me over. A Clockwork Orange gave me an art attack. The most scandalous thing I had seen until then were the episodes of Buffy I would catch when mum and dad weren’t home. The night of the quiz, Jean and Jean-Luc had sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Coming back up again, I downloaded a DVDRip of Breathless from The Pirate Bay at a breakneck speed of 30 kbps. This was pre-ACT Fibernet days. The download took eight hours. Watching the film next morning took 90 minutes — and I was hooked.

Being introduced to Godard’s work set me on the path towards a deeply rewarding relationship with cinema. Watching his films helped me engage with the medium in ways both holistic and deconstructive. Writing about them made me the film writer I am today. Learning of his passing on September 13 thus felt like losing a teacher, a formative influence, a tactile connection to a world I had known close to nothing about for half my life. He looked the part of a cool college professor too: the high balding forehead, the tinted glasses and a cigarette forever hanging from the mouth. The urge to smoke is never stronger than when one is watching Jean-Paul Belmondo or Anna Karina smoke in Godard’s films, which make for persuasive foils to the anti-smoking PSAs.

Watching Godard’s films had convinced me I could make them too. Learning I shared my birthday with Ingmar Bergman and the French National Day had further convinced me it was fated. So far, it sure doesn’t seem like it. But if I haven’t given up on the dream yet, it’s because Godard too was a film critic before he became a filmmaker — or so I tell myself. To be sure, he was the first film critic to make a successful transition into filmmaking. And he did, armed with an encyclopaedia’s worth of knowledge of what came before, to lead the medium towards its future. His films, just as much as his writings or interviews, doubled as an exercise in film criticism itself. Or to put it another way: he was co-opting criticism into his own films, constructing and deconstructing at the same time with images and sounds.

This emergent facet, peculiar to Godard, made writing about him a fascinating challenge. Because words are about the only tool I have as a film writer. Take his jump cuts: they may dislocate the viewer, but the missing frames create their own sense of mystery. I couldn’t help but feel I was diluting the meaning and mystery to the films with my limited comprehension and articulation skills. But these films pushed me to put in the work: to read not only about cinema, but every other artform, from music to dance, so I could use my one tool more effectively. While I waited for the next film to download, I read as much as I could.

There are many Godard films I didn’t entirely “get”, still don’t, and may never will. The fun though lies in the challenge. As is tradition in many Indian households, my overeager parents had me working my way through IIT coaching hand-me-downs for Maths and Science at 11. So, I wasn’t easily overawed or discouraged by challenges that took a while to get a grasp on. Only, to my parents’ chagrin, my patience for comprehending abstruse films was greater than for comprehending calculus or thermodynamics. Godard had inspired Chantal Akerman at the age of 15, and entire generations of independent filmmakers. If anyone questioned my ambitions to follow in their path, I always had a quote handy to rest my case. “Cinema is not an art which films life: cinema is something between art and life. Unlike painting and literature, cinema both gives to life and takes from it.” “Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.” “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” I had one for every occasion, as if I was on some divine journey.

One of the more important lessons Godard taught me was, it’s okay to be pretentious, a discrediting remark the filmmaker himself had to bear throughout his career. As confused adolescents and still-forming adults in college, we are all trying on different personalities to see which one fits best. But even being curious about films, books, music and cultures once unfamiliar to us has become an invitation for this one-size-fits-all putdown. Liked Goodbye to Language? Pretentious. Struggled through but finished Finnegans Wake? Pretentious. Even loving Björk can earn the dreaded P-word. Given how easily my name could be conflated into an alliteration, I had to learn to own my “pretentiousness.” And own it, I did, instead of letting peers police my taste. Aren’t pretensions a necessary stimulus in our early careers as creatives? So many transformative works wouldn’t have existed or would have felt impoverished without recourse to earlier works. Don’t we all fake it till we make it? Those now dubbed auteurs too were once poseurs.

