In 1960, Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film, Breathless, would make him an icon of French cinema, inaugurating a career that has consistently expanded society’s definitions and expectations of cinema. That film alone would have reason enough to consider him an important filmmaker, but Godard went on to direct fourteen more features through 1967, culminating with his attack on bourgeois culture, Weekend.
Following this extraordinary run of films, Godard found himself at a moment of great change. His romantic and artistic partnership with Anna Karina had ended, to be replaced with a new (but short-lived) marriage to Anne Wiazemsky, who would serve as a bridge to the current youth culture. Godard’s politics had also changed considerably since the 1950s. His conservatism, a relic of his parents’s politics, had been replaced with an interest in Maoism and an increasing distaste for anything evoking America. (Classic Hollywood cinema initially got a pass, despite being responsible for defining much of America’s image throughout the world.) After the tumult of his constantly evolving films, the world of politics offered Godard a welcomed respite, and he was able to devote himself to documenting and participating in the French student protests of 1968.
Following the upheaval of ’68, politics became the central concern of Godard’s films, almost completely replacing plot, story, and characters. Many of the films for the next few years were directed in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, a much younger filmmaker who also connected Godard to contemporary trends. The films they directed as the Dziga Vertov group are often abstract and invariably remind viewers that they are watching a film, rather than allowing them to develop a deeper connection to what is on screen. Godard could never be accused of making realist films, but his Brechtian desire to cue his audience into the artificiality of film had reached a new level. Often this was achieved through a radical use of sound and music editing. In 1962, A Woman is a Woman deconstructed traditional use of songs in musicals, and A Married Woman (1964) was scored with Beethoven’s late quartets, rather than an original score that might mimic and emphasize the film’s mood. Godard’s films from 1968 on either used little music or were filled with preexisting classical music. Cues would abruptly end in the middle of scenes, or they would start up in the middle of a conversation with no obvious explanation. Art house audiences had grown accustomed to experimental films, but even the most radical works of Bergman, Truffaut, and Antonioni steered toward more traditional uses of sound and music. The Dziga Vertov group eventually dissolved in 1972.
Godard’s post-1968 techniques were often seen as off-putting and confusing to audiences, and even today, many of the Dziga Vertov films he made with Gorin function better in art museums than in traditional cinemas. The Maoism of Godard’s films from that era also seems particularly dated, the philosophy of people who knew little of the tens of millions of Chinese citizens who died from famine as a results of Mao’s policies, or who were purged in various ways for their political beliefs. This short-sightedness followed in the footsteps of the French Communist Party, which was hesitant to accept (and sometimes outright denied) the atrocities committed at the behest of Joseph Stalin.
Godard himself would recognize the failings of his political period in Here and Elsewhere (1976), a film made in collaboration with his new artistic and romantic partner, Anne-Marie Miéville. The film juxtaposed footage shot with Gorin in 1970 of Palestinian fighters with new voiceover and segments shot on video. Godard and Miéville commissioned a new translation, at which point they learned that the fighters had not been speaking triumphant slogans, as the supportive translators had misleadingly indicated; rather, they were describing how they were unprepared to resist the more heavily armed Israelis. The original film had been shelved when most of the participants were killed in battle shortly thereafter. Here and Elsewhere then became an examination of how Godard and Gorin’s beliefs and desires for Palestinian victory had clouded their ability to see the fighters’s self-expressed futility.
Following the dissolution of Godard’s partnership with Gorin in 1972, he began to experiment with video and television. Videotape allowed Godard to easily and quickly edit, and also provided a variety of effects that could not be achieved on film. His video experiments often juxtaposed on screen texts with images and allowed him to easily layer multiple images. Although he was still primarily concerned with ideas rather than stories, his projects in the latter part of the 1970s began to reincorporate elements of narrative filmmaking.
The official return to narrative films, what Godard called his second first film, was 1980’s Every Man for Himself. From the opening shots it’s clear that Godard’s years in the wilderness had considerably changed his cinematic interests. His ‘60s films were often nicely composed and had intriguing color designs, but they tended to be bound to the manic energy of urban Paris. The films of the ’80s and beyond were illuminated by the beauty of nature, first in rural France, then in Godard’s new home on the shores of Lake Geneva. Every Man for Himself opens with shots of clouds interrupted by jet trails. These bucolic shots are repeated in the opening moments of his next film, Passion (1982), and also reappear halfway through 1987’s Keep Your Right Up. Hail Mary (1985) uses shots of trees and grass tossed asunder in a storm to illustrate the impregnation of a young woman by a cruel God. The primary colors that had animated his films of the ‘60s have been replaced with the lush green of grass and the deep blue of Lake Geneva. Godard’s films from this period share much in their appreciation of nature and beauty with the work of Terrence Malick. The rarely screened King Lear (1987) shares not only this appreciation of nature, but also a very personal use of voiceover. (The film, which has an unlikely cast featuring Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Norman Mailer, and Woody Allen, had only a short American release and initiated a run of films that would not be released in America at all.)
