This founding member of the French New Wave is the father of independent film and the single biggest influence on post-WWII cinema. Championed by film and cultural critics from the get-go as a genius, Godard put together a stunning early body of work which supports all the acclaim thrown its way. Borrowing liberally from directors as varied as Nicholas Ray, Joseph E. Lewis, Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni, the Swiss auteur delivered a dozen of the movement’s most iconic films during the 1960s.
Equally adept at making spontaneous spoofs of American genre flicks and penetrating chamber pieces Godard had his finger on the pulse of the Coca-Cola generation. The escalation of the war in Vietnam went a long ways in radicalizing Godard who soon blew-up conventional methods of narrative filmmaking to pursue what he felt was a more honest way to spread the revolution in a series of didactic documentaries.
While he still viewed the commercial cinema with much skepticism, Godard returned to narrative film in 1979. Honing a new, austere style, Godard directed many of his most pristine and aesthetically-challenging works during the autumn of his years. While many lesser artists pride themselves on being ahead of the curve, this self-described technology buff has, time and again, anticipated that curve years in advance.
Godard was born in Paris but his parents moved the family to Switzerland when he was an infant. Jean-Luc had an upper-middle class upbringing in idyllic surroundings and was admittedly oblivious to the devastation of WWII when he returned to Paris the late 1940s to attend the Sorbonne. A fledgling cineaste, Godard soon met Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut at local film theatres and Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque Francaise.
Godard scuffled and drifted aimlessly, but he did manage to take an extensive tour of South America until being forced to return to Paris when his money ran out. With the help of Rohmer, Godard began to write essays and reviews for several film magazines including the famous Cahiers du Cinéma to help make ends meet but he was soon forced to return to Switzerland and take up work as a laborer on a dam project. While there, he made a rather straight-forward documentary on the building of the dam then returned to Paris in 1954 to edit Operation Beton.
Based on a script by Romher, Godard’s first narrative film short Tout les Garcons S’appellent Patrick is the sort of lighthearted lark which reminds us how funny and charming he can be. Despite the film’s good reception it would be another two years before Godard began work on the film which would turn him into one of the ‘60s most popular icons and, arguably, the era’s most revolutionary artist.
By the end of the 1950s adulthood was catching up with Godard. Taking on the occasional review at Cahiers and other newspapers, pilfering money from friends to live day to day in hotel rooms wasn’t getting him anywhere, so when Claude Chabrol offered Godard his old job at 20th Century Fox’s Paris office he jumped at the chance. At Fox Godard impressed producer Georges de Beauregard and through the co-sponsorship of Chabrol and Francois Truffaut, Godard got the green light to begin work on his first feature A bout de soufflé (Breathless).
Based on an original story by Godard and Truffaut, we follow the plight of amoral hood Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who, after stealing a car in Marseilles, kills a traffic cop then goes on the lamb before hiding out in the Parisian flat of his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg). Michel talks of talking Patricia to Rome with him but first he needs to settle an old score with a gangster who owes him money. Meanwhile, Patricia feels the heat from the police who threaten to cancel her work visa unless she turns Michel over to them. She ultimately tips the police off and Michel is killed in the streets of Paris while trying to escape.
Dedicated to Hollywood’s poverty row studio Monogram Pictures, A bout de souffle only resembles a B-movie in its plot as it still retains a sense of glamour more characteristic of a slick gangster epic. Aside from its many nods to establishment filmmaking, A bout de souffle was revolutionary in its use of hand-held camera, jump-cutting, ambient sound, and the philosophical acting style Godard implemented upon his players—a technique to be explored in greater depth in the director’s upcoming films of the 1960s.
Unlike his mentor Roberto Rossellini, the Italian neo-realist poet of the long-take and moving camera, Godard found his artistic niche in editing and post-production where his cutting on the action gave A bout de souffle it’s ramped-up, modernist style. Yet, of all the New Wave filmmakers it is also Godard who has the most painterly visual style and the director took pleasure in seducing his audience with loving close-ups of his stars and extended location sequences in the gorgeous neighborhoods of Paris.
Where A bout de souffle was a valentine to Godard’s beloved American genre films his next project had a greater impact on his future work and personal life. Le Petit Soldat would be a political thriller and for the lead role of the woman who runs with the Algerian Underground Godard cast a beautiful novice, Anna Karina. Godard had offered the Danish model a cameo appearance in A bout de souffle but she turned him down flat when she learned partial nudity was required. The smitten Jean-Luc tried to make things up to Anna by giving her a plum part in the controversial Soldat.
Godard correctly surmised this film about a journalist working for the French military to track down Algerian rebels would be a difficult shoot in France, so he moved his base of operations to Geneva. Godard cast an actor of North African descent, Michel Subor, for the role of Bruno Forestier, the photographer torn between his work and conscience. He falls in love with the mysterious Veronica Dreyer (Karina), a conduit for the Algerian underground, and asks her to defect with him to Brazil.
After Forestier is forced to participate in a plot to assassinate a professor sympathetic to the Algerian cause, he is kidnapped by a band of rebels and tortured. Forestier manages to escape to Veronica’s arms, but he is soon found by the French who still expect him to carry out the assassination. Forestier performs his grisly task only to find the French have captured and murdered Veronica.
Le Petit Soldat is awash in New Wave pluck and sass. Using a skeleton crew and making use of much a mobile, hand-held camera, Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard tackle the location shooting like Nicholas Ray on speed, but it is in the interiors where his filmic love affair with Karina truly blossoms.
While bosomy stars like Ekberg, Bardot and Loren had come back into vogue in Europe, the slender and delicately-featured Karina was a prototype more in tune with an eclectic youth culture ready to turn its back on the establishment. She was a limited actress but her freshness and vulnerability help iron out the creases in the brittle scenarios of a filmmaker not yet inclined to appreciate the female of the species. In hindsight, it’s not too much of a stretch to say Karina was Godard’s most important collaborator during this remarkable period.
Although Le Petit Soldat turned out to be a surprisingly mature and sophisticated second effort on the part of its creator, the explosive subject matter led to the film being banned in France upon its release.
Godard sketched out plans for A Woman is a Woman before he hooked-up with Karina but the film evolved into a very revealing take on their relationship. Shot in a wide screen format in eye-popping color this “neorealist non-singing musical” about a young woman who asks a friend to impregnate her after her live-in boyfriend rejects her advances is perhaps Godard’s most accessible and entertaining film.
Shopkeeper Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) lives with his burlesque-dancer girlfriend Angela (Karina) in a small Parisian flat. On a whim she asks Emile to make her pregnant but the upright intellectual wants to get married before taking such a big life step. When Emile refuses to set a wedding date Angela turns to his flirty best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who quite willingly performs the deed. Angela confesses to Emile and they make love that evening so he too will have a chance to be the unborn infant’s father.
A Woman Is a Woman is the first film to blend the extreme artifice of a Hollywood musical with the spontaneous New Wave method of filmmaking. After wrapping the complicated shoot Godard realized he had a jumble of disconnected pieces. Michel Legrand’s jazzy score provided a bridge, giving the film a kinetic style which played well with the exuberance of the performances. The three main players have never been more charming, each mug and pose shamelessly for the camera with a naughty sort of glee as befit a trio of good-looking young people brimming with life in the City of Light.
