The Best Jean-Luc Godard Movies to Stream Now
Photo: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
Film history is long and complicated but not without some undeniable turning points, moments after which everything changed. There’s December 28, 1895, when the Lumière brothers staged the first commercial-movie screening. There’s October 6, 1927, when Warner Bros. screened The Jazz Singer for the first time, ushering in the sound era. And there’s March 16, 1960, when Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle, Breathless in English, premiered in four Parisian theaters, tearing open the possibilities of what movies could do for a generation eager to claim the form as its own.
Godard was just 29 when he made Breathless, but in a sense, it was a long time coming. To the chagrin of his wealthy family, he’d been obsessed with movies as a youth. He haunted Paris’s Cinémathèque Française, befriending critic André Bazin and film enthusiasts of his own generation like Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Agnes Varda, and Eric Rohmer, many of whom would write for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema, which Bazin founded.
As critics, they cast a jaundiced eye at France’s cinematic tradition, championing instead the work of American auteurs and genre films. Godard wasn’t the first to make the leap from film criticism to filmmaking, nor the first to participate in what would come to be known as the French New Wave. But he was the most stylistically radical from the start. And at the end. Godard outlived all of his contemporaries and continued working as a filmmaker — and testing radical ideas — well into his 80s. He died this week at the age of 91.
Below, you’ll find nine Godard films currently available to stream, but it’s worth noting that he made many more. This list is also tilted heavily toward films from the beginning of Godard’s career, which isn’t to say the rest of his work isn’t worth exploring. Much of it, however, isn’t as accessible in two senses: It’s literally harder to find online, and it benefits from first knowing what comes before.
Whatever path you take, it’s best to keep going even if you find your first exposure to Godard challenging. As Roger Ebert put it in 1969, “One of Godard’s films, seen by itself, can be a frustrating and puzzling experience. But when you begin to get into his universe, when you’ve seen a lot of Godard, you find yourself liking him more and more.” Here are a few with which to get started, but consider them also an invitation to explore further.
Breathless is a statement of purpose that redefined movies with its jarring editing choices, free appropriation of elements from American genre films, and unpredictable shifts in rhythm and tone. It’s also a blast, a movie-mad tragic love story that’s at once an act of reverence to the films Godard loved and an attempt to rearrange their pieces in radical new forms. Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as a Bogart-obsessed criminal who falls for an American student (Jean Seberg), a relationship that plays out while the film zigs where other movies zag, lingering on scenes others would rush by and hurrying through the scenes others would make set pieces. With its location photography, documentary-inspired camerawork (from frequent collaborator Raoul Coutard), jump cuts, and intentionally rough edges, it looked like nothing else playing at the time, though that wouldn’t last as other filmmakers employed and expanded on its ideas. As director D.A. Pennebaker told the Criterion Collection in 2007, “Every once in a while somebody comes along with a book or a poem or something that just is the next thing. And that was the next thing.”
How do you follow a film like Breathless? Godard provided not one answer but many. Between Breathless in 1960 and Week-end in 1967, he made 15 films, all quite different while being unmistakably the work of a single director. His next film, Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier), was delayed by a torture scene and the touchy subject of the Algerian War. That made A Woman Is a Woman the next Godard film to play publicly and the first Godard film released to star first wife and muse Anna Karina. Karina plays Angela, an exotic dancer caught in a love triangle between two men (Belmondo and Jean-Claude Brialy). Lushly shot in CinemaScope with the bold color schemes that would define his ’60s color work (and influence the color of the ’60s themselves), it’s a play on frothy American musical comedies shot with Godard’s trademark disregard for expectations. In a typical moment, Angela performs a song — Michel Legrand provides the music, as he did for other Godard films — but the instruments drop out the moment she opens her mouth. The characters occasionally make co-conspirators of the audience by looking directly at the camera, a reminder that they’re in a movie, even if the movie wasn’t going to hit the expected spots.
