What Jean-Luc Godard Meant to Film

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For all Jean-Luc Godard’s godlike splendor, there is no other filmmaker over whom so many people can claim ownership, each in their own distinct manner.
Photo: Kino Lorber

We think of icons as grand, fixed, unreachable things. Something that has become iconic is enormous and inescapable but also unchanging, flat, impersonal. And yet, among many believers, icons are household objects; they gaze out from their warmly lit corner of the room and provide individual connection with the divine. In other words, everybody has their own icon. And while Jean-Luc Godard, who died Monday at the age of 91, was iconic in all the usual ways, he was also perhaps iconic in this particular way: Everybody has their own Godard.

Is there another filmmaker over whom so many would claim ownership, each in their own distinct manner? The immensity and variety of his work, with its ceaseless contradictions, ensure that. There is Godard the romantic and Godard the revolutionary, Godard the cinephile and Godard the cynic, and a million other iterations. All of these identities are connected, of course — you can’t deconstruct the moving image with his level of obsessiveness and thoroughness if you don’t also love the moving image — but each is its own journey, its own point of communion with God.

And he really was like God. At Kim’s Video back in the day, the section with his videos was labeled “GOD(ard)”; as far as I know, nobody objected, not even the Truffaut Heads. And, like God, Godard’s mind was deemed largely unknowable by the high priests of cinema. His work was labeled difficult and came with additional reading. We fans could cite philosophical texts or novels or other films you just had to be familiar with to understand even an ounce of what he was doing. His own gnomic utterances, his constant wordplay, both onscreen and in interviews, helped maintain the illusion. It was all part of the mythology that he was operating on a level far above the rest of us.

This was probably true to some extent, but it also unfairly made the films seem like a chore. Those of us who loved Godard were, more often than not, introduced to him via the early work — that marvelous run of pictures he made through the 1960s. We weren’t drawn to these movies because they laid bare the class struggle or ruthlessly deconstructed the monstrousness of the cinematic apparatus or whatever. (All that came later.) We were drawn to them because they were gorgeous and tantalizing and showed us a world we wished we could live in. There were girls and boys and guns and color and music and snatches of poetry and philosophy. This stuff was cool.

Although he was a brilliant critic before he began making movies, Godard started in some ways as a primitive. About his revolutionary first feature, Breathless, he famously said that he had set out to make Scarface but had wound up making Alice in Wonderland. Instead of a tough film noir, he’d wound up with a goofy, surreal comic-tragic fantasy. Breathless was a seismic event, but the real stroke of brilliance was that Godard didn’t double back and try again. Rather, he embraced and expanded this new language he’d created. He had turned genre into a child’s toy, a portrait of playful pretense — but of course, that’s what genre was! Call it genius, call it ignorance, call it incompetence, or call it luck. Either way, Godard had unearthed a greater truth, not to mention a highly accessible one for a postwar generation that had grown up in the light of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

So the work grew as he grew, like a child learning to use his favorite words to form more and more complex thoughts. We’ve all pored over and analyzed Godard’s early films for decades and will continue to do so (there are term papers being written about Pierrot le Fou and Vivre Sa Vie as we speak), but what makes them so captivating are their surfaces: their twilight portraits of Paris; their neon worlds of coffee shops and jukeboxes and pinball machines; the gorgeous, flat-plane close-ups of their cast (especially, of course, the women, whom Godard’s camera turned into objects of both desire and impersonation); the intoxicating atmosphere of romantic nihilism. This was not profundity but the promise of profundity. A shot of a city street while on the soundtrack someone reads from a philosophical text. A close-up of Anna Karina accompanied by a burst of music. A camera lingering over handwritten words. A man or a woman reading about art history in a bathtub. A simple, and simply shot, dance sequence. Is this cinema? Could it all be so easy?

Godard’s trajectory as a filmmaker, in that sense, reflects the development of the average cinephile as well, from the adolescence of the early work to a growing awareness of the universe beyond. It would be somewhat inaccurate to say that he became increasingly political. His second feature, the underseen and under-screened Le Petit Soldat (for my money, his first masterpiece) was actually banned in France for several years. But rather, the films grew more self-aware. They increasingly broke out of their characters’ solipsism and recognized that there were other people in the world — that beyond the play-acting of genre and cinema, there was something called reality. And Godard was intent on letting it intrude more and more into his frame.