Alas, Godard’s relationship with his young wife would turn out to be a rocky one. His irrational jealousy drove Karina to attempt suicide at least twice but their unhappy domestic existence never deterred the filmmaker from trying to shape and build her acting career.
Loosely based on an idea by Truffaut Vivre sa vie, a tragedy of a young prostitute, turned out to be yet another bold experimental exercise. Told in twelve regal vignettes it is the story of Nana (Karina), a young German woman who abandons her husband and infant child in hopes of furthering her acting career. We learn Nana has played a few bit parts in films but her main source of income comes from being a clerk in a record shop. Chronically short of cash she is hauled in by the police when she is caught trying to pinch 1000 francs from an unsuspecting woman.
Through the influence of friends and a pimp named Raoul, Nana drifts into prostitution and soon finds she is good at turning tricks. Ultimately she tires of the emptiness of her life, but manages to find love with a young man. Nana tries to break her working relationship with Raoul who decides to sell her to another pimp. The transaction goes bad and both Nana and Raoul are shot down on a dingy Paris street.
Godard’s most mature work to date, Vivre sa Vie was the first New Wave film to be influenced by the meditative works of Alain Resnais and Antonioni. Working with a tiny budget, Godard and cinematographer Coutard stuck to mostly drab locations but took full advantage of Karina’s ethereal beauty by filming her almost exclusively in luminous close-ups. Although Nana becomes resigned to her compromised existence we still find her striving to find meaning in her relations with an uninspiring crew of johns, philosophical loners and cynical hoods.
Godard was brought up in a pacifistic Swiss-Protestant household which remained neutral, even as evidence of Nazi horrors became public, during WWII. The young critic and filmmaker remained apolitical until the late 1950s when his concerns about being drafted to serve in an unpopular war on the Algerian front prompted his leftwards turn.
Considering the climate of the times Godard’s anti-war satire Les Carabiniers should have found an enthusiastic audience but that was far from the case. Following on the heels of the classically-inclined Vivre sa Vie Godard’s new film turned out to be a shock to critics and audiences who thought he’d left the rough and tumble days of New Wave filmmaking behind. Les Carabiniers was Godard’s most primitive film to date—a slap at the imperialist war machines that absorbed ancient civilizations like a child collects trading cards.
Set in the desolate outback of an undisclosed country, two rubes are called to arms by their King to conquer his enemies in return for such glorious plunder as the Parthenon and the pyramids of Giza. The soldiers take hedonistic joy in humiliating their prisoners and write back to their women with accounts of noble adventures and promises of riches torn from their victims. The warriors turn out to be dupes of the King’s machine and once the men have learned they lost the war they are summarily executed.
If one can get beyond the condescension Les Carabiniers can be enjoyed as a Surrealist lark. Godard’s daunting reputation as a serious filmmaker often blinds us to how funny he can be and here the clear love for both Keaton and Bunuel shines through, helping carry this brittle film through its didactic passages.
Fueled by new-found fame and money being thrown at him by producers, Godard made his first big budget film Contempt, based on the Alberto Moravia novel. Having assembled an all-star cast featuring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, and Michel Piccoli, Godard nearly derailed the project before the shooting began when he could not produce a screenplay to satisfy his American producer Joseph Levine.
Godard assigned Bardot to play the role of Camille, a sexy typist married to Paul (Piccoli) the intellectual playwright hired by American producer Prokosch (Palance) to write new scenes for an epic production of The Odyssey, to be directed by Lang on the isle of Capri. Paul is initially reluctant to accept the job of butchering a classic for the screen but Prokosch reminds him it is expensive job to keep a beautiful wife happy, so he accepts the tainted check.
Sensing her husband compromised himself, Camille grows cool towards Paul and when he pimps her off on the horny Prokosch their relationship comes to an end. Prokosch offers to drive Camille to Rome but they are both killed when he crashes his sports car into a tanker on the freeway. Paul returns to the set to tell Lang he has quit the production to return to Paris and work on a new play.
Utilizing Paul as another thinly-veiled alter ego, Godard continued to explore the difficulties of his relationship with Anna Karina on the big screen. Contempt would also mirror the troubles Godard had with his meddling producer (Levine) while propping up the virtues of the auteur theory.
As a clash of Art Film and Pop Culture, Contempt has always been slightly overrated but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable to watch. Dually inspired by the scenic peaks of Capri and La Bardot, Coutard’s cinematography is ravishingly beautiful and the sumptuous filmmaking style only accentuates the vulgarity of Prokosch’s dream project.
Une Femme Mariee (A Married Woman) harkened back to the chamber cinema of Vivre Sa Vie, but this new film turned out to be a more mature look at the female of the species. The heroine, Charlotte (Macha Meril), is the young trophy wife of airline pilot Philippe (Pierre Philippe Leroy) and erstwhile mother to his boy from a prior marriage. Charlotte carries on an affair with Robert (Bernard Noel), an actor who seems more exciting than her upright husband. Passive and superficial, Charlotte spends much of her time reading fashion magazines and observing her body while neglecting both her stepson and husband.
Philippe is haunted by a recent trip to Auschwitz but Charlotte can’t be bothered to have her conscience sullied by the ghosts of the concentration camp, she is more interested in eavesdropping on the gossipy conversations of other women and teenage girls. When she learns she is pregnant she tries to confront Robert before he goes to Marseilles to open a play. But the actor proves too phlegmatic for Charlotte and she breaks off the affair.
Shot in regal black and white and using Beethoven’s ninth string quartet as a contrapuntal element, Une Femme Mariee was Godard’s most abstract and introspective film to date. The fragmented and erotic opening sequence offers a glimpse into Charlotte’s physicality and the sensuality which dictates her muted passions. But, in reality, she is a blank slate and Godard and Coutard film Charlotte as if she were a chilly work of art.
Based on the pulp novel Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens, Band of Outsiders was intended as a commercial project, and indeed, it is a throwback to the briskly-paced films of the early New Wave.
Anna Karina plays Odile, a shy teenage girl who interests a couple of petty gangsters in a plot to steal a fortune from her guardian. The younger of the hoods, the dashing Franz (Sami Frey) makes a play for Odile but she is more interested in the more brazen Arthur (Claude Brasseur). Bit by bit the heist begins to unravel and it completely falls apart once Odile’s guardian dies from asphyxiation and Arthur is confronted and killed.
Although Karina was recovering from a recent suicide attempt, Band of Outsiders turned out to be one of Godard’s least problematic shoots. Budget constraints gave Outsiders a B-Movie look but its lightness and grace (highlighted by the famous jazzy line dance) makes it one of his most accessible works. With her hair shorn into a schoolgirl bob, Karina has never looked so appealing and her vulnerability goes far in making the misogynistic Arthur appear almost acceptable.
This pleasing take on a conventional thriller was met with surprising critical abuse and box office ennui in France. It would be well over a decade before Godard would compromise his artistic ambitions again.
Godard had long wanted to work with the American actor Eddie Constantine, a cult figure who’d starred in a series of hit French films as Private Eye Lemmy Caution. For Alphaville, Godard flung the street-wise detective into a sci-fi odyssey.
Caution is assigned to investigate rescue a scientist trapped in the city of Alpha 60, Capital of Pain run by an electronic brain. As the bizarre investigation unfolds Lemmy meets and falls in love with the scientist’s orphaned daughter Natasha Von Braun (Anna Karina), a “seductress”. Since emotions of sentiment have been programmed out of Natasha, hard-boiled Lemmy has to teach the beauty how to say “I Love You” while he saves the world from Big Brother.
