On the death of Jean-Luc Godard, the most important innovator of cinema.
The history of film can be told in one sentence: there was a cinema before Godard and one since Godard. You can also tell it in more detail, in 266 film minutes and many hundreds of excerpts, but then you’re back to Godard again:
His film essay “Histoire(s) du cinéma”, which was edited over a period of ten years and conceived over three decades, is now considered a classic in film history itself. Compared to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the eight-part work also deviated from the ground of how one is used to viewing films. It is a work that is rarely seen in one go, but will be picked up again and again. Or you can see with your eyes closed – the complete soundtrack was released on the avant-garde label ECM alongside masterpieces of new music.
When the successful film critic showed his first feature film “Out of Breath” in 1960, at the age of 30, he gave the medium a culture shock from which it would never recover. Just like Miles Davis did with jazz or Bob Dylan with the American Songbook. Godard ennobled an art form that was considered mass entertainment even more then than it is today (at least for such masses) with his intellectuality – without making it any less entertaining.
There had also been films by authors and artists before “Out of Breath”; in France, Jean Cocteau was a living legend in this profession. But Godard did not see himself as a film poet for the art context. His debut was a genre film, a crime thriller and a love story, born not out of opposition to entertainment film, but out of the joy of it. By bringing down the studio cinema sets, Godard freed the sensuality that had always been the medium’s attraction.
He restored to Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo the brilliance and naturalness of a screen presence that they had barely been able to exploit in their studio films. Cameraman Raoul Coutard had himself pushed through Paris in a wheelchair for his fast-paced street scenes. Jump-cuts and axis jumps broke with the supposed laws of filmmaking like Picasso’s cubism with painting tradition five decades earlier.
In a unique frenzy of creativity, Godard had twenty-three more films follow by the end of the 1960s. While no one was as resounding as “Out of Breath,” each was different. Together they not only shaped the cinema of the 1960s, but all areas of cultural life and the youth culture that was just establishing itself. If the idea that everything was political took hold in the student movement, then Godard’s films were a model for this. His second feature film, The Little Soldier (1960), was immediately banned in France for criticism of the Algerian war.
If you could ever learn movies in bed, as braggarts claim you can about foreign languages, it was probably in the early to mid-1960s, when a breath of fresh air blew through world cinema like never before and never since. When “The Little Soldier” was released in 1963, other Godard films had cemented his fame: the poetic comedy “A Woman is a Woman” and the anti-naturalistic prostitute drama “The Story of Nana S.” Married 1961 to 1965, star of the Nouvelle Vague.
With the lavish CinemaScope film “The Contempt”, Godard himself hijacked star cinema in 1963 and cast Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance and Fritz Lang in a self-reflective excursion into filmmaking. To this day, this bold film has lost none of its mystery, its contradictions literally holding it in limbo. In the 1960s, Godard repeatedly succeeded in adopting genres and conventions of popular cinema and at the same time subtly alienating them. This created a distance to the consumer culture that had spawned it.
Miraculously, this intellectual superstructure did not seem to weigh down a crime film like “The Gang of Outsiders” or a gangster film like “Eleven O’clock at Night”, on the contrary: Godard’s films fed their interpretation-loving audience with an intellectual surplus that has not been used up to this day.
If this obituary were a film, now would be an excerpt from the comedy by his Swedish contemporary Bo Widerberg as evidence of Godard’s popularity in the mid-1960s. In Widerberg’s “Roulette der Liebe” a film director says: “I want to make a film that is as real as if it was just lying on the breakfast table.” And immediately afterwards, while making love with his friend’s wife, he quotes his master: ” Godard said: Film is truth, twenty-four times a second. He doesn’t let the cinema get any closer. And Antonioni even believes that every picture composition is a question of ethics. Am I boring you?” – “No. But you are in my arms.”
High-quality cinema has never been more popular, but its popularity seemed to be becoming an increasing burden for the filmmaker. He almost seemed intent on shaking off his followers with his later works. But those who followed him were always richly rewarded. For example with the ever more elaborate sound montages of his later films such as “Nouvelle Vague”.
Godard’s radicalism was always directed against what he himself had achieved. Through collective working methods, his work from the 1970s dismantled the concept of the author, which the Nouvelle Vague had decisively won for cinema. As a pioneer, he worked with the medium of video – and in doing so ignored the formal boundaries between cinema and television that were upheld by critics. In his own video studio, finally in possession of the means of production, he achieved complete independence from the industry for the first time. And then returned to big cinema in the 80s. He has also succeeded in doing this with films such as “Save yourself, who can (life)”, “First name Carmen”, “Maria and Joseph” or “Detective”. At the time, Godard also had a permanent place in art-house cinema, before he gave that up again – in order to begin a late work in essay film that was once again unique in film history. These works, which found their form in complete freedom at the home video editing site in Rolle, his home on Lake Geneva, were no less fascinating.
In the more than 70 years that cinema has spent with Godard since he wrote his first reviews, it has literally come of age. At the same time, however, Godard’s death also closes the curtain behind an epoch that made film its leading medium and elevated cinema to the linchpin of urban life. It is dwindling before our eyes in the age of Amazon and Netflix.
Along with his friends (and sometimes rivals) from the Cahiers du cinéma and later Nouvelle Vague, Godard developed a collective film theory in the 1950s that traced authorship in Hollywood’s industrial products. Nevertheless, none of these young directors, Truffaut, Varda, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, Resnais, to name just the best known, wanted to be exploited in a dream factory.
This is how the political demand for a publicly recognized and promoted film culture arose. It is no coincidence that the fight for the Cinémathèque française, in which Godard and Truffaut were heavily involved, was a focal point of the May riots of 1968. It is hard to imagine that anyone would still take to the streets for film culture today. “Adieu au langage” is the name of one of Godard’s late films, and the language he says goodbye to is of course also the lingua franca to which he himself helped to raise cinema.
At the Cannes Film Festival, which regularly showed his works to the end, he played hide-and-seek with audiences and critics to the point of mastery. He usually stayed away from scheduled press conferences. In 2018, his last film to date, “The Picture Book”, premiered there: once again, his montage experiments transformed the festival palace into a Plato’s cave, he hurled image and sound fragments into the virtual thinking space.
Carried by the musical idea of counterpoint, in this film Godard leafs through the picture book of a self-repeating history of the most brutal conflicts. In hundreds of film excerpts, he breaks down the millennia-old prehistory of the culture wars of the present, mixes YouTube images of the murders by “Islamic State” that have been shortened into flashbulbs with iconic scenes from classic films by Sergej Eisenstein, King Vidor and Max Ophüls.
After the screening, he surprisingly showed himself to the press, albeit in a tiny size on a smartphone handed into the hall. He patiently and charmingly answered all questions, including those of our newspaper about the survival of film theaters in times of media upheaval. “I can’t really say, although I wish this thought space would survive.” A little later, he followed it up with a philosophical one-liner: “Sometimes cinema seems to me like a little Catalonia desperately trying to exist.”
Just last week, the Venice Film Festival celebrated Godard in absentia with the premiere of Cyril Leuthy’s feature-length documentary, “Godard seul le cinéma”. Actress Julie Delpy, who began her career as a child in Godard’s 1982 Detective, recalls trying to wish him a happy 90th birthday last year. She dialed the number and recognized his voice: “It was clearly Godard. He said: ‘No, Monsieur Godard is not here, he has died.’”
At the age of 91, the film world truly lost its greatest innovator on Tuesday.