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In praise of love: the art and life of Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022)
Requiem for a heavyweight
“Godard forever,” an ecstatic and rapturous fan notoriously yelled out at the end of the Cannes premiere screening of Goodbye to Language (2014), the director’s intellectually probing and wondrous 3-D experimental feature.
The end seemed near for Jean-Luc Godard from the moment his final feature, The Image Book (2018), screened inside the same Lumiere Theatre in Cannes a couple of years later.
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The narrator's voice—serene and plangent in his late works—was now whispery and frail. The images still astonished, and the assiduous, dense and allusive way he constructed the soundtrack and played off sound and image radiated intelligence and verve.
Nothing was lost. He was still quick, fast and dangerous. The work was intoxicating, if not always clear, much less conforming to anybody’s notion of what we think of as “pleasurable.” Like Finnegans Wake or Absolam, Absolam!, Godard’s films did not exist in order to make sense of them.
You simply submitted to them, enraptured by their peculiar rhythms, playful connections, and depth of meaning. That eye was so discerning, exacting, beautiful.
Upon watching The Image Book, the sense of time lost or receding was palpable. The moment of Godard was ending. That voice was now quiet, reticent, pulled back, almost indecipherable.
Contrast that with the intelligence and suppleness of that same narrator’s voice, at the start of Pierrot le fou (1965), the sinister, conspiratorial wails of Alphaville (1965), or the playful, beguiling introduction of Marina Vlada at the beginning of Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966).
Godard was the last modernist, a man of language, style, intelligence and force who opened up and transformed what the medium was capable of. So many of the late works meditated on the end of cinema.
The idea of a world without Godard was not something anybody ever really wanted to ponder.
The Tuesday morning announcement that Jean-Luc Godard has died, by assisted suicide, at the age of ninety-one in his home in Rolle, Switzerland, was not shocking or unexpected.
It’s still a jolt.
From the moment of the Paris debut in March 1960, of his revolutionary first feature, A bout de souffle (Breathless), Jean-Luc Godard was a man simultaneously in front of and running out of time—like Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), his amoral protagonist.
His movies marked a cultural and artistic moment whose larger meaning, value, tenaciousness and wonder we are still arguing about. (Every time I hear somebody go on about prestige television, I am reminded of Godard’s observation that we look up at movies, and down at television.)
Like Orson Welles, Godard surrendered a popular audience in order to continuously refine his art. No matter how insular or solipsistic that voice became, Godard is now, like then, very much a part of the critical discourse. (Jonathan Rosenbaum once said it the best: “I’d rather hear Godard talking to himself than Spielberg speaking to half the planet.”)
Besides, the normal parameters and criteria for determining that kind of legitimacy never seemed relevant to Godard.
Godard had four distinct periods: the astonishing fifteen features he made between Breathless and Weekend (1967): the radical, anti-materialist films of the Dziga Vertov period; his return to narrative with his “second first film,” Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980); the collage, experimental and essay films, yielding one of his greatest achievements, Histoire(s) du cinema (1998), an eight-part, two-hundred and sixty-four minute video.
He was the last surviving member of the nouvelle vague or French New Wave, the essayists-critics turned filmmakers who produced the most significant national movement in the post-war cinema.
The French New Wave marked the detonation of the atom, and remains the turning point of movie modernism, contemporary scholarship and of cinephilia.
It brought about the love and critical reappraisal of Hollywood classicists John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, the deep and abiding appreciation of the maverick outsiders like Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Budd Boetticher, and the insistent defense and affinity with the solitary or loner individual like Welles and John Cassavetes.
There was a time, unmistakably, when Godard was a colossus, the most important filmmaker of his era. From March of 1960 to late December of 1967, Godard made an astounding fifteen feature films. He also made at least five shorts preceding Breathless, as well as a series of provocative, fascinating sketch works, as many as six or seven.
(“Today I’m going to sing the praises of Jean-Luc, who makes films just as I do, except he makes twice as many,” Francois Truffaut marveled in a 1962 essay.)
Of those fifteen early to mid-sixties works, eight were shot in black and white, and the other seven in color. The spontaneity, freedom and inventiveness of the films are as fresh and involving today as the moment they first appeared.
In her landmark essay on Godard, Susan Sontag was one of the first to capture his particular genius: “One goes to the latest Godard prepared to see something both achieved and chaotic, ‘work in progress’ which resists easy admiration.
“The qualities that make Godard, unlike Bresson, a culture hero … are precisely his prodigal energies, his evident risk-taking, the quirky individualism of his mastery of a corporate, drastically commercialized art.” Sontag also observes how Godard shared, with Joyce, Picasso and Stravinsky, a “hypertrophy of appetite for culture.”
