Jean-Luc Godard was cinema’s first – and last – true revolutionary
I met Jean-Luc Godard once. Or did I? At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, it was announced that this titan of the French New Wave would be holding court to discuss his latest – and, in the end, final – film, a cryptic slab of cinéma concret called The Image Book. The world’s media dutifully filed off to the press conference chamber, where they found no Godard, but an iPhone 7+ sitting on the table.
Rather than being physically present, the great director was FaceTiming from his home in Switzerland, responding to journalists’ earnest questions with gnomic utterances while drawing deeply and with great satisfaction on a courgette-sized cigar. The titan of the French New Wave – the director of such medium-stretching masterpieces as À bout de souffle, Le Mépris, Bande à part and Pierrot le Fou – had shrunk himself to pocket-size.
It’s hard to imagine many great directors colluding in their own visual diminishment, at the world’s biggest film festival or elsewhere. But Godard, who has died aged 91, was eternally, untiringly fascinated by the changing nature of the moving image, and the way in which humans understand it, and don’t. When 3D last blew back into vogue, Godard didn’t join the ranks of purists bewailing the return of this lowbrow fairground wheeze. Instead, he and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno mounted two Canon 5Ds side by side on a plank of wood and joined in with the craze.
The result, 2014’s Goodbye to Language, was one of the 21st century’s most formally innovative films: its radical experiments with depth and binocular vision could only have come from the mind of an artist who was prepared to smash apart the very idea of cinema and rebuild it from scratch. Typically in 3D cinema, the left and right images only differ in perspective by a few inches, to simulate the slightly different angles each of our eyes has on real physical space.
But at one point, Godard detaches them from each other completely, and has each eye go wandering off solo: viewers initially confronted with an incomprehensible haze discovered at their own speed that by closing one eye then the other they could flick between the two channels at will. The director who, more than half a century earlier, had pioneered the 'jump cut’ – unprovoked, hiccupy edits which deliberately throw viewers off-balance – was now passing control of this signature technique to his audience, with a literal wink.
The jump cuts, the long takes, the achingly hip rambling dialogue, the thrilling tension between the chaos and bustle of the real world and the icy poise of movie glamour: Godard and his New Wave contemporaries’ contribution to cinema in the 1960s changed the medium forever; after its first half-century’s existence, here was a surge of new blood and new possibilities.
À bout de souffle, his 1960 debut feature, told of an affair between Jean-Paul Belmondo’s young, Humphrey Bogart-obsessed Parisian crook and Jean Seberg’s American student and aspiring journalist: the plot was straight from Hollywood’s B-movie playbook, but Godard infused it with pure European avant-garde cool.
Half a century later, with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino would return this transatlantic favour, folding fin-de-siècle American irony and excess into the by-then-canonised Godardian recipe. He even named his first production company, A Band Apart, after Godard’s seventh film: another dreamy Parisian underworld tale with its iconic, giddy-making sequences of Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur dancing the Madison in a smoky café and scampering through the Louvre.
Tarantino’s enthusiasm would later ebb: in an interview last year he said he felt he’d “outgrown” the director, though added he still considered him to be to cinema “what Bob Dylan was to music”. It’s hard to imagine Godard was too heartbroken by this, though: some years earlier, he’d noted: “Tarantino named his production company after one of my films. He’d have done better to give me some money.”
Godard was a revolutionary from the off, but after his heady 1960s, his subsequent retreat into obscurantism and abstraction robbed him of any lasting sacred cow status. Accordingly, much of that early work – full of impossibly attractive young women being variously beaten and ogled – was later decried as sexist. During the making of the covertly autobiographical Le Mépris (1963), when a producer complained the audience weren’t seeing enough of Brigitte Bardot, Godard added a barely relevant prologue featuring a lengthy tracking shot of the actress’s naked body, while Michel Piccoli as her husband purrs that he loves her “totally, tenderly, tragically”.
Provocative deconstruction of Bardot’s sex kitten image, or just voyeuristic bums-on-seats sleaze? In those days, thanks in no small part to Godard, cinema was allowed to be both. Even back then, he was fixated on this still blossoming medium’s impending demise: “Fin de cinéma”, read the closing title card on 1967’s Weekend.
What it actually signalled, however, was la fin de Godard as cinema knew him and perhaps needed him – even though in his remaining 22 features, as well as his epically perplexing and intoxicating multi-part collage project Histoire(s) du cinéma, the revolution would rumble on.
I’ve often thought of what that 2018 press conference must have felt like from his point of view: the planet’s critics and cinephiles peering out into his world from a matchbox-sized rectangle, while outside the window, Lake Geneva shone silver in the afternoon sun. One suspects the perspective suited him just fine.