Jean-Luc Godard has died. The French-Swiss filmmaker was an auteur, if there ever was one. Though he would despise the application of that rigid term to both him and his filmography, that rejection of cinematic tradition is at the core of his incredibly long career.
This is not to say that Godard rejected film theory or study as a concept. Far from it. Prior to his foray into making films, he was writing about them. Working at Cahiers du Cinéma over 70 years ago, Godard and his contemporaries François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette were writing about films in ways that were critical and timely. The dawn of cinema was just starting to appear in the cultural rearview mirror, and these French whippersnappers were going to take a good hard look at it and give the industry the earnestness it had earned. They understood the weight and importance of cinema as an art and as a magnifying lens with which to look at the world, and they were not going to mince words about it. When Godard wrote about French cinema’s over-importance on beauty and formality he was not merely preaching without action. He soon took up the camera himself to experiment with the form of film in any way that he could.
Godard’s films are not easy. Though he wears his politics and his film theories on his sleeves, the mere act of watching a Godard film is never a passive experience. You need to work through the medium of film, grasp on to the plot (if there is one), and hang on for the ride through his tinkering and experimentation with the very nature of film itself.
His first feature film, Breathless, came out in 1960, and his fight against the passive audience launched then. Largely considered his most digestible film, he still makes you work for it. From random jumping cuts as the two characters drive through Paris in a convertible to a long, sustained scene of the two of them just hanging out in a bedroom, Godard never lets the audience forget that they are watching an approximation of life. Time and loyalty can be manipulated and constructed through camera angles, cuts, music, and the myriad choices every filmmaker must make as they construct their art. None of this is free from intent, and he wants the audience to remember that.
Forty years later, the cinematic chaos agent was still up to his ways with Goodbye to Language. The 3D film seemed to be an exercise in commenting on the newly rediscovered projection possibility just as it was hanging its moment again. For stretches of the film, rather than allowing the 3D film to show depth of field or having objects seemingly zoom out into the theater, Godard instead had different images running in the left eye and the right. Looking out both eyes was strange and confusing, but winking on one side or the other showed two completely distinct images. He was willing to work within this gimmicky artistic medium, but he was going to make up his own rules of engagement.
It feels like a disservice to skip over such a long length of time in a great filmmaker’s career. He has directed 131 times (including narrative features, documentaries, shorts, and anthology chapters). His personality often overshadowed his films too. He famously had an angry fallout with Truffaut, left Agnes Varda on his doorstep in her own documentary, and impolitely declined to accept his honorary Oscar in-person. Just like his filmography, he makes you work for it.
I wanted to take a moment to reflect on Godard on a personal level. The man, including all of his faults and infinite grumpiness, has always been one of my favorite filmmakers. True, I do love his films and relish a cool fall night on my couch with a cup of tea and Masculin Féminin or Vivre Sa Vie, but for me it goes far beyond that.
I saw my first Godard film in college as I was floundering about my studies. By that point I had discovered I did not want to pursue the Physics degree I was currently hurtling towards, but what was after that decision was beyond me. I started taking Film Studies classes because I thought they might be interesting, and would at least earn me elective credits so that I could keep working for a degree of some sort. In my second film theory class, I met Godard.
Breathless was unlike anything I had ever seen. I could watch it and be swept away into 1960s Paris and all of the escapism of filterless cigarettes and striped dresses, but I could also turn my brain on and dissect it like a calculus problem. There was far more going on in the film than the plot and performances, and I desperately wanted to understand it. The scientific sections of my brain went into overdrive, and I was able to analytically study art, and that made my brain make sense.
That experience was over 20 years ago now, and it undoubtedly changed my life. Godard introduced me into the world of difficult cinema and, in turn, made me feel like my mind was capable of marrying all of my interests in life. I was a little less lost and a little less frustrated by my lack of focus. Not to say that everything has been rainbows and sunshine in my life since then, but the grounding experience of watching and rewatching Godard’s films always brings me back to a place where I felt useful and capable. Isn’t that a beautiful place to visit?
My love for film will always be paired with my love for Godard. Given the consistent engagement with his films over the last 50 years and the widespread mourning across the world at the news of his death, I know I am not alone in this love.