Shooting much of Alphaville with little or atrocious light (giving it a Poverty Row look), Godard’s apocalyptic nightmare is at turns oppressive and mesmerizing. Though a limited performer, Constantine proved a wise choice to play the snarling, foreign P.I. trapped in a sterile world run by computers. Again, Godard chose to exploit his marriage with Karina by casting Anna as a prostitute yet, at the same time, idealizing her as a virgin with an unsullied heart.
Influenced by low budget American sci-fi and Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Alphaville was one of Godard’s final attempts at making a genre film. Looking deeper, Alphaville can be interpreted as a Homeric quest, as evidenced by the humanization of cynical Lemmy who smuggles Natasha out of harm’s way back into the outer world where they can begin anew.
In 1967 Godard and Karina reunited to shoot the similarly-themed Anticipation, the final sequence in the omnibus The Oldest Profession. Here, Karina plays another futuristic call girl named Natasha sent to “entertain” a very choosy alien. Like her predecessor Ms. Von Braun, Natasha needs romantic inspiration from her client to fully blossom in life.
Based on the pulp novel Obsession by American author Lionel White Pierrot le fou starred Godard’s two favorite protagonists (Karina and Belmondo) as lovers on the run in a sprawling, wide screen color adventure set in Paris and the South of France. It would be yet another anguished, modern love story inspired by his relationship with Karina.
Out of work and bored with his marriage Ferdinand Griffon (Belmondo) is nagged into accompanying his wife (Graziella Galvani) to a cocktail party where she hopes he can network his way into a new job. Ferdinand socializes with the dull, superficial set (including Samuel Fuller!) but his mind remains on Marianne (Karina), the fetching young babysitter back at their apartment.
He leaves the party and returns to the flat where he finds Marianne asleep. Since she has missed the last Metro train, Ferdinand offers her a ride home but he ends up running away with her instead. They wake up the next day at Marianne’s flat to find it has been decimated by a right wing terrorist organization. Ferdinand soon learns his young lover is deeply involved in running guns to Algerian revolutionaries. Fearing for their lives, they drive south then ditch their car to cover their tracks.
Having lost all their money after torching their vehicle, Ferdinand and Marianne end up on a deserted beach where he finds peace through the rustic life and writing. Restless and bored, Marianne runs away with a gangster boyfriend. In despair, Ferdinand is about to give up his pursuit of Marianne when he finds her once again. But Marianne’s treachery proves too much for Ferdinand who betrays her to the authorities then commits a grisly suicide while overlooking his beloved sea.
A signature film for the children of 1968, Pierrot le fou marked a turning point in a career already celebrated for its unpredictability. Gone was the Romanticism of New Wave filmmaking and in its place was born a highly politicized cinema fueled by anger at the United States’ invasion of North Vietnam and the stagnating bourgeois complacency in France and Western Europe.
Despite its attractive and charismatic leads Pierrot left a strong impression of despair and hopelessness upon an audience ready for change. In what had to be a labor of love, Karina swallowed her pride and turned in a marvelous performance as Belmondo’s (and Godard’s) irrational, feminine foil.
By the mid-1960s Godard had taken over the sentimental education of Jean-Pierre Leaud, Truffaut’s young alter ego from The 400 Blows and Love at Twenty. After serving as an assistant and acting in bit parts in Alphaville and Pierrot le fou, Leaud was cast as the lead in Godard’s next major project, Masculin Feminin.
In Godard’s ode to the Marx/Coca-Cola generation Leaud plays Paul, a restless young man returning to Paris after two years of military service in Algiers. Paul’s best friend Robert (Michel Debord) piques his interest in leftist politics but both young men find the locals apathetic to their cause.
Paul becomes smitten with Madeleine (Chantal Goya), a working girl and aspiring pop singer on the cusp of her fifteen minutes of fame. To Paul’s frustration Madeleine lives with two clinging roommates who have mixed feelings about their budding romance. Madeleine is flattered by the young man’s attentions but their relationship takes a backseat to her musical career.
To quell his frustrations, Paul finds intellectual fulfillment as an underground activist, spray-painting anti-war slogans on cars at the U.S. embassy, and asking provocative questions in his job as an interviewer for a polling organization. The ill-fated romance takes a dire turn when Madeleine becomes pregnant and Paul, inexplicably, commits suicide.
With its confrontational and conversational style Masculin feminin would have a far-reaching impact on Godard’s future filmmaking. Here, mass media confronts Pop Culture and the comforts of middle-class life in a most engaging style.
The film’s peculiar centerpiece, Paul’s interview of a comfortably bourgeois “Miss 19”, turned out to be riveting stuff in the light of the ongoing radicalization of college campuses across the globe. The scene’s remarkable resonance likely helped influence Godard to finally do away with classical storytelling and embark on the most controversial phase of his long career.
Originally based on a crime novel by Donald Westlake (under the nom de plume Richard Stark), Made in U.S.A. brought Godard’s conflicted feelings about America into the open. Anna Karina returns as Paula Nelson, an ethical French journalist who has quit her writing gig to track down her boyfriend Politzer, a political intellectual who may have already been killed by government agents Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara.
The convoluted plot unfolds and Paula runs afoul of a typical noir foil (a character named Richard Widmark) and shoots a treacherous literary friend (David Goodis) in order to keep the truth about Politzer’s death under wraps. The unseen character of Politzer was a not-so veiled reference to recent disappearances of two Algerian nationals, the victims of what Godard (and many other French intellectuals) believed to be CIA-influenced abduction and torture practices.
Although politically-charged, the feathery Made in USA turned out to be the most Impressionistic Godard film to date giving much of Politzer’s audio-taped rhetoric (read by the director) very little bite.
A capsule review could imply 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is about a Parisian woman who lives in expensive apartment, yet still turns tricks on the side. But, the finished product turned out to be a fascinating Godardian confessional.
The director’s whispery, prodding voice accompanies a day in the not so humdrum life of Juliette Jeanson (Martina Vlady), another Godard heroine who resorts to prostitution to make ends meet. At first glance, the film seems little more than a series of canned interviews of bored and empty young working women going about their day.
Godard’s choice of voicing dialogue into his players’ earplugs creates some very zombie-like performances, especially from his leading lady. Yet, the effect is riveting due in no small part to a terse narrative in which the filmmaker confesses he does not know how to love and is in a very unhappy state of mind. Although not fondly remembered by Godard or his critics, Two or Three Things is one of the most melancholic and personal films of this breakout period.
With La Chinoise Godard would once again make a film with young people as his catalysts. This time it is a small group of activist students holed-up in a Parisian apartment practicing Maoist doctrine. Godard’s new girlfriend, and future wife, Anna Wiazemsky is Veronique, a student who house sits for relatives while they are away. Along with her actor boyfriend Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud) they organize a Communist cell with the intent of assassinating a visiting Soviet writer. Veronique fails, hilariously, to perform the grisly task but she ultimately gets the job done in cool efficient fashion.
The plot takes a backseat some energized political theatrics and plenty of dated doggerel which makes parts of La chinoise hard to watch. The film’s most profound (and technically dazzling) sequence occurs during a revealing fifteen minute train ride where earnest Veronique argues with a pessimistic professor (Francis Jeanson) who offers guarded encouragement to his naive student. The film’s bizarre coda is strangely defeatist, but in the coming year Godard would completely shed his doubts about change and join the front ranks of a coming revolution.
