Jean-Luc Godard, ‘Breathless’ Director and French New Wave Icon, Dead at 91

Jean-Luc Godard - Credit: Jacques Haillot/Sygma via Getty Images
Jean-Luc Godard - Credit: Jacques Haillot/Sygma via Getty Images

Jean-Luc Godard, the father of modern cinema whose impish, combative provocations threw down a gauntlet with which all those who came in his wake must contend, died Tuesday. He was 91.

The director died at his home by assisted suicide in Rolle, Switzerland, where that practice is legal, Godard’s longtime legal adviser Patrick Jeanneret told The New York Times. Jeanneret added that the filmmaker had “multiple disabling pathologies” and “decided with a great lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, ‘Now, it’s enough.'”

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In a career that began with 1960’s groundbreaking Breathless, the French Swiss director tore apart Hollywood conventions, inspiring generations of filmmakers after him to embrace a creative freedom they didn’t know was possible. Alongside compatriots such as François Truffaut, Godard was one of the guiding forces behind the French New Wave, which turned its back on the era’s tasteful establishment dramas, instead toying with narrative, editing, sound, and image to reimagine the possibilities of cinematic storytelling. Films like Contempt, Band of Outsiders, and Pierrot le Fou lit a fire under a nascent American scene that would ultimately produce Hollywood’s renaissance of the 1970s, as directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola brought Godard’s adventurousness to the studio system, resulting in some of the decade’s most personal and singular movies. And even in his recent work, Godard continued to champion an uncompromising commitment to one’s own vision, fearless in the face of the public’s or the critics’ reactions. “I prefer to work when there are people against whom I have to struggle,” he once declared.

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Godard was born Dec. 3, 1930, in Paris, into a wealthy family, moving to Switzerland when he was four. “I escaped from a bourgeois family into show business,” he said. “And then I discovered that show business was a bigger bourgeois family than my own.” In the 1950s, he became friendly with other young Parisian intellectuals such as Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, debating movies and writing criticism. But his ambition didn’t end there: Godard would consume several films a day at local cinematheques, all with an eye toward eventually making his own. A critic for the hugely influential French film publication Cahiers du Cinéma and an early champion of the auteur theory — which argued that a director was a film’s true author and that filmmakers were as culturally important as painters or novelists — Godard hoped to create movies informed by the philosophical notions laid out by thinker and author Jean-Paul Sartre. “I had encyclopedic tendencies,” Godard later would say. “I wanted to read everything. I wanted to know everything. Existentialism was at its peak at that time. Through Sartre I discovered literature, and he led me to everything else.”

His debut, Breathless, transformed existentialism into art, riffing on the crime drama, film noir, and the romantic comedy while stripping away the comforting conventions. The story of young, directionless lovers (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg), Breathless incorporated jump cuts and indifferent plotting to produce the first postmodern film — a movie about the falseness of movies that sought to present the ordinariness, unpredictability, and spark of real life that normally never make their way to the big screen. Breathless won Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival and, more important, helped to launch the French New Wave, alongside Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and other movies from the country’s crop of innovative, hungry young filmmakers.

After Breathless, Godard kept playing with the medium’s strictures, turning Contempt (ostensibly the story of a flailing love affair) into a melancholy, self-reflexive commentary on commercial filmmaking. His sci-fi/noir hybrid Alphaville, which doubles as an examination of dehumanization and spiritual desolation, anticipated later genre mashups such as Blade Runner. Then with Weekend, the filmmaker utilized a familiar road-trip narrative to touch on everything from societal moral rot, revolution, and upper-class privilege. Critical of America’s involvement in Vietnam and contemptuous of consumerism, Godard fashioned his movies as political statements that, nonetheless, were intoxicatingly youthful and vibrant, brilliantly making themselves up as they went along.

As the Sixties waned, the filmmaker began to lose his grip on the zeitgeist as he moved further and further away from accessibility in search of what he once described as “a new alphabet in the language of cinema.” But in 1980, he put away video projects and experimental digressions to return triumphantly to relatively traditional storytelling with Every Man for Himself. Tracing the lives of three interconnected characters, Every Man for Himself earned Godard some of his best reviews in more than a decade — but he remained a provocateur, brazenly incorporating slow-motion sequences to accentuate his protagonists’ emotional states and candidly portraying the main male character, a director, as a violent misogynist. (A Los Angeles theater owner complained, “Our audiences were personally offended, personally insulted, that we should expose them to such a film which shows in detail how men abuse women.”)

Ever the contrarian, Godard refused to declare Every Man for Himself a comeback. “For me, it’s not a return but an approach,” he told The New York Times, later adding, “Maybe in two or 10 years, I will reach the point of making a real feature — which I have never done.” As if to prove his point, Godard stubbornly continued to go his own way, whether in his modern depiction of the Virgin Mary in 1985’s Hail Mary or his bizarre translation of King Lear, which is the only Shakespeare adaptation to include performances from Norman Mailer, Burgess Meredith, Molly Ringwald, and Woody Allen. All the while, he also would work on ambitious documentary projects, most notably Histoire(s) du Cinéma, a four-hour-plus look at moviemaking in the 20th century that took him a decade to complete.

Saying farewell to one century, the former enfant terrible showed no signs of softening at the dawn of the 2000s. At 70, he released In Praise of Love, a meditation on filmmaking and, specifically, cinema’s inability to grapple with the Holocaust. In the movie, an elderly Jewish couple’s life rights are possibly going to be bought by Steven Spielberg — Godard’s tart condemnation of the Oscar winner’s Schindler’s List. “Spielberg thinks black-and-white is more serious than color,” Godard once said, adding, “It’s phony thinking. To him it’s not phony, I think he’s honest to himself, but he’s not very intelligent, so it’s a phony result. … [He] used [Oskar Schindler] and this story and all the Jewish tragedy as if it were a big orchestra, to make a stereophonic sound from a simple story.”

A growing pessimism informed Godard’s work in the 21st century, although it found him still engaged in cinema’s cutting-edge technology. In Praise of Love was partly filmed on digital video, while the relatively playful Goodbye to Language dazzlingly incorporated 3D. But in a 2005 interview he seemed dismissive of the medium’s abilities to reshape the world. “It’s over,” he said. “There was a time maybe when cinema could have improved society, but that time was missed.”

Godard’s dim outlook belies the waves of filmmakers influenced by his fearlessness, everyone from Bernardo Bertolucci to Brian De Palma to Jonathan Demme to Quentin Tarantino. Iconoclastic Hollywood films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider are unimaginable without Breathless, and the American film industry formalized its appreciation by presenting him with an Honorary Oscar in 2011. He declined to attend the ceremony, telling a journalist that the award meant “nothing” to him. “If the Academy likes to do it, let them do it,” he declared. “But I think it’s strange. I asked myself: Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films?”

Those who did were forever changed by them — even when he would challenge his audience, which was often. In the late Sixties, he made a film about the Rolling Stones called Sympathy for the Devil, and he was asked of his opinion of the Stones’ rivals, the Beatles. “Well, I like them very much,” he replied. “I think the Beatles are working in the same way I make movies. But I prefer the Rolling Stones more. … The Beatles and the Rolling Stones are very important because they are popular and intellectual at the same time. This is good. This is what I am trying to do in the movies. We have to fight the audience.”

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