Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard chose to end his life on September 13 at the age of 91 in his home in Rolle, Switzerland. Many of the tributes from around the world have likened his passing to no less than the death of cinema itself. The comparison has to do as much with the outsized influence that Godard has in film history as with the filmmaker’s own melancholy pronouncements about the end of the medium that he had shaped in his image for almost six decades.
Born in 1930 to a French doctor father and a Franco-Swiss mother of high-bourgeois extraction, young Jean-Luc had a childhood split between Paris and Nyon. Summers were spent in Haute-Savoie at the estate of his maternal grandparents, the Monods, in a culture of literature, sport, and religion. This Protestant upbringing, notes biographer Antoine de Baecque, had a marked influence on “Godard’s relation to spirituality, but also to modesty, to money, to Switzerland, to nature, to isolation and withdrawal from the world and to irreverence and iconoclasm...”
The relationship between Godard’s parents soured after the war, owing partly to class difference, and the resulting tensions bore down on Jean-Luc. The boy, in the meantime, turned out to be a kleptomaniac, and his increasingly serious exploits led the Monods to cut off ties with him. (He would later be behind bars in Zurich.) This disavowal evidently left a deep scar on the teenager, who composed a passionate screed against the family, portraying them as hypocritical snakes that can never get along. Much of Godard’s subsequent life comes into relief in light of this primal domestic rupture.
As an adolescent, Godard harboured ambitions of publishing a novel with Gallimard, born of a desire to emulate the poet Paul Valéry, a close friend of his maternal grandfather’s. Literature, however, came with centuries worth of history, not to mention the approbation of the clan that had disowned him. The young man thus abandoned the idea, frequenting instead the film clubs of post-war Paris, cinema offering an illicit passion and education disapproved by his family.
Film clubs of Paris
It is at these screenings that Godard struck up friendships with other young cinephiles who would constitute the poster children for the French New Wave: François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol. Despite great differences in taste and temperament, the group was united in its impatience for literary-minded French cinema and a penchant for Hollywood films, which were being dumped en masse into Parisian theatres after years of wartime hiatus.
Godard and his cohort gorged on these transatlantic works, as well as on silent classics at the Cinémathèque française curated by Henri Langlois. At the renowned film magazine Cahiers du cinema, where all of them soon found a place, they defended popular Hollywood movie directors as authors worthy of not just their literary counterparts, but the pantheon of Western literature. Indeed, Godard’s first review for Cahiers, on an American melodrama called No Sad Songs for Me (1950), invoked no less than Plato and Stendhal to make its case.
Unlike with literature, though, Godard found in cinema a young form of expression not yet ossified into Art, without the baggage of legacy or the anxiety of influence. “With writing,” the filmmaker would later remark, “I have a pointed sense of inferiority, which I don’t have at all with cinema.” Films spoke through and to reality; as a medium coming into being, cinema was the privileged witness to the century it was coterminous with. It could show, as Godard put it, “boys and girls as we see them in the real world.”
Boys and girls, not men and women. The importance of youth to Godard’s early work, and to the New Wave in general, cannot be overstated. Cinema was a young art, but it was also an art of the young. In Masculine Feminine (1966), Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is at a movie theatre with his girlfriend Madeline (Chantal Goya). As he sees an older couple on screen involved in miserable rituals of submission and domination, Paul muses: “At movies, the screen would light up, and we’d shiver. But more often, we’d be disappointed, Madeline and I. The images seemed old and flickery. Marilyn Monroe had aged terribly. We were sad. This wasn’t the film we’d imagined, the perfect film each of us carried within, the film we would like to have made, or perhaps even to have lived.”
In contrast, Masculine Feminine, and Godard’s other features set in Paris, capture the precise textures and moods of being young in the City of Lights. Cafes, bars, dance halls, pool clubs, parking lots, publicity hoardings, laundries, photo booths and theatres dominate the imagery and the soundtrack, to the point that the films become documentaries about the city at a particular point in time. This tendency to be in unceasing communion with the world around him remained intact all through Godard’s professional life. “There is in him the constant, almost diehard and touching wish to be contemporary,” writes de Baecque, “He has a sometimes unhappy, but always sensitive relation to the present of his time.”
This wish is manifest most directly in the filmmaker’s turn to radical politics at the end of the 1960s. With its ambivalent if sympathetic portrayal of the fledgling Maoist movement, La Chinoise (1967) captured the foreshock of the historical events of 1968. But the film was excoriated by the far Left for its hesitations and Godard deemed “the stupidest of all the pro-Chinese Swiss.” The director recanted, pulled down the shutters on filmmaking and embarked on a process of re-education. He dissolved his individual identity in filmmaking collectives and let himself be guided by the voices of the next generation. For the second time in his life, he burnt all his bridges to begin anew. In her memoir Un an après (2015), actress Anne Wiazemsky tenderly describes this acute spiritual crisis that drove her then husband onto the streets to jump barricades or exchange blows with the police.
The Maoist experiment, however, came undone along with the dreams of a generation. Following a near-fatal motorbike accident in 1971, Godard was forced to reassess his priorities. With the time of collectives officially over, he moved from Paris to Grenoble with his third partner Anne-Marie Miéville, with whom he lived in Rolle until his death. In the new city, Godard began again from zero, as he often did, finding new inspiration in video technology. The period also marked his “return” to fiction filmmaking, resulting in a series of sumptuously photographed films that are nevertheless coloured with bitterness about the end of utopian aspirations.
‘Histoire(s) du cinema’
The crowning achievement of this period, though, was the eight-part video work, Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-98). Pillaging from hundreds of films, paintings and literary texts, and expanding on the lectures he had given in Montreal, Godard offers a dizzying personal meditation on the history of cinema and its relation to the world. While the global film fraternity was celebrating the centenary of the medium with consumerist cheeriness, Godard’s project mourned its death, its missed opportunities and its tortured relationship with the horrors of the twentieth century. In its philosophical scope, in the erudite, far-reaching associations it draws from its juxtaposition of image, text and sound, Histoire(s) remains unmatched in the annals of the seventh art.
Cinema, to be sure, has not died with Godard, but it would be hard to deny that it has become significantly poorer. Not only did Godard’s work span the whole spectrum of filmmaking practice—commercial, experimental, documentary, amateur—but it also helped place cinema at the forefront of the story of art. Even in his final years, the filmmaker never ceased to interrogate the world through images. He was working on two new films when he decided to end his life by assisted suicide. “He was not ill,” reported someone close to him, “he was simply exhausted.”
The last minutes of his last feature film, The Image Book (2018), thus constitute a fitting coda. In the film’s final words, uttered over a black screen, Godard repeats to a coughing fit a quote from Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance (2005): “Even if nothing turned out how we’d hoped, it would not have changed what we’d hoped for.” This is followed by a long, mute excerpt from Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952), which Godard once called the greatest post-war French film: a masked old man dances himself into exhaustion and collapses on the ballroom floor. Let us hope that the music goes on.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic from Bangalore.