For Week End Godard thrust his ire on the French bourgeoisie in what would be his first attempt at satire since Les Carabiniers. Like the earlier film the characterizations are painted with broad strokes and the situations are exaggerated to a Duck Soup-like breaking point.
Hoping to reach his dying mother before his stepfather disinherits him, Roland Durand (Jean Yanne) and his sexy wife Corrine (Mirelle Darc) set out on a chaotic drive to his parents’ country house. Unfortunately, it seems half of Paris is trying to escape the city in anticipation of the weekend and the main artery is clogged with cars in an interminable traffic jam. Roland infuriates other drivers by skipping the line before finally reach the source of the mess, a grotesquely bloody accident with bodies strewn all over the road.
Trying to make up for lost time Roland takes a short cut only to get lost and have their car stolen at gunpoint by a couple of hippies. After having little success in bumming rides they finally are picked up by Algerian and African nationals who lecture the bored Parisians about politics.
When they finally reach the house of Roland’s mother they decide to bump her off, so they can get their greedy hands on her money all the sooner. On their way back home the Durands are kidnapped by a band of hippie revolutionaries who kill Roland and offer his broiled remains to a hungry Corrine.
For Week End Godard left the safety of Paris for its wild and woolly suburbs where the misadventures of his crass protagonists stall during the glorious traffic jam sequence; a scrap heap of the modern soul. Here, Godard and cinematographer Coutard make brilliant of a moving camera and crane in a magnificently choreographed ten minute sequence which illuminates how bored Parisians deal with roadside adversity.
Godard eschews montage in favor of long tracking shots which make the Durands’ misfortunes in the country all the more farcical. Week End is an excruciatingly funny whack at the morally-challenged middle classes but the momentum of the satire comes to a screeching halt when Godard resorts to stretches of tiresome soapbox tirades.
Made for French TV and based on Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel about education, Le gai savoir (Joyful Learning) features two of Godard’s more engaging performers (Leaud and Juliette Berto) musing about philosophy, current politics, linguistics, the creative process and filmmaking on a blackened soundstage. As quasi-didactic cinema goes, Le gai savoir actually works quite well making one wish Godard could have let a little more light seep into his punishing films in the years to come.
The student uprisings in Paris during May 1968 inspired Godard to break with traditional narrative filmmaking and form the controversial Dziga-Vertov Group. Taking a page from Mao’s Cultural Revolution Godard and his chief collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin set out to make politically-charged films to help further the revolution.
These Dziga-Vertov films remain the most difficult in the director’s oeuvre, but it can be argued their abstract, didactic style grew organically out of Godard’s kinetic, commercial films of 1966-67, and the blend of video and cinematic imagery foresaw the rise of rock music video and the influence they would have in transforming both television and film.
As Mao had encouraged the proletariat to take back China in 1966, Godard and Gorin made the Vertov films for the working classes of both the capitalist west and Soviet-bloc states, in the hopes they would rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie. Watching these mesmerizing and bewildering films with the benefit of hindsight, leads us to believe the filmmakers’ dream of revolution was an overly ambitious premise.
The manipulative and seductive propaganda films of Eisenstein and Riefenstahl aimed for the gut, successfully creating a groundswell of social outrage and national pride in theaters across The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Conversely, the Godard-Gorin films are elitist in form and ideology. It’s hard enough to imagine a group of factory workers even sitting through British Sounds, yet alone be inspired enough by the film to rush to the streets and burn down their places of employment.
Although both Un film comme les autres and One Plus One (aka Sympathy For The Devil), precede the DV films they offered light on how Godard would proceed with his new, political cinema.
Made during the summer of 1968, Un film is a very static conversation between three activist students and two employees from a local Renault Car factory discussing ways to unite their interests inter-cut with footage of riveting street scenes from the recent student riots in Paris.
One Plus One is somewhat more ambitious but the message remains muddled. The film’s loose structure follows the recording process of the Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic song Sympathy for the Devil from their return to roots album Beggars’ Banquet. Not so coincidentally, the studio sessions of these young, white Brits interpreting traditional African-American music are inter-cut with scenes of Black Nationals reading aloud from the radical works of Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) while casually groping Caucasian women. The film’s narration also takes swipes at U.S. involvement in Vietnam, pornography and pulp culture.
Perhaps the most interesting project from this transitional period is 1 PM, a slice of U.S. urban life Godard co-directed with American documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. The “star” of the film is the shy and nervous Jean-Luc who interviews Eldridge Cleaver and a Wall Street trader, hobnobs with a group of black schoolchildren in Brooklyn and grows increasingly confused by an avant-garde jazz ensemble on the mean streets of Newark.
Although Godard seems to be responsible for much of the film’s content a lion’s share of the credit must be given to Pennebaker for making a cohesive narrative out of the abandoned footage. Considering the austerity of Godard’s work from this era it is a revelation watching him get his hands dirty making a film which he thought ill-fit for public consumption.
In order to spread their filmic revolution across Europe and abroad the Dziga-Vertov project had to be a transient operation. Over the next three years Godard and Gorin moved their base from Paris to England (British Sounds) to Prague (Pravda) and a faux Rome (Lotte in Italia). Even though these striking films were pruned to more digestible running times they can be punishing viewing experience for the initiated.
Le vent d’est (The Wind from the East) featured Anne Wiazemsky and Spaghetti Western star Gian Maria Volonte in what deceptively starts out as a Western about filmmaking before evolving into a windy and spirited conversation about uses of political representation in art.
A return to narrative of sorts, Vladimir et Rosa is a farcical spin on the Chicago Eight trial. The revolutionaries, played by Wiazemsky, Juliet Berto among others, are arrested and thrown into a kangaroo court resided by a demented judge (Ernest Menzer) and have their fates determined by a so-called jury of their peers.
A longtime champion of Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin, Godard shared a broad, almost ridiculous sense of humor with the two American filmmakers and the decision to lampoon both the bourgeoisie and revolutionaries here helps make Vladimir et Rosa the most palatable of the early D-V films.
Not surprisingly, these film essays never caught on with the working classes and they also proved to be too politically-dated and intellectually disingenuous for the movers and shakers in the academic world. As news of the horrors of Cultural Revolution and its aftermath trickled westward, both Godard and Gorin distanced themselves ever so slightly from Mao but still looked under the Iron Curtain for inspiration.
During the summer of 1971 Godard was critically injured in a motorcycle incident just as he was about to embark on his first true narrative film in years Tout Va Bien. Following Godard’s outline and instructions Gorin did most of the shooting of this story about an ex-film director (Yves Montand) and his American journalist wife (Jane Fonda) who struggle to find meaning in life and their marriage four years after the events of May 1968.
Suzanne (Fonda) is assigned to cover a strike by meatpacking workers and their subsequent factory takeover. Sequestered at the factory with Jacques (Montand), Suzanne interviews several of the employees who are holding their buffoonish boss in his office until their demands are met. The first half of Tout va bien is shot on a huge, dollhouse-like soundstage giving the very serious proceedings a satirical quality.
Upon return to the real world, we find both Jacques and Suzanne unhappy with their lives of comfortable mediocrity. Jacques has given up a successful career making narrative films to follow what he feels is a less hypocritical path by directing soulless television commercials. Suzanne is continually frustrated by her inability to condense her passion and anguish into sixty second sound bites for her American radio audience. Having failed to live up to their lofty ideals, Jacques and Suzanne’s relationship has gone stagnant and now appears doomed.
