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Jean-Luc Godard: Father of French ‘New Wave’ cinema dies at 91

Print edition : Sep 13, 2022 T+T-

Jean-Luc Godard: Father of French ‘New Wave’ cinema dies at 91

Jean-Luc Godard.

Jean-Luc Godard. | Photo Credit: AFP

The ingenious “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave revolutionised popular cinema in the 1960s.

Jean-Luc Godard, the French-Swiss director whose movies broke with traditional cinema forms and gave way to the radical New Wave film movement of the 1960s, has died, according to French daily Le Monde. He was 91.

Godard gained acclaim in 1960 with Breathless, which captured his generation’s search for the freedom and creativity that later characterised the social upheaval of the decade. The movie introduced an aesthetic revolution with new filming techniques, the use of hand-held cameras, and jump cuts that gave the viewer the impression of moving forward in time.

“It’s a movie that’s been made in reaction to everything that wasn’t being made,” Godard said in an interview in 1960. “Almost pathologically, systematically. It was a desire to show that everything was allowed.”

His career spanned more than half a century and became increasingly political, earning him a reputation as a provocateur. Godard’s work, which influenced Hollywood directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman, included essays, documentaries, and films about movie-making itself, and his approach dispensed with the linear narrative style.

New Order

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” Godard once said.

He made more than a dozen New Wave feature films in French in the 1960s, including A Woman Is a Woman, The Little Soldier, Contempt, The Riflemen, Band of Outsiders and Masculine Feminine.

Godard’s work took on a more sociological turn in the late 1960s. In 1968, he and director Claude Lelouch managed to get the Cannes Film Festival cancelled, in solidarity with the students and workers who were protesting across France.

That year, Godard embraced socialism by setting up a Marxist cinema collective called Dziga Vertov Group, after the Soviet director. About half a dozen films were made before the collective dissolved in the early 1970s.

“Jean-Luc Godard is one of the sharpest minds on what were the strengths and weaknesses of cinema and one of the most demanding on where it should be,” the magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema said in a profile.

Early Years

Godard was born in Paris on Dec. 3, 1930, the second child among four siblings. His father, Paul-Jean, studied medicine in France before moving the family to Switzerland, where he had found work in a clinic. His mother, Odile, belonged to a wealthy family of bankers.

Godard went to primary school in the Swiss town of Nyon and spent his childhood reading, skiing, playing tennis, and travelling between the different family estates, according to a New Yorker profile in 2000.

In 1949, he enrolled as an ethnology student at the Sorbonne in Paris before dropping out. Around the same time, he attended film clubs, such as the Cinematheque, which showed auteur movies that focused on the director’s individual style.

A devotee of gangster films and of Alfred Hitchcock, Godard started working as a critic at Les Cahiers du Cinema in 1952. The influential cultural magazine gave him access to filmmakers who later became core members of the New Wave, such as Jacques Rivette, Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer.

First Film

In 1954, after his parents stopped financing his lifestyle in Paris, Godard decided to work in a dam in Switzerland and document the experience. That was his foray into film-making with Operation Concrete.

His breakthrough came in 1960 with Breathless, a blockbuster that sold more than two million tickets in France when it debuted. The movie starred a 26-year-old runaway criminal, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who becomes romantically involved with an American girl, played by Jean Seberg.

“There were no lights, there was no frame so we could move freely,” Belmondo said in a 1961 interview. “If we wanted to play around, we could. If we wanted to get under the covers, we could. The cameraman was ready for anything.”

In 1961, Godard married the Franco-Danish actress Anna Karina. She became his muse, acting in seven of his movies. The couple broke up in 1964. Three years later, he married Anne Wiazemsky, the granddaughter of novelist Francois Mauriac. The marriage ended after three years.

Video Projects

After a motorcycle accident in 1971, Godard started living with Anne-Marie Mieville, a photographer with whom he had worked. Godard turned his attention to video and together they set up a studio in Grenoble. They later retreated to Rolle in Switzerland.

In the 1980s, Godard started working on his Histoire(s) du Cinema, an eight-part audio and visual history of cinema. It was completed in 1998.

“He’s a pioneering multimedia artist who throughout his career worked with different media and platforms,” Michael Witt, the author of Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian, said in a telephone interview.

Intellectual oddity

Godard took potshots at Hollywood over the years. He remained home in Switzerland rather than travel to Hollywood to receive an honorary Oscar at a private ceremony in November 2010 alongside film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, director-producer Francis Ford Coppola and actor Eli Wallach.

His lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian cause also brought him repeated accusations of antisemitism, despite his insistence that he sympathised with the Jewish people and their plight in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Though the academy received some complaints about Godard being selected to receive the award, academy President Tom Sherak said the director was recognized solely “for his contributions to film in the New Wave era.”

Indeed, Godard became something of an intellectual oddity, emerging every few years from his bolthole in Rolle on the shores of Lake Geneva to lob a verbal grenade or two. It was this tragic, cartoonish Godard on the slide who features in Godard Mon Amour, the 2017 comedy about him by Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning maker of The Artist.

But by then Godard was having the last laugh, with his reputation somewhat restored by a series of low-budget metaphorical films that questioned our image-saturated world.

“Film is over,” he told The Guardian in a rare interview in 2011, recanting his oft-quoted maxim that “photography is truth, and the cinema is truth 24 times per second”. “With mobile phones, everyone is now an auteur,” he said.

Macron reacts

France has lost a “national treasure” with the death of film director Jean-Luc Godard, the godfather of the country’s New Wave cinema, French President Emmanuel Macron said on September 13.

“Jean-Luc Godard, the most iconoclastic of New Wave filmmakers, had invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art. We are losing a national treasure, a look of genius,” Macron said on Twitter.