If a filmmaker deserved the title of “founder of modern cinema”, it is Jean-Luc Godard, who died at the age of 91. He was the most original and provocative voice among the gang of three identified with that tidal cataclysm in post-war film, the French New Wave. Where François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol never completely abandoned traditional modes of storytelling, despite all their radicalism of theme or style, Godard insisted that a story must have “a beginning, a middle and an end , but not necessarily in that order.
Since his first feature film in 1960 Breathless (Breathless) he changed the rules, challenged traditions and explored new forms for the moving image. He embraced the radical documentary, the allegory of agitprop (Weekend, Made in the USA) and the musical film (Sympathy for the Devil with the Rolling Stones). He jumped at the aesthetic opportunities of the video and computer age.
Godard saw cinema less as a dramatic medium than as the platform for a sort of endless dialogue: between artist and audience, between reality and artifice, above all between the present and the cultural, political treasure and philosophy of the past.
Godard’s later works had fewer fans than earlier ones. He abandoned the little interest he had, even very early, for narrative cinema. Movies made in the 1990s like Germany year 90 nine zero (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero) and alas for me (Oh, Poor me) were collages of complex and puzzling images, simultaneously evoking and dismembering the systems of thought of the world: art, history, politics, cinema.
Godard’s great early films — Breathless, Live your life, Male Female, Alphaville, Pierrot le fou – now seem almost simple by contrast. He took from Bertolt Brecht, a significant influence, not only Brecht’s didactic tendency but also his passion for presenting drama as a game of play and charade and direct skill. Godard made little effort to pretend that directing cinema was anything other than directing. The result was a postmodern precociousness that endeared it to such unlikely fans as Quentin Tarantino (who named his production company A Band Apart after the film Godard Keeping to himself) and New Yorker’s populist and cinematically Eurosceptic critique Pauline Kael.
Godard was born in Paris in December 1930, the son of a doctor and the daughter of a banker, and grew up in Nyon, Switzerland. Back in Paris, he enrolled at the Sorbonne with the supposed aim of studying anthropology. Instead, he haunted the cinemas of the left bank and the Cinémathèque, giving himself a cinematographic education alongside the men – Truffaut, Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer – with whom he launched the influential Gazette du Cinéma and made famous Cahiers du Cinema magazine. Later, the same group would found the New Wave.
In the early 1950s, Godard severed ties with his family after his father placed him in a mental institution following a stint in prison for theft; his mother died in a car accident a few years later. A paying job as a dam worker in Switzerland led to his first film Concrete operation (1955), a 20-minute documentary filmed with a 35mm camera.
He did more short films before finding worldwide fame with Breathless. Based on an idea by Truffaut, this movie’s blend of hand-held street shooting with scenes of cocky, static gossip was a whole new recipe for cinema. So was its heady cocktail of disruptive plot, mock romance, and literary and film quotes. His next film, The little soldier (The little soldier), was banned for three years for its indictment of French policy in Algeria, although its star Anna Karina became Godard’s first actress-muse, playing the lead roles in his musical A woman is a woman (1961) and her history of sex work, Live your life (1962). Godard and Karina married in 1961, divorcing in 1965.
At the end of the 1960s, after a critical success with Contempt (Contempt), with Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance and Fritz Lang, Alphaville and Pierrot le fou, he changed direction to explore agitprop cinema. Discovering Maoism through his second wife, actress Anne Wiazemsky, he made radical films for a resistant global audience such as The Chinese (1967) and Weekend (also 1967). Later, after co-founding the Dziga Vertov group to “politically make political films”, he added the hermetic and hectoral works British sounds and the east wind.
It reappears, sometimes, to come into contact with a residual popular public. Everything is going well (1972) starred Jane Fonda and Yves Montand in a labor-for-capital comedy-drama using a Jerry Lewis-inspired tiered setting The ladies’ man. Even that bizarre, high-profile effort was soon forgotten as he descended into radicalism with a new partner, Anne-Marie Miéville, moving to Switzerland to begin a series of films, videos and TV shows.
The pattern of “now the public sees it, now they don’t” continued. His 1980s “trilogy of the sublime” began with the lavishly cast thriller Passioncontinued with the Golden Lion of Venice Name Carmen (almost a return to the faux-romantic witty brilliance of early Godards) and ended with the complex I salute you mariewho was condemned by the Pope.
Since 1990, Godard’s feature films have been jerky in all directions, long intervals separating the fragmented and stubbornly political improvisations: from Germany Year 90 Nine Zeroa sour meditation on the New Europe, Forever Mozart, in which a French troupe attempts to stage a play in Sarajevo. His most monumental project of the end of the millennium was the eight parts History(ies) of Cinemaa usually expansive and provocative video-based summary of our cinematic heritage.
That there has never been another filmmaker like Godard is indisputable. That there has never been another Godard like the first Godard is, for many fans, just as true.