The final Godard-Gorin collaboration Letter to Jane-An Investigation of a Still takes Jane Fonda to task for her controversial trip to visit members of the Vietcong in Hanoi. The witty and ruminative conversation between Godard and Gorin, which runs over a photo of the concerned-looking actress, makes pointed criticisms about celebrities meddling in international affairs, but considering Godard’s elevated status in the world of Radical Chic it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
After breaking with Gorin, Godard formed his longest lasting creative (and personal) partnership with the Swiss writer-director Anne-Marie Mieville. Intrigued by the prospect of forming their own studio, the pair moved Grenoble where Godard embarked on another difficult transitional period. The films of the middle to late 1970s still owe much to the didactic documentaries of the Dziga-Vertov work but, thankfully, an inkling of narrative form finds its way back into the work.
Godard was intrigued by the possibilities of video and television which play a major role in his next project, Numero deux. Originally intended as a remake of A bout de souffle, Godard and Mievelle went in a completely different direction in this melancholic interpretation of a three-generation family mired in sexual dysfunction, senility and constipation. Godard deconstructs his subjects by having the action play out on two televisions creating an uncomfortable voyeuristic effect, especially in scenes when the parents give their children a graphic education in the facts of life.
Still, Numero deux was the most refreshingly honest Godard film in years giving film audiences reason to believe he was ready to emerge from his artistic wilderness. But this veteran of 1968 was not ready to go softly into the night.
For Ici et Ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere) Godard and Mieville culled footage from an abandoned Vertov project about Palestine then shot new scenes of a dazed French family watching televised coverage of an Arab army besieged by Israeli forces to create one of his most didactic films. Godard draws a bold but tremulous line from Nazi Germany, through the devastation of the concentration camps to the battlefields of Israel where genocide seems to be rearing its ugly head, once again.
Using stills, split-screens and many of the video techniques Godard picked up during the DV years, the filmmakers slam U.S.-Israeli policy in the Middle-East to the point of monotony. It is unfortunate Godard didn’t trust the simple, haunting images of young Palestinian girls preparing to defend their homeland in making his case for sanity to return to the war-torn region.
Comment ça va? follows the dual threads of a father and son embarking on relationships with mysterious women. The son settles in the suburbs with his girlfriend and embarks on a bohemian existence. On the other hand his journalist father (Michel Marot) is embroiled in an investigative project with an unseen female cohort (Mieville) that could threaten the foundations of his workplace.
Owing to the dark, murky quality of the cinematography and the hang-dog, Walter Matthau-like personality of Marot, Comment ca va? almost passes for a genre film, capturing a sense of wonder (and terror) not visited in a Godard feature since Alphaville.
Having turned his back on other members of the French New Wave and film industry it was no surprise Godard struggled to maintain an existence as a filmmaker during the 1970s. Over time he embraced video as a less expensive and more aesthetically challenging way of furthering his art during that period.
As his name still carried considerable prestige in France, Godard managed to coerce local television into financing two incredibly ambitious projects Six fois deux and France tour detour deux enfants.
Six fois deux is a series of interviews of Godard and other subjects espousing on women, cinema, the working man, and history all spread over ten hours of mostly static viewing. Still, the several sequences of the project remain a marvel, if only for the range of Godard’s intellect and the cult of his elusive personality.
Sketchily based on a 19th century children’s book by G. Bruno (Madame Augustine Tuillerie), France tour detour deux enfants would be another massive interview-oriented project to play over twelve nights on French television.
The two nine year old subjects (Camille Virolleaud and Arnaud Martin) were Parisian schoolchildren forced to submit to a series of speculative questions put forth by the probing auteur. The children are at turns uncomfortable, bored and annoyed by the humorless authority figure (Godard). Their answers to some rather complex queries seem careful not to ruffle any feathers.
The series also features a pair of smarmy television hosts who comment over documentary footage of the Parisian rat race, pigeonholing adults as monstrous automatons who enforce their conformist will on the youth of Europe.
Despite pessimistic premise, France tour detour deux enfants had a heartbeat missing from the didactic films of recent years and offered solace to cineastes who had despaired of Godard’s ever connecting with an audience again.
By 1979, Godard was ready to entertain offers from producers (including Francis Ford Coppola) in the hopes of re-entering the commercial cinema. With the help of Bunuel screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, Godard finally put together a enough of a story to satisfy the money men and got the green light to begin on what he would call his second first film Sauve qui peut la vie (AKA Slow Motion & Every Man for Himself), a sobering tale about a trio of dissatisfied professionals set in Godard’s new home base of Switzerland. Having strayed so far from narrative film in the last dozen years, Godard became increasingly worried about plot and how he would string together the beautiful images he was capturing on camera.
For Sauve qui peut la vie, Godard created an alter ego in the name of Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), a filmmaker whose inspiration has recently run dry. When he is not teaching film at a local college Paul makes half-hearted attempts to get back together with his ex-girlfriend Denise (Natalie Baye) and re-connect with his adolescent daughter from his failed marriage.
Denise is leaving her job at a big city TV station to move to the country and has little time for Paul’s self-centered behavior. Paul’s daughter Cecile (Cecile Tanner) is also suspicious of his motives and makes demands she knows he cannot fulfill. Lonely Paul has a brief liaison with Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a young prostitute worn down by her profession and looking for a new lease on life.
The most compellingly funny and sad sequences dwell on Isabelle’s interactions with her Johns, for whom she performs humiliating tasks in the most deadpan manner. When Isabelle’s sister want to join the tawdry business she confronts the younger woman with some cold, hard facts. After failing to rekindle relations with Denise and Cecile and still at a crossroads in his film career, Paul is hit by a car and left to die a lonely death in the streets of the big city.
Stripped of the strident ideology of his more recent work Sauve qui peut la vie turned out to be a fascinating self-portrait of Godard; the anguished and unfulfilled artist at fifty. After the irritating eclecticism of his video years, Godard surprised and delighted critics by filling his frames with austere imagery and many earthly delights.
Inspired from time spent on the chaotic set of Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous Las Vegas musical One From The Heart, Godard next embarked on Passion, a flamboyant take on both artistic set and the working class.
Set in a Swiss village dominated by a local factory, Polish film director Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) struggles to find inspiration while filming his highly ambitious big-budget extravaganza in a nearby soundstage. Meanwhile, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a former worker at the plant, tries to get employees to strike against unfair practices of the factory owner (Michel Piccoli). Isabelle tracks Michel and his German wife (Hanna Schygulla) to their hotel and there she meets Jerzy enters into an affair with him.
Unfortunately for Isabelle, Jerzy soon gives a screen test to the restless Hanna, the results of which lead to an inevitable affair. Unable to make sense of his implausible film, Jerzy shuts down production and heads back to Poland with Isabelle, Hanna and another woman in tow.
Having gained notoriety for ditching ballyhooed projects throughout his career, Godard added many autobiographical elements into the film persona of Jerzy who, like JLG, has issues with artist’s block and feels impelled to seduce actresses under his watch.
Passion is also one of Godard’s most joyous films and he treats us to the sheer pleasure of creating art. Struggling to find a thread in both his movie and life, Jerzy resorts to filming physical beauty inspired by the Old Masters and the feminine form. It is a theme Godard will return to again and again in the coming years as he sought to distance himself from the decadence of the west and insipid pop culture.