Self-awareness defined Godard’s films, but it was a particular kind of self-awareness. He made movies that knew they were movies for audiences that understood how movies worked — but they also worked as movies. The characters in A Woman Is a Woman may wink at the camera, but we still care about them and their happiness and their fates, even when they let us know they’re in a story. My Life to Live, Godard’s stark, thrilling follow-up to A Woman Is a Woman, walks a similar line in depicting the free-spirited, perilous existence of Nana (Karina), a young Parisian who abandons her husband for reasons we never learn and drifts into a life as a sex worker. Godard rarely leaves his heroine’s side, and yet she keeps her mysteries to herself through the end.
Godard’s breakthrough films might have been off-putting and uncompromising, but they were also hugely successful. That led to a chance to make films with bigger budgets and with bigger-name producers, like Carlo Ponti, who sought Godard out hoping to collaborate with him. Some conditions developed as the collaboration progressed, like the casting of Brigitte Bardot for her sex appeal. Godard both meets his obligations and calls attention to them, opening — after credits recited in voice-over and images of a camera moving into place — with a shot of Bardot’s naked backside that goes on long enough to call attention to the voyeuristic instincts behind it. (Jack Palance also shows up as a pushy producer who has some ideas he wants to see in the film being made by a director, played by Fritz Lang as himself.) That lingering nudity isn’t the only moment extended to an uncomfortable extreme. The film’s long centerpiece is an argument between two lovers (Bardot and Michel Piccoli) that goes on and on and feels disturbingly real, despite the reminders of the film’s artifice.
For this mash–up of detective stories and science fiction, Godard continued the adventures of Lemmy Caution, a British-created American detective who’d been played in a series of French films by American actor Eddie Constantine. (Yes, that’s confusing.) Constantine reprises this role in a film based on an original story by Godard that sends him into the belly of a futuristic dystopia called Alphaville. It’s an Orwell-influenced vision of a possible future ruled by an iron fist by unfeeling machines. There’s also a bit of commentary built into the way the film was made: Godard shot entirely on real Paris locations. Maybe Alphaville was closer than anyone imagined.
Godard’s other 1965 film pointed toward what would come next in his career. Ostensibly an adaptation of a crime novel by American author Lionel White, it follows an unhappily married man (Belmondo) as he goes on the lam with an ex-girlfriend (Karina). The plot becomes a spine for angry takes on the French bourgeoisie and the politics of the day, topics that would increasingly come to the fore in Godard’s work.
Godard was never a sentimental filmmaker, so it’s probably wrong to treat his films as objects of nostalgia. Still, this 1966 film works both as a freewheeling, reference-filled look at youth culture in ’60s Paris — home to “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” as the film famously puts it — that bristles with the energy of the moment and restless discontent over issues like the war in Vietnam and as a time capsule of the same. It’s not quaint — Godard didn’t do quaint — but its scenes of young people trying to figure out a future whose shape we now know has a bittersweet quality that wasn’t evident at the time.
Godard would soon turn his films into direct expressions of his politics, but not until releasing this darkly comic, borderline apocalyptic film about a married couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) making a tumultuous journey through France that may end with one murdering the other. Or maybe not. The film opens with an extended (and graphic) erotic monologue probably inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, ends with hippie cannibals, and features one of the most famous shots in Godard’s career in between: a tracking shot of a traffic jam that goes on and on until it seems like Godard has filmed every car in France.
Godard started to return to the (relative) mainstream in the 1980s. (The controversy around his 1985 film Hail Mary is a story unto itself.) But he worked steadily for decades, sometimes on relatively high-profile projects like 2001’s In Praise of Love, sometimes on experimental video essays, often alongside fellow filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, his creative and personal partner since 1970. Godard’s penultimate film was even more restless in its experimentation. Part essay on image-making, part murder mystery — though it takes some detective work on the part of viewers to piece that together — its most innovative elements will be tough to re-create at home without specialized equipment. Godard makes remarkable use of 3-D — a technique then enjoying a post-Avatar boost — including moments in which images overlap and divide. The experience sometimes feels like one eye rebelling against the other. It twists the language of movies to create something that had never been seen before. That was his speciality.