Film culture has shifted and mutated in so many profound ways over the last five or six decades. Whatever one thinks of the works that followed, the polemical and abstracted video pieces, the sometimes abstruse and particularly demanding narrative features of the post-Sauve qui peut (la vie) period, the sixties’ titles are routinely shown in exhibitions, traveling retrospectives and re-issues.
Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) was the second of his works to receive a US theatrical release. Godard shot the movie in Paris during February and March of 1962. It premiered at Venice in late August and opened in Paris theatrically about a month later.
Godard famously dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures. Vivre sa vie was dedicated to “aux films de serie B,” in other words, the B movie. The movie is constructed in twelve movements, or chapters, what Godard called the tableaux. The story fixates on Nana, who’s played with a combustible mixture of vulnerability, toughness and calculation by Anna Karina, Godard’s then wife and a key figure of Godard’s first period.
Godard films Anna Karina gloriously, beautifully. The movie opens with a reverse angle close up of her face, captured in the translucent late afternoon Paris light. It subtly shifts to a forward close up, and you see those astonishing eyes, liquid, deep, magnificent. It’s Karina as fetish, and we’re invited to watch, stare, and get lost in that glorious and exquisitely lined face.
The movie’s bravura opening is a roughly ten-minute stretch of Nana and her husband, Paul, seated at a Paris café. We see only the back of their heads, but her reflection is caught in a mirror and discernible from a distance.
She holds tight to her belief of artistic salvation. “I can still be discovered,” she says. One of the recurring ideas of this period is the sense of little or no difference between acting and being.
Godard animates it with a dazzling mix of technique and stylization that’s not exactly naturalistic but yet it somehow seems immediately recognizable. The tension develops out of the extent to which the characters either accept or try to refute their roles.
In virtually all of these films, female desire and sexual independence is insufficient, damaging and illusory without an economic self-sufficiency. Nana’s story quickly devolves into the tragedy of her gradual descent into prostitution. “It was the easiest way,” she explains.
From the start Godard was interested in exploring new ways of synchronizing sound and image.
One of the beauties watching Godard films now, either on Blu-ray, or at the Criterion Channel or the Cohen Group, is the chance at privatizing the viewing experience; it’s not a group enterprise, necessarily, but something to return to, and go over, repeatedly if necessary, the parts that excite, fascinate or throw one off.
Vivre sa vie proves another opportunity to marvel at the subtleties and brilliance of Raoul Coutard, the cinematographer for the vast majority of the sixties narrative films. Sontag wrote about how Godard collapsed the distinction of first-person and third-person narration.
The camera movement is particularly alert and observant in Vivre sa vie. In the second movement, inside the record store where Nana works, Godard interrupts the normal sequence to track away from her. It’s interesting because the movement does not lend itself to liberation or freedom, but the opposite; it reinforces Nana’s particular stasis, the fact that she’s trapped and has very few choices available.
Paris is graced (or cursed) with an intoxicating quality, a sense of untrammeled freedoms and the power and privilege that anything is possible and nothing forbidden. Godard has always gotten at something else about how the city, the architecture and energy lend itself to tragic desperation.
Godard was a director who was also crucial not just for what he said, but how he said it. In the days since the announcement of his death, I have thought of fragments, moments, images, or ideas.
One is struck at the fragility, the vulnerability, the tragic intensity, and melancholy grace. Some examples:
Karina’s lonely, late night ride on the metro in Band of Outsiders (1964).
The lyrical and poetic landscapes, light and color of Pierrot le fou.
Marianne Faithful sitting forlornly inside the nightclub cafe, with her plaintive and heartbreaking version of, “As Tears Go By,” in Made in USA (1966).
The interpolation of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves into King Lear (1987).
Landscapes and water, again, in Nouvelle vague (1990).
Snow falling on dead soldiers in For Ever Mozart (1996).
The tragic inevitability of the future, from In Praise of Love (2001).
In all forms, art was not inviolate, or sacrosanct. Movies marked the ultimate act of vandalizing, appropriating, deconstructing and subverting forms within. Literature, theater, music, acting were constantly open to new ways of thinking and reordering.
Movies never had a clean or linear structure, and neither did his life and art. By all accounts, Godard the man was difficult, contentious, problematic. His eccentric politics could be withering and tone-deaf. The sixties movies are electric and beguiling, the sexual politics, misogyny, and sexism frequently hard to take, or certainly shake off.
The Dziga Vertov films are the ones I am least able to talk about. Of the ones I have seen, Numero Deux (1965) strikes me as one of his greatest and most radical works.
He dedicated two of his films to Cassavetes. He famously said of Welles that we owe him everything. “The cinema was Nicholas Ray.” According to his biographer Richard Brody, Godard had tears in his eyes when Fuller delivered his famous “Film is a battleground,” speech in Pierrot le fou.
Godard is dead. The cinema is not. His films will forever go on.
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