For his next project First Name: Carmen found Godard using the premise of a gangster story to make yet another film about the struggle to overcome inner demons to create art. Here, Carmen (Maruscka Detmers) is a tempestuous gun moll and niece of JLG (Godard), an artistically blocked filmmaker who has checked himself into a Parisian rest home. She wishes to hire JLG to shoot a short documentary on classical musicians meant to distract attention from an elaborate heist taking place in the same resort hotel.
Later, during a bank hold-up Carmen seduces a handsome security guard Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffe) who leaves his job to join her in a life of crime. Their stormy and erotic relationship rises to a crescendo in JLG’s empty seaside home then collapses during the failed hotel heist where they succumb to the police in a shootout. Godard intertwines the pulpy story with interludes of a string quartet rehearsing three late Beethoven string quartets.
Carmen would be the final film Godard would shoot with his favorite cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the studied results often resemble the turbulent sculpture of JLG’s beloved Rodin. This vivid marriage of kitsch and classical art turned out to be one of Godard’s biggest hits at the box office and boded well for his future during increasingly unsympathetic times for independent filmmakers. Against all odds, the Gods finally seemed to be smiling on him.
Sparked in part by his unfulfilled desire to have children, Godard made Hail Mary with the doting love a father would have for his teenage daughter. Still, he would shock conservative audiences by instilling a healthy dose of sex and humor into this update of the Old Testament story of the Immaculate Conception and birth of the Christ.
Young Mary (Myriem Roussel) works at a gas station and plays on a women’s basketball team. For two years she has been dating the cab driver Joseph (Thierry Rode), but their relationship is chaste and he will have to be satisfied with platonic love. One night the angel Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) arrives at the gas station in Joseph’s cab and informs Mary she is with child and a bewildered family doctor confirms the news. Enraged by Mary’s breach of their relationship Joseph agrees to marry the would-be virgin, if he could only have a glimpse of her naked body. The final portion of the film finds Mary grappling to subdue her sexuality.
As had been his wont in recent years, Godard planted a thread of vital subtext through the film—here, it’s the teachings of a Czech theology professor who offers a vision of Intelligent Design to his students. Still, this surprisingly sympathetic take on a sacred Christian text had little chance of garnering approval from the Church and pressure from religious groups killed its distribution deal in the United States.
As a favor to producer Alan Sarde Godard next agreed to do
Detective, a project intended as an old school thriller featuring recognizable stars (Natalie Baye, Johnny Hallyday and Jean-Pierre Leaud). The middle-aged Isadore (Leaud), his young girlfriend Ariel (Aurele Doazan) and his uncle William Prospero (Laurent Terzieff) are on a stake-out in the hotel where the older man had been relieved of his duties as the house detective.
They are keeping tabs on boxing manager Jim Fox Warner (Hallyday), his former girlfriend Francoise (Baye) and her husband Emile Chenal (Claude Brasseur), a pilot to whom Warner is indebted. Warner also owes money to an impatient mob boss and both men demand payment the night before his protégé Tiger Jones (Stepahne Ferrara) steps into the ring for a lucrative prize fight.
To complicate matters, Prospero seduces Ariel, prompting Isadore to have second thoughts about their relationship. Francoise sleeps with Warner then informs him the money he owes Emile is actually hers. The final shootout either kills or incapacitates most of the major players, leaving only Isadore and Ariel to begin anew.
While much of Godard’s visual Renaissance is fully on display in Detective, neither the caricatured people nor the convoluted plot inspired him much. Godard accelerated the action, leaving his skilled players to bounce off the walls of the hotel room sets. It turned out to be a sloppy jambalaya his brilliant editing skills couldn’t fix.
Godard’s return to the commercial cinema had, thus far, been a mixed success. While both European and North American critics had been generally sympathetic to the new films the public remained lukewarm. Retreating back to Switzerland Godard spent the next two years making three highly personal and demanding films which took stock of his relationship with Anne-Marie Mieville.
Made for public television with the help of British film historian Colin McCabe, Soft and Hard gives us a glimpse inside the home and professional partnership of Mieville and Godard. The centerpiece of the film is long and often provocative conversation between two filmmakers where they discuss her new film, the banalities of commercial television and flaws in his recent work.
Soigne ta droite also examined the creative working relationship of male and female partners in the context of a droll comedy about two simpletons who find themselves overwhelmed by an increasingly cynical world. Pop musicians Catherine Ringer and Fred Chichin are a working Parisian couple who like Godard and Mieville spend their days creating art in a home studio.
The dimwits turn out to be Godard, as a Prince Myushkin-type, who has been asked to shoot and deliver a film to the Capital in one day, and an everyman (Jacques Villeret) who suffers the slings and arrows of narrow-minded prejudice.
While producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were well aware of Godard’s eccentricities they offered him a chance to direct a film version of King Lear even though the Swiss filmmaker had little familiarity with the British bard. Envisioning the film as an opportunity to pursue themes of father-daughter incest in an underworld spin on the play, Godard hired Norman Mailer and his daughter Kate to write and star in the production. Mailer grew frustrated with Godard’s working methods and was subsequently fired.
Hoping to get a better handle on the material, Godard hired the hot theatrical director Peter Sellars to play William Shakespeare Jr. V, a cultural advisor looking for his ancestor’s works lost in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As the King and Cordelia, Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald give surprisingly straight-faced performances while slogging through muddy locales, but stealing the show is Godard playing the mad scientist Professor Pluggy who has dedicated his life in contemplating the meaning of the image.
Taken with a grain of salt Godard’s King Lear can be a wild trip. An extension of the autobiographical Soft and Hard and Soigne ta droite it is another sketch of an artist recharging his batteries for the new challenges ahead.
Godard originally pitched the idea of Nouvelle vague as a project to Marcello Mastrioanni but financial and scheduling difficulties led to the Italian superstar dropping out and Alain Delon taking his place. The iconic French actor recently starred in a series of capers and police procedurals; a far cry from playing the existential hero in many prestigious films by Visconti, Antonioni and Jean-Pierre Melville during the 1960s and ‘70s.
For his participation in Godard’s film Delon demanded a received a proper screenplay, no small achievement, and the actor’s stand on principle likely helped turn Nouvelle vague into beguiling, mistaken-identity portrait worthy of Lang or Hitchcock.
After nearly running Roger Lennox (Delon) off the road with her sports car Elena Torlato-Favrini (Domiziana Girodano) then takes the handsome drifter into her posh country home where after he recuperates he becomes her lover. One day, while out on her boat Elena mocks the passive man for not being able to swim and when he inevitably falls into the water, she lets him drown. Sometime later, a man who eerily resembles Roger confronts her. Thus, Richard Lennox soon forces his way into Elena’s life.
She willingly lets him take over the family business and he even saves her life at the same lake where Roger had perished. It finally dawns on Elena this human dynamo is the same mysterious man she had left for dead. Tackling the world of high finance Godard directed a stylish thriller with a touch worthy of his old chum Chabrol, but without Claude’s patented morbidity.
Godard remained a crusty contrarian in his political views even as he grew more culturally conservative. Godard continued to have little use for U.S. foreign policy and he feared the malignant spread of western pop culture would end up spoiling the recently liberated Eastern Bloc.
