Jean-Luc Godard: A master who redefined cinema

The most political of filmmakers of his generation, Godard was relevant and influential until the end.

Published : Sep 14, 2022 14:52 IST

Jean-Luc Godard at a press conference for the presentation of his film Histoire(s) du cinema, in Cannes in 1997.

Jean-Luc Godard at a press conference for the presentation of his film Histoire(s) du cinema, in Cannes in 1997. | Photo Credit: AFP

One of the most oft-repeated quotes of Jean-Luc Godard was: “He who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” The comment encapsulates the spirit of one of the greatest and most iconoclastic figures of modern cinema. The man who, along with Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette brought in la nouvelle vague or the new wave movement in French films with movies like A bout de souffle (1960), Vivre sa Vie (1962), Le Mepris (1963), Bande a Part (1964), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965), passed away on September 13 at the age of 91.

According to reports, his legal advisor, Patrick Jeanneret said that Godard “had recourse to legal assistance in Switzerland for a voluntary departure as he was stricken with ‘multiple invalidating illnesses’, according to the medical report”.

In a filmmaking career that stretched seven decades, Godard changed forever the course of art cinema, while redefining the method of filmmaking. He was the most radical, the most rebellious, and the most political of all the filmmakers of his generation, and his greatness lay in the fact that he continued to remain relevant and influential until the present day.

In 1991, Quentin Tarantino named his new production company “A Band Apart”, tipping his hat to Godard’s 1965 movie.

Expanding boundaries

Throughout his creative life Godard broke the shackles of tradition and strove to expand the boundaries of cinema. What Marlon Brando did for actors and Bob Dylan for songwriters, Godard did for cinema as a whole. He reinvented the form by doing away with the traditional approach to narrative, editing, and cinematography, and juxtaposed the seemingly contradictory, and interweaved the farcical and the serious in the flow of images on the silver screen.

The deliberate disorder, the jump-cuts, the digressions, the strange and quirky dialogues, and the use of colours and sounds, often extended to his films the beauty of improvised jazz; the viewer would constantly be startled and mesmerised by the next image or scene or sound. His films almost demanded active participation from the viewers. It was as though he wanted them to feel the sense of freedom that he strived to create on the screen; to render them breathless with the constantly shifting, gliding, swooping camera; surprising them; jolting them out of the reverie of passive viewing.

Godard was not interested in drawing his audience into the reality of what was happening on the screen. His uniqueness lay in that he wanted them to know that it was cinema—something that was created, like a painting or a book, or a musical composition. He would sometimes keep mistakes in the film.

Breaking new ground

Born on December 3, 1930, to a well-to-do French doctor who had his own private clinic and a Swiss mother who came from a family of prominent bankers, young Jean-Luc came into the world of cinema first as a film critic. He met the famous film theorist Andre Bazin and began to write for his iconic magazine, Cahiers du Cinema. In 1950, he teamed up with future directors Rivette and Rohmer and started Gazette du Cinema, which brought out five issues.

Before making his first full-length feature film, A bout de souffle, Godard honed his craft by making four short films between 1955 and 1959. A bout de souffle, released in 1960, was based on a story by Truffaut and Chabrol and was a massive box-office and critical success. It became the defining film of the French New Wave and made Jean Paul Belmondo an international sensation.

Godard once said of the film: “It was a film that took everything that cinema had done—girls, gangsters, cars—exploded all this and put an end, once and for all, to the old style.”

The fact is, Godard loved Hollywood, and was particularly an admirer of Humphrey Bogart. The following year he married Anna Karina, who would go on to act in some of his most path-breaking films, including Une femme est une femme (1961), Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Le Petit Soldat (1963), Bande a Part (1964), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Alphaville (1965), Made in U.S.A (1966), and The Oldest Profession (1967).

The 1960s is considered to be the most influential period in Godard’s life during which he made 16 feature films and several documentaries including the famous One Plus One (1968), where he examines the sociopolitical culture of the time, while The Rolling Stones rehearsed Sympathy for the Devil in the studio.

His range of subjects was diverse and he manipulated and merged genres with magical ease. There were gangster movies like A bout de souffle and Bande a Part; social dramas like Vivre Sa Vie, Une Femme Mariee, and 2 ou 3 Choses que je sais d’elle; the musical Une femme est une femme; war films like Les carabineers and Le petit soldat (both 1963); the romance Masculin Feminin (1966); the science fiction movie Alphaville; and even a film about cinema, Le Mepris; not to mention the strange, wild and highly entertaining  Pierrot le Fou. But Godard turned these so-called traditional genres on their heads and created masterpieces that begged freedom from any classifications.

In the next five decades Godard’s politics may have veered to the almost radical Left, but there was no diminishing of his creative energy. He continued experimenting and pushing boundaries. He made a total of 131 films, including short films, documentaries, and segments of collective projects. His last feature film, Adieu au Language (2014), which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was voted the Best Picture at the National Society of Film Critics Award, was a “three dimensional experimental narrative film” that showed that even at 84 the master had lost none of his powers.

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