It took many great talents for France to be the cradle of cinema, and one of those talents was the legendary Jean-Luc Godard. Jean-Luc Godard was one of the pillars of French cinema and perhaps the most emblematic figure of modern European cinema!
One of the most enigmatic, revolutionary and experimental masters of cinema, to speak of Jean-Luc Godard encompasses not only his more than 120 credits but also the pure essence of the Nouvelle Vague and the evolution of European cinema towards political radicalism. Godard is one of the most influential French directors in history. He was the driving force, among others such as François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer, of what became known as the Nouvelle Vague.
His cinema is known for being avant-garde, very poetic and with a very refined treatment. Although there is one thing he innovated in, it was in terms of editing. A type of editing that experimented with the limits of cinematographic language.
Godad is renowned for his complete mastery of each of his films, being at once scriptwriter, director, dialogue writer and editor. In a career spanning more than 60 years, he has helped develop a new kind of cinema with young, carefree heroes at the centre of the game. Several of his films, including À Bout de Souffle (1960), Le Mépris (1963) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), are considered classics of French cinema.
Jean-Luc Godard’s work still inspires today, like it did in the past. Many of today’s Hollywood’s key filmmakers owe a great debt to his impact, to name a few: Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino. In this article, we have a closer look at Jean-Luc Godard’s life and unforgettable career!
Who is Jean-Luc Godard?
Jean-Luc Godard is of Swiss-French origins, and he was born in Paris, France. He spent his childhood on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva, where his father had a clinic. But his life was soon marked by the war in Europe during the early 1940s.
This unstable situation did not prevent the young Jean-Luc from falling in love with cinema. This love affair was due to an essay called “Outline of a Psychology of Cinema” by the French novelist André Malraux. In this essay, the French author reflected on the role of cinema in society.
During the Second World War, Jean-Luc was sent to study in Switzerland, only returning to Paris in 1948. After high school, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and took ethnology courses. At university, he made friends with François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, and together with the latter, founded the ‘Gazette du Cinéma’, in which he published articles under the pseudonym ‘Hans Lucas’.
After some film experiments with Rivette, he made a documentary called Opération Béton (Operation Concrete) (1954) about the construction of a dam in Switzerland. He followed that up with two successful films: Tous les Garçons s’appellent Patrick (1958) and Charlotte et son Jules (1958) with the young actor Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Building a Name for Himself
Following in the footsteps of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard tried his hand at the big screen and directed his first film, À Bout De Souffle (Breathless), in 1960. The film really launched his career as a director. À Bout De Souffle was to be a revolution in filmmaking, a cinema without established rules and a key element in the development of the Nouvelle Vague film movement.
With actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in the leading roles, the film was shot following a modus operandi in which improvisation was very important. Godard, with the help of Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, designed a series of guidelines to be followed in each scene, but not a fixed script.
The film premiered at the Berlinale, where Godard won the Silver Bear for Best Director. À Bout De Souffle also became emblematic of the Nouvelle Vague, which Rohmer, Malle and Truffaut helped to develop.
His next films were in the same vein, with topical subjects bordering on the revolutionary. For example, Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier), shot in 1960, was not released until 1963 after three years of censorship. The film caused controversy in France due to its references to the war in Algeria.
The sixties were a string of victories for Jean-Luc Godard, with Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961), Vivre Sa Vie: Film En Douze Tableaux (1962) and above all, Le Mépris (1963), starring Brigitte Bardot.
Godard stayed true to what he believed in, and the emphasis on taboo subjects and the emergence of young heroes who wanted to break away from the shackles of family and society became the common thread running through the New Wave and thus Jean-Luc Godard’s films. In Pierrot le Fou (1965), the hero, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, battled gangsters in the middle of a road film.
Also in 1965 came Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution. The film was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The film contains numerous references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and focuses on the investigations of a journalist named Ivan Johnson, who arrives in the city of Alphaville to investigate the whereabouts of Professor Von Braun, the creator of a machine that controls the minds of the city’s inhabitants.