Allemagne 90 neuf zero (Germany Year 90) was originally intended as a TV project about solitude, but Godard chose to create a portrait of a people (the East Germans) who had been frozen in time. Godard recast craggy Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, a former Cold War spy trying to return to the west. During Lemmy’s aimless and often hallucinogenic Grand Tour of German Culture he meets up with Freud’s Dora, Thomas Mann’s Lotte, Madame de Stael and even Don Quixote but nobody can point him to what’s left of the Berlin Wall.
Shot on location in and around East Germany, Godard’s film is strikingly gray and melancholic—the work of an artist beginning to feel his age. As Godard’s alter ego Constantine wears his weariness well and is, arguably, even more effective here as the bewildered and tired old man wanting to return home than the role which brought him immortality in Alphaville.
Godard’s next project Les enfant jouent a la Russie (Children Play Russian) was another commissioned film to be set in a recently liberated country of the Soviet State. Here, Godard creates an amusing joke by portraying Jack Valenti (Laszlo Szabo), the longtime head of the Motion Picture Association of America, as a cut-throat producer responsible for getting a reluctant director (Godard) to report to Russia to shoot a film.
The main thrust of the film, however, is Godard’s love of literary Russia, particularly the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov which are brought to life in fragmented re-enactments. To Godard’s singular line of thinking the West’s determination to invade and conquer this vast country over the past two hundred years has all been part of an effort to usurp Russia’s tradition of great storytelling.
Helas pour moi had initially been intended as a modern update on the Greek myth of Aphitryon but as had been the case in recent years Godard’s difficulties in getting what he wanted from his actors and crew led to him re-arranging the film and adding Biblical subtext. Here, Gerald Depardieu plays Simon, a resident of a Swiss lakeside community, and a Zeus-like God who makes love to Simon’s wife Rachel (Laurence Masliah) while he is away on business in Italy. Depardieu and Godard clashed on the set prompting the actor to walk away from the film in the middle of the shoot.
In order to flesh out this sketch to a feature-length film Godard introduced the character of Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley), a book publisher who visits the village to investigate the story behind a mysterious manuscript. Klimt interviews employees at a local video store and they re-tell the supernatural story of Simon and Rachel, a nod to religious oral tradition helping give the beguiling Helas Pour Moi its wings.
It’s safe to say no other major film director has done as much navel-gazing as Godard. Shot in and around the director’s home during the gloomy December of 1994, JLG/JLG ponders Godard’s carefree youth in Switzerland and the guilt he feels over misinterpreting the events of WWII and the Holocaust.
While deeply regretting both the anti-Semitism of his father and the near genocide of the Jewish people in Europe, Godard remains unsympathetic towards Israel and charts out a geometrical design linking the Palestinian plight to Hitler’s final solution. It’s a bizarre theory which would cast a looming shadow over his life and work in the coming years.
Godard was deeply affected by news of the horrors of the ongoing Serbo-Croatian war and the treacherous conflict provided a backdrop for his next film with the off-putting title of For Ever Mozart.
Once again the protagonists would include an aging filmmaker Vitalis (Vicky Messica) and an adoring, younger female relative, in this case his daughter Camille (Madeleine Assas). As the war in the former Yugoslav state escalates Camille, an unemployed philosophy teacher, decides to visit Sarajevo and brings her cousin Jerome (Frederic Pierrot) and the family servant Djamila (Ghalia Lacroix) along. Vitalis joins the throng and initially he proves a catalyst in keeping the little group’s spirits up on their tiresome journey. But at the Bosnian border Vitalis bolts and hitches a ride back home.
Camille, Jerome and Djamila continue on foot through the woods of the dangerous country until they are arrested by a band of Serbian guerrillas. Camille and Jerome are raped and tortured by their captors then forced to dig their own graves before being shot to death during a surprise raid on the camp. Vitalis plans to use their senseless deaths as inspiration for his latest film but soon finds he’s just as artistically blocked as he was before he abandoned his daughter to her awful fate.
Taking a page from Les Carabiniers, the elderly Godard continues to finds war distasteful, childish, and absurdly comic. The ghastly events at the Serbian hideout happen quickly, leaving no time for any sort of heavy-handed reflection or Hollywood sentimentality.
The irresponsible Vitalis turns out to be another painfully-realized autobiographical portrait of Godard, the tortured artist searching for the elusive lost chord. Consumed by his ongoing massive history of cinema project, the world would have to sit tight another five years for a new Godard feature.
Some thirteen years in the making Godard’s six hour long, multi-episode production of his Histoire(s) Du Cinema is not exactly a textbook take on film history, but yet another film memoir and a swansong to the end of the century and, perhaps, his metier.
Godard broke his history into eight segments parlaying film clips and stills, interviews and newly-shot sequences, into a multi-media slideshow accompanied by his whispery narration; a dizzying but highly seductive take on many of the historical, philosophical and controversial themes which have dominated his work during the last twenty years.
There is little reference to films made outside of Europe and the United States—a curious omission from this great champion of Mizoguchi and the Japanese cinema—and the movies of the 1980s and ‘90s are simply passed over.
According to Godard the cinema is the greatest artistic tool of the 20th century but most of his filmmaking peers turned out to be hideously negligent in chronicling the devastation of the two world wars. The rise of both the Nazi war machine and the Hollywood production line meant the fall of UFA and the snuffing out of French cinema at the height of its golden age. The Allied powers strangely remained muted about Jewish genocide during and after the Holocaust.
The emergence of sleek American genre movies, tacky popular culture and pornography after the war further dooms European cinema until Italian Neo-Realism breathes life into the moribund continent. This massive and thoughtful project turned out to be a technical and esthetic triumph from a nearly seventy-year-old filmmaker who still had plenty of surprises up his sleeve.
Eloge de l’amour is a sublime product of Godard’s ongoing obsession with visual versus recorded memory, particularly in the cases of the Holocaust and the French Resistance during WWII. Looking to piece together several cosmic themes without having to rely on inspiration hitting him on the film set, Godard did meticulous pre-production on Eloge de l’amour before finally settling on a receding time structure.
Fledgling Parisian film producer Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) is looking to embark on an ambitious project about the four stages of love. The casting process frustrates Edgar who seeks advice from an older Jewish friend Rosenthal (Paul Forlani) who, like Edgar, had family members perish in the Holocaust. Rosenthal advises him to seek out a woman (Cecile Camp) he used to know who’d be perfect for the lead role.
When Edgar reconnects with the woman he is surprised to learn this former aspiring actress is now a cleaning lady and has no interest in taking part in his project. Edgar continues to pursue her but their meetings are tinged with melancholia over their past and the sad state of the world. Edgar’s project dissolves and he later learns from the woman’s grandfather she has gone to Amsterdam, presumably, to commit suicide.
The film stock changes from somber black and white to harsh color during a flash back to events in Brittany which tidy-up the story of the relationship between Edgar and the woman (Berthe). An American film production team representing Steven Spielberg is negotiating to buy the rights to the story of Berthe’s grandparents, an elderly couple who participated in the French Resistance. After hearing the sales pitch from the Americans Berthe concludes Hollywood will misrepresent the truth behind their story. But, since they need money to save their struggling hotel her grandparents have no qualms about accepting the offer.
While in Brittany to research the Resistance, Edgar meets with Berthe who leaves a profound impression on him before she drives him to the train station and out of her life. A transcendent work about disappointment in love and the faultiness of memory, Eloge de l’amour was Godard’s eloquent answer to the cinema’s trivialization of historical events and the Holocaust.
