Obituary: Jean-Luc Godard, December 3 1930-September 13 2022
Starting as a film critic, Jean Luc-Godard went on to make a series of films (and TV programmes) that made him the most imspiring and thought-provoking of directors, as well as sometimes the most irritating.
Godard was born in 1930 to wealthy French-Swiss parents and grew up in Nyon, Switzerland. He moved to Paris, where he studied ethnology at the Sorbonne. In the boom of the post-war period, the celebration and study of cinema had grown, as film festivals flourished as part of a nation’s cultural prestige (Cannes, Berlin, Venice) and the films of the past were regularly studied in film schools and film libraries (cinematheques). Godard said that he went into cinema in the way others would later go into rock music. He became a film critic first, contributing from 1952 to the Cahiers du Cinéma magazine, alongside fellow writers and future filmmakers François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Éric Rohmer. At Cahiers, Godard attacked the French “cinema of papa” and venerated film-makers like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, the Italian, Roberto Rossellini, and the Japanese, Kenji Mizoguchi.
On September 13, Jean-Luc Godard died at his home in Switzerland, allegedly thanks to assisted suicide - his family stated that he had “mutiple invalidation pathologies”. But, as he himself may have asked, what then is an obituiary? This one is written not merely to praise or to bury him (as someone irrelevant) but to examine his life and his cultural legacy.
In his days as a critic, the aim of a conventional cinema feature from Hollywood, Mosfilm, etc was to keep a story continuous and flowing, and not to draw attention to the filming technique. The Cahiers crowd (aka the Nouvelle Vague) aimed at a more playful camera style, which did call attention to their status as authors - either because they had something different to convey or were involved in the sheer audacity of experimenting. Godard showed he was most interested in not contructing images the usual way. His first film, À bout de souffle (‘Breathless’, 1959), follows a petty gangster (Jean-Paul Belmondo) round Paris with his girlfriend (Jean Seberg). The pace was brisker than most films at the time, often through edits within scenes (‘jumpcuts’) and locations, indoors or out, that were not studio-built. This was a writer/director explicit in his solutions to telling a film story.
Throughout the 1960s Godard chose various subjects to treat in a different way. In Le petit soldat (The little soldier, 1960) he dealt with the colonial war in Algeria. Reports at the time had revealed that torture was used by the French army against Algerians. Godard, ever the contrarian, gave us a scene where it was Algerian militants of the National Liberation Front who were shown torturing opponents. It’s worse, he commented, when those you support do it. Godard prodded the French left of the time. Many of his other films dealt with young, mobile Parisians, emphasising an interest in the mystery of the woman - Une femme est une femme (A woman is a woman, 1961), Bande à part (Band of outsiders, 1964), Pierrot le fou (Pierrot, the fool, 1965) and Masculin/féminin 1966. In 1962 he explored the different sides of a young woman who becomes a prostitute - Vivre sa vie (It’s my life to live, 1962-63). She chooses that life, as the film’s title suggests, but comes off badly in the end. It could be described as a semi-documentary.
Next he attacked the general subject of war, with quotations from various true military diaries interposed with a fable about two male/female couples, Les carabiniers (The riflemen, 1962-63). The men are called into a conflict, set in an imaginary land, between an unspecifed king and prime minister. The off-hand filming and casual killing offended and perplexed many, while the characters seemed to be too dim to identify with: they were easily taken in by promises that by fighting for the king they could acquire cars and even supermarkets. But the film is a good example that demonstrates how a viewer sympathetic to Godard might watch one of his works (with its obvious influence from Brecht). Instead of empathising with the casual fighters, you ask continously and delightedly: ‘What is the director getting at here?’ The viewer is in dialogue with the images and incidents.
By mid-1965 Godard had produced a science fiction thriller, Alphaville, where there are are state-sponsored sex workers and true love has been all but eliminated by bossy computers. Nevertheless the figures of a romantic couple manage to escape the dystopia. Love has found a way. Both Une femme mariée (A married woman, 1965) and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or three things I know about her, 1966) deal with the relationship of women (or ‘woman’) to advertising and consumer products. Godard commented: “It seems to me that in and around Paris today, we are living more or less in a state of prostitution …” That is, not only in brothels and on the streets, but in selling our minds and spirits. There seemed no way out of this new society: even political parties had advisors on advertising.
In 1966 the most important political event in Godard’s life occurred - not in France, but in China: the Cultural Revolution. Godard had made films which disturbed film conventions, but he was always interested in the social issues of French society. In May 1966, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party of China, proclaimed it was “right to rebel” and groups of young people all over the country rose up against teachers and administrators, now defined as counterrevolutionary. In fact Mao intended to defend his own power against the threat to it from a new middle class in the party apparatus.
