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Jean-Luc Godard: A beginner's guide

Jean-Luc Godard's passing brings to a close a singular career in cinema. Here's what you can begin with if you're just starting to explore his work
Jean-Luc Godard: A beginner's guide
  • Uday Bhatia

  • LiveMint

Last Updated: 11.45 AM, Sep 14, 2022

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Jean-Luc Godard’s rise roughly coincided with that of The Beatles. And, in a similar short period of seven years, from Breathless (1960) to Weekend (1967), he changed the face of film, just as they changed music. The Swiss-born French director gained notoriety as one of the establishment-baiting critics at the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. But it was his first film, Breathless, which reordered the medium with its irreverence, its genre games and the great leaps of its intuitive editing. After that followed film after incredible film: Vivre sa vie (1962), Contempt (1963), Bande à part (1964), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Masculin Féminin (1966).

Godard died on Tuesday, at his home in Switzerland. He was 91. His is an immense legacy, encompassing the trailblazing films of the 1960s, his turn towards Marxism and agitprop collaborations, a return to a more narrative-based cinema in the '80s, and the obtuse but elegiac films of the late period. In addition, there’s his early film criticism, his later writings, and his challenging essay films. While every Godard era has its supporters, his reputation rests on his films of the 1960s, a run unrivalled for sheer inventiveness, daring and immediate impact. It’s impossible to include all of those here, let alone touch upon the majority of his later, more abstruse efforts. Look at this as a guide for the uninitiated, who might have only heard the name Godard said reverentially and assumed it stood for something arty and boring. As the film world bids goodbye to one of its greats, here’s a beginner’s guide to Godard: 

Breathless (1960)

The film that started it all. Though Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955) is regarded by some as the first film of the French New Wave, Breathless is when the movement exploded. A small-time Bogart-fixated criminal goes on the lam with an American woman after shooting a cop—a sketch of a story brought alive by jump cuts, location shooting and hardboiled dialogue. Godard famously said he thought he was making Scarface and realized once it was done that he’d made Alice in Wonderland

Bande à part (1963)

Bande à part, which served as my introduction to Godard, has the playfulness of Breathless but is more emotionally involving. This is a result of its poetic, melancholic tone, and the luminous presence of Anna Karina in the lead. Her Odile, caught between her feelings for two small-time thieves, is naive, open and heartbreaking, never more so than when she looks straight at the camera and sings “My heart goes out at the sight of you”. 

Contempt (1963)

Contempt is that thing which most great directors seem compelled to try once: a film about filmmaking. It’s the closest Godard came to commercial cinema, with stars Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance playing the estranged couple who unravel during the filming of a multilingual version of The Odyssey. This portrait of a collapsing marriage is graced by Raoul Coutard’s ravishing colour photography and Georges Delerue’s poignant score. 

Weekend (1967)

An unhappy couple who’ve been planning to murder each other go on a road trip and stumble into the apocalypse. Strange as this summary might seem, it’s only a hint of the comic savagery Godard threads through this film. Roger Ebert wrote in his review: “Year after year, Jean-Luc Godard has been chipping away at the language of cinema. Now, in Weekend, he has just about got down to the bare bones.” It was Godard’s farewell to narrative cinema, which he only returned to in 1980. 

Two in the Wave (2010)

It’s impossible to talk about Godard without eventually mentioning François Truffaut. The two came up together, first as fiery critics, then as acclaimed—and very different—filmmakers. Their friendship, and falling out, is depicted in Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary Two in the Wave, a bracing portrait of two individuals who took cinema more seriously than anyone else. 

Godard on Godard

If you’re curious how Godard the critic became Godard the filmmaker, this collection of his critical writings offers a clue. It’s not just for Godard completists though—this is essential film criticism, quotable, erudite and highly opinionated. For a critical overview of his entire career, you can look up Richard Brody’s definitive Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard. 

Histoire(s) du cinema

Godard’s most ambitious undertaking was a documentary project he worked on from the late 1980s to 1998. A series of musings on cinema, literature, art and music, it’s a Joycean work, 266 minutes in all, layered with allusions and visual and linguistic puns, music commenting on picture commenting on text. 

Goodbye to Language (2014)

One of the best of his melancholic late period films, Goodbye to Language was also an arthouse experiment in 3D. Even in 2D, however, the film is stunning. The best way to experience this haunting essay film might be to stop expecting it to come together as narrative and instead enjoy the dreamlike density of hue and texture. 

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