Indeed, when it comes to referentiality, what separated Godard from some of the filmmakers today is he acknowledged his influences as he created something new from them. It is the fine line between inspiration and imitation. Godard’s love for American genre movies gave life to the otherwise uncinematic hang-ups of the young and restless in Breathless. When I think of Godard, I think of Belmondo and Jean Seberg lying in bed together in a seedy hotel, arguing about Faulkner, and going to the movies. I think of Karina dancing to a jukebox in Vivre sa vie. I think of the dash through the Louvre in Bande à part. What made me love these films as a teenager was how they could be so footloose and full of possibilities on one level, and captured the disaffection and loneliness on another. Being a fly on the wall observing the freewheeling lives of these characters was a source of endless joy and learning.

Putting Godard in a single box doesn’t do justice to a life spent pushing the limits of cinema. After all, the French New Wave is but one section spanning roughly eight years in his filmography. He wasn’t a mid-20th century relic who stopped being relevant after the 1960s. The body of work that came after was richer in ideas, bursting with narrative experimentation, and a whole lot more challenging. In La Chinoise, he loosely reimagined Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons with a young Maoist collective in Paris turning to insurrectionary violence. This was Godard growing into an overtly political filmmaker, as evidenced by the casting of the young Senegalese revolutionary Omar Blondin Diop as a version of himself. For Godard, the end goal was revolution: political, cultural and cinematic. It was about overthrowing existing systems of government, thought and artistic production with more equitable ones. Some of his ‘80s films continued to echo his past concerns or saw them in a new light. Je vous salue, Marie reflected on his own relationship with women and how he had portrayed them in his earlier movies. The films he made in the 21st century gave a whole new definition to new media, and now coalesce as a fitting epitaph to a career spent revolutionising cinema. Revisiting each one of them is always a humbling experience, as you notice and learn new things you missed on previous viewings.

The transparency in Godard’s filmmaking allowed for a greater understanding of the medium, its means and its message. Whether I agreed with his politics or not didn’t matter so much simply because I was learning about ideas I hadn’t been exposed to. His films had such a probing preoccupation with the world around him, you wanted to put in the work. He pushed me out of my comfort zone to reconsider films that I had decided were not for me, and re-evaluate my own assumptions. Through his words and those of his characters, my appreciation for the films of American directors like Otto Preminger and Samuel Fuller grew just as much as it did for his films.

When Seberg’s character asks Jean-Pierre Melville’s novelist in Breathless, “What is your greatest ambition?” his response is, “To become immortal. And then… die.” In an uncharacteristically linear narrative choice, as The Onion put it, Godard sure did both. Love him, hate him, or admire him from a distance, there is no denying the void he leaves behind is impossible to fill. Let Satyajit Ray sum up as to why: “‘I don’t like Godard’ is a statement one frequently hears at film festivals. Now, I don’t like Godard too. But then, ‘like’ is a word I seldom use to describe my feeling about truly modern artists...Liking suggests an easy involvement of the senses, a spontaneous ‘taking to’, which I doubt if the modern artist even claims from his public. Godard has been both dismissed summarily, and praised to the skies, and the same films have provoked opposite reactions. This is inevitable when a director consistently demolishes sacred conventions, while at the same time packing his films with obviously striking things...If Godard has a hallmark, it is in repeated references to other directors, other films (both good and bad), other forms of art, and to a myriad phenomenon of contemporary life. These references do not congeal into a single significant attitude, but merely reflect the alertness of Godard’s mind, and the range and variety of his interests.”

Godard showed cinema for what it was and paved the way for what else it could be. He kept reworking the language of cinema throughout his career in the hopes of mobilising the means into better representing his radical ideas. In his film essay Histoire(s) du cinéma, he said, “I need a day to tell the story of one second. I need a year to tell the story of one minute. I need a lifetime to tell the story of one hour. I need an eternity to tell the story of one day.” The same logic holds for writing about Godard. Everyone’s got their own story, and no single essay can pack the weight of his influence on every filmmaker, every film writer and every film lover.

A character in Film Socialisme says, “On dit toujours qu’on ne peut comparer que ce qui est comparable. En fait on ne peut comparer que de l’incomparable du pas comparable.” (They say we can only compare what is comparable. In fact, we can only compare what is incomparable, not comparable.) It is a statement of irrefutable Godardian logic. But how does one even begin to compare the incomparable Godard?