However, the Red Guards, as the student groups were called, got out of control and threatened the basis of party rule. In 1969-71 they were put down by the army. But for some members of western communist parties, especially in the large, popular parties of France and Italy, the Cultural Revolution was seen as a reassertion of revolutionary values: Leninism. Left-supporting intellectuals like Godard began to think about what they could do to make a revolution in their own lives. In La chinoise (The chinese woman, 1967), Godard depicted a group of five French students who live and read together and argue about how to combat French and Russian communist ‘revisionists’.
In May-June 1968 Godard was out on the streets filming the rebellion of students and workers against French restrictions on free life. From 1967 he went on to make colour features about the disintegration of France - Weekend, 1967 - and didactic pieces about film and politics - Le gai savoir (Joy of learning, 1968), set in a darkened studio. He also made short films about the Palestinian struggle, as he had about the war in Vietnam. Most fans of Godard find the films of this period, especially the ‘revolutionary western’ Vent d’est (Wind from the east, 1970) and Vladmir et Rosa (Vladimir and Rosa, 1971) hectoring and uninformed. His documentary in English British sounds (1969) starts from no particular account of the UK class struggle: it might as well be about France or the US.
Through these films Godard had formed a collaborative project with Jean-Pierre Gorin called Dziga Vertov (after an early Soviet film-maker). In 1972 they made Tout va bien (All is going well). This had two sympathetic film stars, Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, as a journalist and a maker of TV ads, who visit a food-processing factory which has been occupied by its workers. The workers were played by unemployed, unprofessional actors to give the characters a greater distance from the stars. However, the star characters go home to question their own biases and the “compartmentalisation” of their lives. How to fight this? Godard answers, “Everywhere at once”. Nevertheless it proved his most popular film in years.
Godard then went on to collaborate with Swiss film-maker Anne-Marie Miéville in response to the rise of feminism. In 1975 they made Numéro deux (Number two). Three generations (parent couple, children and grandparents) demonstrate the links between home life and work. A woman is raped by her husband, frustrated by his job. You can leave a spouse of course, but she asks: “But what do you do when it’s a state? When a whole system rapes you?” Yet, like the women in his previous ‘romantic’ movies, the character does not strike back or have any means of solidarity herself.
With Miéville he made two pieces for TV - Six fois deux: sur et sous la communication (Six times two: over and under the media, 1976) and a 1978 series, with its explorations of media images.
As the 1980s began, Godard returned to feature films, with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every man for himself, 1980) starring Nathalie Baye amd Isabelle Huppert. In 1985 his Je vous salue, Mary (I salute you, Mary) was condemned by the Catholic church for “heresy” and in 1987 he made King Lear, a film-essay on Shakespeare. His last complete feature Goodbye to language (2014) concerned a couple who cannot communicate except when their pet dog interprets for them! These later works were increasingly difficult to see in Britain, thanks to the closing down of rerun and ‘arts’ cinemas and the domination of ‘global cinema’ - ie, Hollywood.
Godard made films where conventional structures (in film technique) were challenged and you sided with nationalist revolutions as the alternative to Russian conservatism. He went on to absorb feminism and develop themes he began in the 1960s: the subjection - though not the struggle - of women, consumerism and social alienation. As Frédéric Maire, president of the Swiss Cinémathèque, said, “Nearly all directors who have gone to film school today or learned movie-making at cinematheques, have seen Godard’s films …” Disciples included Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Chantal Ackerman, Wes Anderson, Hou Hsiao-hsien and the most politically commited film-makers.
Today’s artists have a different job to do. The days of Mao (or ‘third world’ nationalism) are over: now all the powers that may come to war are capitalist (with the Chinese Communist Party having switched from authoritarian non-capitalism to a one-party capitalism - both miscalled ‘socialism’). Merely doing things unconventionally is what fashion catwalks do. Feminism and anti-racism have been absorbed as gestures to reform capitalism with the promotion of a new, ‘diverse’ middle class and a facade of TV commercials and happy TV presenters. The working class, white and non-white, face the same troubles as before - low wages, discrimination and violence.
Future cultural workers need to go beyond the Godard practice of ‘artistic subversion’ (even if that has some things to teach us). We must be informed and informative; challenging, but engaging. The game of shocking the bourgeois is not enough. The pleasures of film, print-fiction and graphic novels (the least expensive popular form) must start from a knowledge of the system, national and global, as well as that awareness of form Godard passed on to us - all the better to opppose the system’s decline into destructivneness.