Jean-Luc Godard died this week. Perhaps you heard. Or perhaps you didn’t. It’s hard for me to know how impactful, or even acknowledged, Godard’s death was outside of my own film-addicted social bubble.
Within that bubble, though, it was a seismic event, despite the fact that, at 92, it wasn’t a huge shock. Godard, as the numberless encomia of the last couple days have rightly stated, changed everything about cinema.
Starting in the 1960s, he infused the traditional tropes of his chosen art form with a radical, iconoclastic personal vision to mold something truly original and achieve global acclaim. Unwilling to rest on his creative laurels, he moved over the decades into that rarefied artistic space wherein a genius is allowed to make work for an audience of one: himself. In doing so, however, he never lost the seemingly irresistible urge to reinvent, to innovate, to speak ugly truths as only an ascetic, wizened sage can. I get the sense that this is what it’s going to feel like when Bob Dylan dies.
Of course, the iconic Godard, the one even people who don’t subscribe to The Criterion Channel probably know, is the 1960s version, chain-smoking while looking through dark sunglasses at a strip of 35mm film he holds out before him. You know the photo. The enfant terrible who dedicated his first, world-shaking, film, Breathless, to the American Poverty Row film studio Monogram Pictures. The paradigm of the obsessive cinephile, whose love-hate relationship with Hollywood curdled into Contempt, his highest-grossing film (although the frequently bared body of Brigitte Bardot may have had something to do with that). The uncompromising, petulant Lennon to Francois Truffaut’s McCartney.
The years from 1960 to 1966 were almost absurdly fertile for Godard, who directed twelve features in that span, easily half of them a necessary part of any decent cinematic education. But as the world got darker during the last years of the decade, so did Godard’s work. His embrace of Marxism and Maoism, his critiques of patriarchal colonialism, and his willingness to withhold pleasure from his audiences all became more evident from the seminal Weekend, and its infamous seven-minute traffic-jam tracking shot, onward.
Godard spent much of the 1970s making overtly political films, sometimes in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville (who became his life partner and survives him) or Jean-Pierre Gorin; sometimes anonymously as part of the so-called Dziga Vertov Group. Unfortunately, much of this work remains nearly impossible to see in the U.S., one exception being 1972’s Tout va bien, which had the good fortune to star Jane Fonda and Yves Montand.
Like so many of his countercultural contemporaries (Robert Altman comes to mind), the 1980s made Godard seem like a man out of his element. He continued to work, but the only real prominence he achieved was the result of the Catholic Church’s official condemnation of 1985’s Hail Mary, which told a contemporary version of the Virgin Birth tale. (Perhaps Godard’s strangest film—which of course is saying something—was his 1987 take on King Lear, starring Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, and Molly Ringwald. I vaguely remember watching the VHS copy that the video store I worked at had back in the 1990s, but it has since vanished into the ether.)
As the home video revolution, the indie-film movement, and the promise of digital moviemaking transpired in the 1990s, the guttering candle of Godard’s influence and output began to glow a bit more brightly. Quentin Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart, a play on the French title of Godard’s Band of Outsiders. Increasing film literacy combined with nostalgia for the 1960s made Godard into something like a cultural trademark, a source identifier for his admirers and detractors alike.
For fans, he stood as a beacon of uncompromising, defiantly noncommercial filmmaking, a genius who refused commodification. For others, he was a pretentious symbol of obscurity for its own sake, an ultimately ineffectual intellectual huffing his own fumes. There’s something to the charge that, as his professed sympathy for the oppressed peoples of the world became more amplified, the movies he made were decreasingly accessible, both commercially and stylistically, to the unliberated.
Over the last thirty years, Godard retreated almost entirely from public life, producing a series of dense, bricolage-style essay films. Beginning with the eight-part Histoire(s) du Cinema, made over the course of the 1990s, Godard edited together film clips and other footage to craft a series of critiques of movies and their relationship to capitalist power dynamics. Engaging with new technologies, he used digital video and editing tools, and invented a new type of 3-D camera for some passages in 2004’s Goodbye to Language.
After learning of Godard’s death, I watched Goodbye to Language, a film I’d had a somewhat hostile, impatient reaction to on its initial release. (This was not an uncommon reaction to many of his later works.) What made it more engaging and rewarding this time was, I have to say, the fact that I was streaming it on a laptop, which meant that I could pause at any moment and investigate an obscure reference that would have just puzzled me in real time. (Now I know who Jacques Ellul is.) Perhaps that notion would be anathema to the director, who (quite reasonably) felt that contemporary society was drowning in images and stimulation. But it makes me want to revisit those later films, knowing that I can absorb their firehoses of cultural referents at my own pace.
Goodbye to Language also makes plain Godard’s increasing pessimism about Western culture, going so far as to approvingly reference the apocryphal statement by Mao that it was too soon to tell whether the French Revolution had been a good thing. The film’s narrator states, “Hitler didn’t invent anything. A long tradition led up to this crisis. Machiavelli, Richelieu, Bismarck.” Modernity itself seems to be the problem.
And so, according to an unnamed family member quoted in The Guardian, “He was not sick, he was simply exhausted. So he had made the decision to end it.” An apt final act for the existentialist auteur who, in his very first feature, had another director, Jean-Pierre Melville, say that his ambition was “to become immortal. And then die.” Mission accomplished, monsieur.
HOW TO WATCH: While Godard may have scoffed at the proliferation of streaming content, at least it makes accessing much of his work easier than ever. The vast majority of his groundbreaking 1960s work is on The Criterion Channel, while most of the major later works are available for free (with a library card) on Kanopy. For a full list of streaming options, check here. And for an even vaster selection, visit Movie Madness. They apparently even have a VHS copy of King Lear and a boxed set of Godard/Gorin films from the ’70s.