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Jean-Luc Godard, 1930-1922

We pay tribute to a giant of French cinema in this new short essay and linked free-to-view content.

Godard and the French New Wave

A Bout De Souffle Poster
French poster for À bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960). Photo by LMPC via Getty Images.

Born in Paris to a wealthy Franco-Swiss family, as a young man Jean-Luc Godard was an active participant in the thriving film culture of 1950s Paris, particularly the Ciné-club du Quartier Latin (CCQL), and was part of a circle that included Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, all cinéastes who went on to become leading lights of the Nouvelle vague/New Wave. When the critic André Bazin founded the journal Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, Godard became one of its regular contributors, writing articles that helped shape the philosophy of the New Wave filmmakers. He emphasised the 'auteur' or director as cinema's prime creative force, championed an innovative, free-wheeling visual style and subject matter that engaged with contemporary cultural and political issues rather valorising the past, and also celebrated the achievements of Hollywood directors including Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Tim Palmer's article, The French New Wave: Insurrection Generation, provides an overview of the movement, its defining principles, key filmmakers, and films.

In the chapter Young Godard from Making Waves: New Cinema of the 1960s, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith considers Godard as auteur, focusing on his early filmmaking from his first feature, À bout de souffle (Breathless) of 1960, to Tout va bien of 1972. In this chapter from Studying French Cinema, author Isabelle Vanderschelden focuses in depth on À bout de souffle, which she suggests can be seen as setting out a manifesto for the New Wave, and Pierrot le fou of 1965, which is regarded by many as the last of Godard's works to be associated with New Wave style, as part of a transition period announcing the even more experimental projects that followed.

One of the most important innovations of the New Wave filmmakers was their pioneering use of sound, both diegetic (within the world of the film) and non-diegetic (music or sound that the film's characters cannot hear). Albertine Fox's book Godard and Sound focuses on the use of sound and silence in Godard's later films. In chapter one she discusses Godard's early sonic experiments and the development of his creative practice in the use of sound and image, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, and silence in his films.

Godard and the critics

Jean-Luc Godard at the 23rd Cesar Ceremony
Jean-Luc Godard at the 23rd Cesar Ceremony in Paris in 1998. Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Sygma via Getty Images.

From the very beginning Godard's filmmaking provoked strong reactions, and there was no critical consensus as to its artistic merit. In this extract from The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks, Peter Martin and Ginette Vincendeau present three contrasting contemporary views of À bout de souffle, by the critics Luc Moullet, Raymond Borde and Georges Sadoul. It was American critic Richard Roud who was one of the first and most notable to champion the work of Godard and other New Wave filmmakers. In the Introduction to his 1967 BFI 'Cinema One' study of Godard, Roud sets out why he considers Godard to be one of the most important (as well as controversial) contemporary directors, and Michael Temple's foreword to the book's reissue surveys the history of Godard criticism.

Godard's women

Jean-Luc Godard and Brigitte Bardot
Jean-Luc Godard and Brigitte Bardot on the set of Le Mepris (Contempt). Photo by Marceau-Cocinor/Les Films Concordia/ Georges de Beauregard/ Carlo Ponti/ Collection Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images.

In this chapter from her book Fetishism and Curiosity, Laura Mulvey maps the "painful but obstinate engagement with sex, sexual difference and femininity that has zigzagged across [Godard's] cinema and his politics". Godard confronted the relationship between cinema, the eroticised woman's body, and consumer society in diverse ways, often returning to the figure of the prostitute, who encapsulated the commodification of human relationships under capitalism, from Juliette in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (1967) to Isabelle in Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980).

Histoire(s) du Cinéma

Jean-Luc Godard And Jean-Paul Belmondo
Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Paul Belmondo on the set of Pierrot Le Fou in June 1965. Photo by REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Godard's work from the 1990s and 2000s is characterised by a self-reflexivity, looking back on a century of cinema and on his own life and filmmaking. In this chapter from The Legacy of the New Wave in French Cinema, Douglas Morrey considers Godard's 1995 film 2 x 50 ans de cinéma français, released to mark cinema's first 100 years, and his later epic work Histoire(s) du cinema, completed in 1998. Morrey relates Godard's central role in Histoire(s) as writer, director, editor and narrator to his "long history of self-portraiture on screen and self-mythologizing in the cinema. As early as Bande à part (1964), he famously referred to himself as 'Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard' in the credits […] and, just half a decade into his filmmaking career, in Pierrot le fou (1965), he had already begun the process of quoting himself. Histoire(s) du cinéma, as Jacques Aumont notes, is less of an historical enterprise than an autobiographical one." Morrey also links Godard's denunciation of cinema in Histoire(s) to his family history: "cinema's culpable negligence in failing to testify to the horrors of the Second World War, the willful blindness to history that is tantamount to collaboration, is precisely that for which the director disowned his birth family in the post-war period."

Godard's later years

Jean-Luc Godard in 2010
Jean-Luc Godard attends a debate when presenting his last movie Film socialiste (Socialist movie) in Paris in 2010. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images.

Godard continued to innovate into his eighties, releasing films even after he proclaimed the failure of cinema in the Histoire(s) du Cinéma project. Rick Warner's chapter in The Global Auteur focuses on Godard's 2014 film Adieu au langage, (Goodbye to Language), which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Warner considers Adieu as an essay film, that is, a self-reflective and self-referential text that blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Adieu is another very personal account in which Godard reflects back on, and reconsiders, nearly every major period of his artistic practice.

Homepage banner image: Director Jean-Luc Godard on November 30, 2010 in Zurich, Switzerland. Photo by The Image Gate/Getty Images.

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