The distancing effect of sound is also much more pronounced in Godard’s second run of narrative films. Dialogue and sound effects were often used without any connection to what was on screen: for instance, the opening moments of Every Man for Himself feature a female opera singer wailing away as one of the main characters has a telephone conversation in his hotel room. At first it seems as if the music is meant to be part of the soundtrack, until the character pauses from his call to berate someone in the next room – the singer in question. Elsewhere in the film, multiple characters are actually able to hear the film’s score cues and ask if anyone else noticed them, culminating in one character walking past an orchestra as it plays bombastic, emotional music (whether or not Godard had seen that idea used as a gag in Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety is unclear).
In the second film of his late period, 1982’s Passion, Godard’s use of sound becomes even more extreme (and occasionally frustrating). Many scenes have dialogue that is out of sync with the images; in some cases it is only off by a few seconds, but in other instances dialogue from one scene is played over a completely different scene with a different set of characters. Despite how confusing it initially seems, the technique gives the film a remarkable economy, as viewers can simultaneously process two different scenes: those that they hear and those that they see. Subsequent films would dial back this confrontational use of dialogue editing.
In addition to his striking experiments with dialogue, Godard’s use of music in his late films emphasizes the artificiality of music in film. In First Name: Carmen (1983), Godard returned to Beethoven’s late quartets, previously used to great effect in A Married Woman. The mood of the quartets rarely matches with the action on screen; it comments on the images rather than simply emphasizing how viewers should feel. Godard would jettison his beloved Beethoven in exchange for 20th century classical music in subsequent films. Films such as Oh Woe is Me (1993), For Ever Mozart (1996), and In Praise of Love (2001) would use much of this music to help convey the film’s emotions, rather than just commenting on them. However, even when using “mood music,” Godard’s obtrusive editing still made the film’s artificiality clear. These opposing forces allowed Godard to have it both ways.
Whereas most of Godard’s films of the 1980s and ‘90s had been rather experimental and difficult to embrace, his work toward the end of the last century began to put a greater emphasis on emotions and love, something that had rarely happened since his earliest films of the 1960s. In For Ever Mozart, Godard shows a group of actors who have travelled to war-torn Sarajevo to put on a production of a 19th century French play. The actors are captured by a group of Serbian paramilitary forces, raped, then executed and thrown in a mass grave. Godard’s usual jokes suffuse the film, but he allows the viewer to experience the tragedy of their deaths without resorting to his usual editing techniques.
His next film, In Praise of Love, would expand on this newfound commitment to emotion and human connection. The film is divided into two sections, the first shot in black and white 35 mm film, and the second shot in super saturated and manipulated video. The first section follows an artist attempting to create a mostly undefined project examining the nature of love. He eventually tracks down a woman he met two years earlier that he considers essential for whatever this project will become, but she ultimately refuses him. Later he learns that the young woman has committed suicide. The second section takes place two years earlier, when Edgar first meets the young woman. Her grandparents are former members of the French Resistance who have entered into a contract to allow William Styron to write a screenplay based on their life story, to be directed by Stephen Spielberg. The granddaughter attempts to nullify the contract but is unsuccessful. In Praise of Love is perhaps Godard’s most beautiful film, with its use of stunning black-and-white and almost hallucinatory color. It is also his most unguarded examination of love. Despite his return to such universal themes, many American critics wrote scathing reviews of the film that had more to do with its anti-American rhetoric than its deeper substance. Godard’s attack on Spielberg is unfair, and many of his criticisms of America are one-sided and half-formed, but by focusing so extensively on them, most critics failed to see the forest for the trees.
Following the (initial) critical and commercial failure of In Praise of Love, Godard returned to more political subjects. Notre Musique (2004) and Film Socialism (2010) both featured extended sections on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Unfortunately, Godard’s pro-Palestinian politics shifted into outright anti-Semitism in these films, particularly in Notre Musique, where he suggests that the Jews were at least partially culpable for the Holocaust. In addition to returning to political subjects, Godard’s editing became much quicker and seemingly erratic with Film Socialism and its follow-up, Goodbye to Language (2014).
Film Socialism marked Godard’s first use of digital photography (quite routine by then), but Goodbye to Language marked one of the first instances of an art film being shot in 3D. His use of 3D in the film is revolutionary; in the film’s most celebrated shot, the two cameras used to create images for the left and right eyes are turned in opposite directions. When viewed with 3D glasses, the images are superimposed, yet also distinct. Previous commercial films had used 3D to immerse viewers and to make the experience more enveloping. In keeping with his Brechtian goals, Godard instead used 3D to remind his audience that they were watching a film in 3D.
The sheer audacity of Goodbye to Language led to a greater interest in that film than many of his recent films. The film also made it clear that Jean-Luc Godard is still a vital cinematic force who continues to push the limits of cinema. His films have influenced countless others, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh to Woody Allen. Much of Godard’s reputation lies with his initial burst of creativity in the ‘60s, but critical reevaluations of the films of the last three decades show them to be works of equal artistic value. At 84-years-old, Godard remains one of the most youthful and inventive filmmakers of all time.