Jean-Luc Godard then made Masculin Féminin (1966), in which his main character is a social misfit. At the height of the Cold War, he made La Chinoise (1967), a comedy-drama dealing with Marxist-Leninist thought.
Documentaries and a Return to Cinema
After the famous events of the civil disorder of May 1968 in France, Jean-Luc Godard took a step back from his film career and began making documentaries around the world. He shot British Sounds (1969) in Great Britain, Pravda (1969) in Prague and Vladimir and Rosa (1970) in Berlin.
After a brief return to cinema with Tout va Bien (1972), starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, Jean-Luc Godard returned to short and medium-length films during the 1970s. However, it was not until the 1980s that Jean-Luc Godard made his big screen comeback with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980).
In keeping with his reputation for hijacking the classics, he also revisited the opera Carmen in Prénom Carmen (1983) and the life of the Virgin Mary in Je Vous Salue, Marie (1985), a film in which he introduced his views on femininity, nature and Christianity. Both films caused quite a scandal around the world.
The Final Years
In the 1990s, Jean-Luc Godard focused on documentaries on the history of filmmaking, like his project Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988 – 1998), an 8-part video that offered a very personal construction of the first 100 years of the history of cinema. The work is regarded by many as the most lucid look at the history of cinema.
In this documentary, Godard used various techniques such as collages, fragments of films, texts, quotations, photos, paintings, musical fragments, sounds, and readings by exceptional narrators (Juliette Binoche, Alain Cuny, Julie Delpy and Godard himself).
Jean-Luc Godard also tried his luck with comedy with Soigne ta Droite (1987) before directing Nouvelle Vague (1990) with Alain Delon in the lead role. The rest of his career, however, was punctuated by commercial and critical failures, notably For Ever Mozart (1996) and Notre Musique (2004).
His latest films were the experimental collage Film Socialisme (2010) and Adieu Au Langage (2014), a fragmented narrative about a man, a woman and a dog filmed in 3-D. For this film, the Cannes Film Festival awarded him the Jury Prize.
His latest release was Le Livre D’image (The Book of Images) (2018), a film essay with a montage of film clips, photographs and war images, in which Godard provided commentary. The last project to have Godard’s magical touch was the short film Film Annonce Du Film Qui N’existera Jamais: Drôles De Guerres, which had its premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival almost a year after Godard’s death.
Winner of 53 awards, it should be noted that Godard has won EVERYTHING! He was given an honorary Oscar, 8 Berlin Film Festival awards (including a Golden Bear and two Silver Bears), 3 Cannes awards (including a Jury Prize and a special Golden Palm), and 7 Venice awards (including a Golden Lion and two special Jury Prizes).
Godard died at the age of 91 on 13 September 2022 by a reported assisted suicide procedure, leaving behind a legacy that would surely live for ages!
As one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, Jean-Luc Godard has left behind a cinematic heritage that still inspires many today. The Godard style was quite unique; all his work reflected his thoughts and his way of conceiving cinema.
Godard’s films are characterised by their irreverence and rebelliousness with respect to classical montage. He had total opposition to the cinematographic conventions that were established, especially through American cinema. Some see him, because of his provocative character, as an exhibitionist, although it is undoubtedly difficult to talk about the history of cinema without talking about him.
He thus established himself as a point of reference in modern cinema and especially in the Nouvelle Vague of French cinema. But his influence on the world of culture was not limited solely and exclusively to the world of cinema, as his repercussions on contemporary art are remarkable.
Godard thought of his films as an intellectual upheaval. All his films have a strong ideological component, accentuated from the 1970s onwards in what is known as his “revolutionary period”. It was at that time that he began to work with students and street protesters, as well as taking orders from governments that he recognised as being under his own ideologies. For example, during the Cannes Film Festival, along with a group of other European filmmakers (Claude Lelouch, Truffaut, Roman Polanski and Louis Malle), he used some of the screenings to demonstrate on behalf of those taking to the streets to raise their voices.
Godard’s work showed an increasing obsession with the themes of fickleness, indignity, whimsy and the impossibility of distinguishing a reality that was influenced and bound by the ideological powers of governments and politics.