For Notre Musique Godard would revert to his anti-Semitic ways by revisiting the curious theories about the Middle East and the Holocaust he floated in JLG/JLG. The narrative begins with Godard (playing himself) meeting his interpreter Ramos Garcia (Rony Kramer) while in an airport waiting for their plane to Sarajevo where the great filmmaker is to speak at a seminar.
Godard is fascinated by Garcia, a French Jew brought up in Egypt by a communist father and Zionist mother. Once in Sarajevo he meets an idealistic young reporter Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler) who wishes to meet the French Ambassador in the hopes of pushing a peace plan between Israel and Palestine.
Godard and Lerner enter into conversations with other intellectuals sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and the filmmaker uses his seminar lecture to bring visual proof to his theories of the Holocaust, Israeli oppression and Palestinian suffering.
Meanwhile Ramos’ niece Olga (Nade Dieu) arrives in town and informs her uncle of her intentions of ending her life in Jerusalem. After returning to Switzerland, Godard is informed that Olga was killed by an Israeli sniper who suspected her of being a suicide bomber.
The film ends with the spirit of Olga being let into a Beach Blanket Bingo paradise by American soldiers keeping guard over the locale. Shot in the somber, meditative style which graces his late period work Notre Musique is an unsettling journey into the soul of an artist.
On first viewing Godard’s first feature in six years, Film Socialisme might seem a bit of a throwback to the didactic Vertov school films of the 1970s, but the eighty-year-old director still pushes the envelope in this ravishing digital collage about a Europe which has lost its way. Set mostly on a cruise ship floating to ancient destinations on the Mediterranean Sea, a diverse collection of passengers meditate on everything from petty personal problems, genocide in Africa, to the concept of liberty in a postmodern world.
It seems almost tragic Godard’s recent Renaissance has been met by such indifference by the film-going public and film critics. Numbed but not disheartened, he continues to work on new projects forever in search of that elusive chord.
Books on Godard:
Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard – Richard Brody ***** Brody’s amazing, warts and all tome on the iconoclastic Godard is, perhaps, the standard bearer for all future critical film biographies. Thoughtful and incisive, Brody chooses to go where few other critics have gone in opening eyes to the many wonders of Godard’s unappreciated golden years as well as calling out his subject on the anti-Semitism and dodgy sexuality which run rampant through his extraordinarily complex body of work. This true labor of love is essential reading for all cineastes.
Godard On Godard – Jean-Luc Godard ****1/2 Although he wasn’t as prolific a contributor to Cahiers du Cinema as Truffaut, Rohmer or Rivette, Godard’s film criticism is second none. One of the first critics to champion many of great auteurs of 1950s American Cinema (Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller), Jean-Luc wasn’t shy about slaying dragons, either. Brilliant, incendiary stuff.
Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy – Colin McCabe **** Written by a long-time friend and collaborator of the cranky Swiss genius, this post-postmodern biography on Godard manages to be both intellectually speculative and surprisingly entertaining. McCabe expertly weaves the history of 20th century thought into the stormy narrative giving us a portrait of a continually evolving, yet difficult to pin-down, artist in the autumn of his years.
Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews – David Sterritt (ed.) **** A spry, erudite and occasionally nutty collection of interviews with the unpredictable director from 1962 to 1996. Especially amusing is the debate about the current state of American cinema (circa 1980) between JLG and Pauline Kael.
Godard – Richard Roud **** The legendary critic of Britain’s leftist newspaper The Guardian fawns over the revolutionary filmmaker but it is a brilliant read. Still as the book was published in 1968, it remains an incomplete portrait. Out of print.
Focus on Godard– Royal S. Brown (ed.) ***1/2 A very fine collection of essays, interviews and reviews in a continually excellent but sadly out of print series.
The Films of Jean-Luc Godard – Ian Cameron (ed.) ***1/2 Another fine film essay collection from the Praeger Library includes thought-provoking pieces from the likes of Raymond Durgnat to Robin Wood. Out of print.
Feature Films by Godard:
1960 A bout de soufflé (Breathless) ****
1960 Le Petit Soldat ****
1961 A Woman Is a Woman ****
1962 Vivre Sa Vie ****
1963 Les Carabiniers ****
1963 Contempt ****
1964 Band of Outsiders ****
1964 Une Femme Mariee (A Married Woman) ****1/2
1965 Alphaville ****1/2
1965 Pierrot le Fou *****
1966 Masculin-Feminin ****1/2
1966 Made in the USA ***1/2
1967 Two or Three Things I Know About Her ****
1967 La chinoise ***1/2
1967 Loin du Viet-Nam (Camera Eye) ***
1967 Week End ****
1968 Le Gai Savoir ****
1968 Cine-tracts ***
1968 Un film comme les autres (AKA A Film Like Any Other) ***
1968-72 One PM (aka One AM co-directed with D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock) ***1/2
1969 One Plus One (AKA Sympathy for the Devil) ***
1970 British Sounds ***
1970 Pravda ***
1970 Le Vent d’est ***
1971 Lotte in Italia ***
1971 Vladimir et Rosa ***1/2
1972 Tout va bien ***1/2
1972 Letter to Jane ***1/2
1975 Numero Deux ***1/2
1976 Ici et ailleurs ***1/2
1976 Six fois deux ***1/2
1978 Comment ca va ****
1978 France tour detour deux enfants ***1/2
1979 Every Man for Himself *****
1982 Passion ****
1983 First Name: Carmen ****
1985 Hail Mary ****
1985 Detective ***1/2
1985 Soft and Hard ***1/2
1987 Soigne ta droite ***1/2
1987 King Lear ***1/2
1990 Nouvelle Vague ****1/2
1991 Allemagne 90 neuf zero ****
1993 Les enfants jouvent a la Russie ***1/2
1993 Helas Pour Moi ****
1995 JLG/JLG ***1/2
1995 Deux fois cinquante ans de cinema Francais ***1/2
1996 For Ever Mozart ****
1998 Histoire (s) du cinema ****1/2
2001 Eloge de l’amour *****
2004 Notre Musique ****
2010 Film Socialisme ***1/2
Shorts and Documentary Films by Godard:
1954 Operation Beton ***
1959 Charlotte et Veronique, ou Tous les garcons s’appellent Patrick ***1/2
1960 Charlotte et son Jules ***1/2 (short)
1961 Une Histoire d’eau ***1/2 (short w/Francois Truffaut)
1962 Les Sept peches captaux (segment La Paresse aka Sloth) ***1/2
1963 Ro.Go.Pa.G ***1/2 (segment Il nuovo mondo)
1963 Les Plus Belles (segment Le Grand escroc) ***1/2
1965 Paris vu par…(segment co-directed by Albert Mayles) ***1/2
1967 La Plus vieux métier du monde (segment Anticipation) ****
1983 Lettre a Freddy Buache *** (short)
1986 Meeting WA ***1/2 (short)
1987 Aria (segment Armide) ***1/2
1988 Ou s’est tous diefile *** (short)
1988 Puissance de la parole *** (short)
1993 Je vous salue, Sarajevo *** (short)
1998 The Old Place ***1/2 (short)
2000 Origins of the 21st Century ***1/2 (short)
2002 Liberty and Homeland ***1/2 (short)