For all the imposing, godlike splendor of his status as a filmmaker, Godard gave us one of the most sincere, naked turns any artist has ever taken mid-career. Watching pictures like Made in USA and La Chinoise and Week-end, and Tout Va Bien, you can feel the consciousness behind the camera reckoning with the world’s horror and injustice — and struggling to find the right response. La Chinoise is a movie about student militants preparing for a political assassination, but it also presents those militants as naïve, delusional, even ridiculous. And yet, Godard clearly identifies with them. (But it’s still a film of lovely surfaces, too, as much about revolution as it is about the color red. Maybe therein lies the key to his identification.) That he would go on to partly denounce his earlier work is not just understandable but relatable. Like all of us, he had to learn to put away childish things, even if the childish things in his case constituted some of the masterpieces of world cinema.

Godard’s films would never be labeled humanist, but the arc of his career is one of the most human journeys you’ll encounter — of an artist discovering his powers, becoming aware of his limitations, rejecting his work outright, then slowly forging his identity again before embarking on a wiser form of self-reflection. The confrontational pictures of the revolutionary, early ’70s Dziga Vertov period (which are, again, beautiful in their own right; Godard was never not Godard), with their constant interrogation of the cinematic image, seemed like penance for the perceived bourgeois shallowness of his prior films. Godard was a fan of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and it was almost as if he were creating his own spiritual bonfire in which to toss his earlier efforts.

But the Year Zero for cinema never really came. When Godard returned to something resembling narrative filmmaking in the 1980s, he didn’t go back to the old ways. In fact, he seemed less interested in “story” than ever before. The pictures were fragmented, doubling back and repeating themselves. But this period also produced some of his most visually striking and moving work, such as Passion, First Name: Carmen, Hail Mary, and King Lear, many of which are equal in power to that legendary early period.

Godard could have easily continued in that vein, living out his years creating lovely, playfully self-reflective, occasionally confounding dramas the way many of his New Wave contemporaries did. He’d have continued to be revered as a legend and probably won a couple of César Awards along the way, too. But he was still growing, still searching. There was still a restlessness within him, a continuing desire to reckon with the medium to which he’d dedicated his whole life. His immense yearslong film-essay Historie(s) du Cinema was perhaps the most obvious manifestation of that impulse. But it was his final decade that produced some of his most daring works, pictures that forced us to take an even closer look at what we had been watching all this time.

Among these, the one I will never quite shake is The Image Book, the final feature he released in his lifetime. (I wrote about my experiences with that film here.) It is, like so much of his work, an assemblage of clips, featuring images from cowboy movies and war movies and gangster movies, alongside images of atrocities and ISIS videos, as well as footage from his own films — a compendium of the imagery of the Western mind. Then, the picture journeys to a new space, as Godard begins to include images from Middle Eastern cinema (from works by the likes of Youssef Chahine and Nacer Khemir) almost as a counterpoint to everything else he’s just shown us. The Image Book presents cinema as part of the great battleground of images, a catalog of myths and attitudes and fantasies that help shape our consciousness and thus our misconceptions of others. I found it initially confounding but also hypnotic. Godard’s inner rhythm, his ability to juxtapose images and create new textures out of them, remained unparalleled. Again, it’s the surfaces that get you. A film that stays in your mind, a film you need to see again, has to be a film you want to see again. Godard never lost his ability to seduce his viewer.

The Image Book premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, which also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, held during the May 1968 uprisings; Godard and several of his colleagues had famously forced the shutdown of the festival that year. (The 2018 festival also featured on its poster a famous shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina kissing in Godard’s 1965 classic Pierrot le Fou.) To promote The Image Book, the director did a bizarre remote press conference via a phone held up by his cinematographer and producer Fabrice Aragno. Most of us watched the conference on the many TVs interspersed around the festival headquarters. Some of us even recorded it on our own phones (a screen of a screen of a screen of a screen, which Godard would have surely appreciated). What’s more, right before the festival, a short documentary had appeared, purportedly by him, about the eco-activists who had forced the shutdown of a major airport construction project in western France; it soon turned out the short was not his, after all. So here then were all the Godards under one proverbial roof: Godard the revolutionary; Godard the romantic; Godard the aging trickster; Godard the critic; Godard the phony; Godard the living filmmaker. For a moment, as he had for much of his career, he seemed to embody cinema in all its forms, and he captured our imaginations all over again. We’d all grown up with him. And in that moment, each of us communed with him in our own way.



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