Revolutionary French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, the towering figure of New Wave cinema whose innovative camerawork and eschewal of narrative order influenced generations of filmmakers, died September 13 at his home in Rolle, Switzerland, at the age of ninety-one. The Guardian reports that he chose to end his own life via assisted suicide, after suffering “multiple incapacitating illnesses.” “He was not sick, he was simply exhausted,” an anonymous source told French daily Libération. “It was his decision [to end it] and it was important for him that it be known.” Godard rose to fame with 1959’s Breathless: Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, and placing variously jarring and fluid handheld camera work in service of a fresh, disjointed, and highly personal narrative, the film became an instant classic, cementing Godard’s status as a film-world icon. “There’s a bit of Godard in nearly all films today,” said Swiss Cinematheque president Frederic Maire. “Nearly all directors who have gone to film school today, or learned movie-making at cinematheques, have seen Godard’s films—and were amazed, jolted, and shocked by his way of telling stories.”
Jean-Luc Godard was born December 3, 1930, in Paris, to a physician father and a mother whose own father had founded Banque Paribas. Raised in Nyon, Switzerland, Godard returned to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, where he studied ethnology. Never a regular moviegoer in his youth, he came to the cinema by way of André Malraux’s 1940 “Outline of a Psychology of Cinema,” which limned the aims and problems of contemporary narrative cinema, and the journal La Revue du Cinéma. Paris’s Latin Quarter, where Godard was living in the aftermath of World War II, was at the time a hotbed of cinematic interest, with young people frequently forming film-appreciation clubs, a number of which the future filmmaker joined and through which he met peers including François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Godard in 1950 with Éric Rohmer (then Maurice Schérer) and Jacques Rivette launched the short-lived Gazette du cinema; when that folded, he began writing film criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma, cofounded by André Bazin, whom he had met through Bazin’s left-wing Work and Culture ciné club. Godard’s 1952 argument in favor of the shot-reverse shot technique—a point on which he differed with Bazin—in its pages remains one of his most significant pieces of criticism.
Around this time, Godard assisted Rivette and Rohmer with films each was working on. Having failed in his initial attempt to make his own film, he returned to Switzerland, where he took a job as a construction worker and used the proceeds to make his first movie, the twenty-minute Operation Concrete, which his employer bought and used for promotional purposes. Following a return to Paris and the making of several shorts, Godard made his first feature-length film, Breathless, off a script by Truffaut about a penniless French thief (Belmondo) who shoots a policeman and goes on the lam with his American lover (Seberg) Shot on a low budget and using a handheld camera—at times wielded by noted documentary cameraman Raoul Coutard as he was propelled past the actors in a wheelchair—the movie welded then-nontraditional techniques, such as the jump cut, the character aside, and the disjointed narrative, with a plethora of cinematic references that could be immediately grasped by the youthful cinema fans of the day, as well as allusions to literature, art and music. Breathless immediately and enduringly came to represent the French New Wave cinematic style, in which Godard worked for nearly a decade. Films such as 1963’s Les Carabiniers and Le Mépris (Contempt) of the same year blended action with philosophical conversation and embodied Godard’s uncompromising socialist politics and rejection of narrative conventional style; the latter work, featuring Brigitte Bardot, is widely to be the acme of modernist film. His Masculin Feminin of 1966 characterized an early cinematic blurring of gender roles, while his Week-end of 1967 lampooned bourgeois overconsumption.
By the end of the 1960s, seeking to escape his own canonization, Godard began making purely political films, many of which he collaborated on—sometimes anonymously—with other filmmakers. Chief among these weas Jean-Pierre Gorin, with whom Godard made Tout va bien, a 1978 political drama starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda and accompanied by the companion piece Letter to Jane: a deconstruction of Western imperialist ideology, the nearly hour-long movie investigates a single still showing Fonda with the Viet-Cong shot during the Vietnam War.
Godard’s films of the 1980s are more autobiographical and directly expository of the filmmakers’ beliefs. (“Young people are scum,” he notes glumly in 1983’s First Name: Carmen, in which he makes a rare major-role appearance. “They didn’t invent the cigarette or the jeans. Nothing.”) They remained incendiary however, with 1985’s Hail Mary garnering a denunciation from the pope. His films of the ’90s and beyond are more elegiac in nature, addressing themes of love, aging, and separation, as well as that of conflict. Godard’s last feature film, Le Livre d’image (The Image Book), premiered at Cannes in 2018, where it was awarded the festival’s first “Special Palme d’Or.” “Le livre d’image is framed with an injunction to keep hope alive,” wrote Amy Taubin in her Artforum review, “a demand that comes as close to offering a definition of what great art does as you’re ever going to get from Godard.”
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