Godard shied away from anything studio-based, so most of his films are shot outdoors with a hand-held camera. The aim was to go out and film the life of the city, to film anonymous faces walking the streets, leaving the line between documentary and fiction very tenuous.
Jean-Luc Godard Memorable Films
This is definitely a hard one; there are so many Jean-Luc Godard films that helped shape the history of cinema for sure! Next, we remember only a few of the many memorable Jean-Luc Godard films.
À Bout De Souffle (Breathless) (1960)
There are a few moments in the history of cinema that are so obvious that they mark a before and after, and Godard’s first film is definitely one of those moments. Breathless is undoubtedly one of the most important and astonishing debuts ever.
Based on a subject by Truffaut and Chabrol, the entire narrative of the film is built around the figure of Michel Poiccard, a young criminal pursued by the police who, having arrived in Paris, shares a fleeting passion with a student called Patricia Franchini.
Shot on a shoestring budget in the space of three weeks, Breathless was released in March 1960, and it was a hit at the box office, and it went on to win the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
While this film may not be the first of the Nouvelle Vague movement, it was the one that established and symbolised its future with an unprecedented authorial style.
Vivre sa Vie (1962)
Vivre sa Vie is a Nouvelle Vague film about the story of a young, provincial woman (Anna Karenina) who leaves her husband and son to embark on a career as an actress, but when faced with an adverse reality, she decides to become a prostitute.
Godard presented the traditional role of the prostitute as a victim of circumstances in a very different way from what was customary, abounding in authorial nods and tributes to writers, actresses and directors of other eras. Considered one of the best French films of the 1960s, Vivre sa Vie received a special prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1962.
El Desprecio (The Contempt) (1963)
With a very good cast headed by Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli and Jack Palance and the appearance of the legendary German director Fritz Lang, Jean-Luc Godard himself and Linda Veras, El Desprecio tells the story of the meeting between a film producer, a writer and his wife, which, due to a misunderstanding, causes a crisis in their marriage.
This film belongs to the first stage of Godard’s work, which we could call “narrative”, in which he tells a story with a defined linear plot. Although it is not the prototype of Godard’s films, it is one of his most famous films.
The winner of the Berlin Bear is par excellence the definition of Godard’s syncretism, an overlooked and revolutionary gem that theoretically and for its obvious romanticism (obviously centred on the figure of Karina) is situated within the Nouvelle Vague movement, but which blends science fiction, noir and even that aesthetic and narrative air of German expressionism in a way that is as perfect as it is curious.
The film follows a secret agent on his task in the dystopian city of Alphaville, which is located in a faraway corner of the galaxy. The agent is tasked to find a missing person and help free the people of the city from tyranny.
Alphaville is a tribute to cinema and to several of its movements, concepts and even elements of pop culture. In this film, Godard combined different genres in one work.
Pierrot El Loco (1965)
Pierrot el Loco is one of Godard’s best films ever and perhaps (most likely) the most iconic of the Nouvelle Vague. The brazenness with which it is told and acted dictates the quintessence of the French movement in the best possible way.
The film follows a married man who runs away with the nanny that was hired by his rich wife dreaming of a better and happier life. However, things don’t go as planned, and they find a gang hot on their trail!
The masterpiece Pierrot le Fou is chaotic and limpid, light and tragic; it combined the convulsive beauty of Godard’ À Bout De Souffle with the contemplative lyricism of El Desprecio.
Hail Mary (1984)
Hail Mary is one of the most controversial films in European cinema of all time for its free and modern interpretation of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy. Godard transposed the biblical passage into modernity, not only under the already moribund tone of the Nouvelle Vague but also including, true to his style, all elements of culture and society in what is a portrait of the French marginalisation of the 1980s.
Of course, the film caused a widespread outcry because of the boldness of its plot, which was criticised even by the Vatican itself. Revered by many and scorned by many others, the film stays a fine piece of art that will always be remembered!
Jean-Luc was, above all, a person with a strong character and a strong political conscience, which set him apart from the rest legendary names from his time. Jean-Luc Godard left behind a career dotted with masterpieces and misunderstandings that made him a legend!