Jean-Luc Godard

Much as with the late Queen Elizabeth II, for most of us walking around at the moment, Jean‑Luc Godard has been there our entire lives. Nobody was clamouring to see Godard’s body after his death at age 91 on September 13, but it seems reasonable to assume that his body of work — or at least the trailblazing and entertaining parts — Breathless, Contempt, My Life To Live, Pierrot Le Fou — will live on.

Godard’s thoughtful observation, that “cinema isn’t set up to make money but to lose it”, will be of little comfort to current share­holders in wobbly theatre chains, but his assertion is a reminder that — except for the non-fungible token crowd — most artists do not go into the creative life expecting to make a financial killing.

Godard filmed Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jane Fonda, Yves Montand, Anna Karina, the Rolling Stones and Johnny Hallyday, and melded his work to terrific scores by Georges Delerue and Michel Legrand (not to mention casting Norman Mailer and Woody Allen in his King Lear). But, as an early adopter of video, borrowing images from here and there, toying with what we now call mash-ups and even having his way with optically demanding 3D imagery, Godard was just as happy — perhaps happier — rearranging sounds and images at his home studio in Rolle, Switzerland without a big name in sight, except his own.

Word is that Wild Bunch founder Vincent Maraval bought a chunk of Godard’s archives and there may be posthumous releases from the auteur who, on the occasion of his last feature The Image Book (2018), was jovial in the compact form of a disembodied face on an iPhone held aloft to speak to journalists in the Cannes press room; they lined up as if taking communion.

Godard, from many reports, could be insufferable but also generous, quietly helping to fund French-language indie directors from his own pocket. He was an excellent athlete — the French centre-left daily Libération, in its

28 pages (yes, 28) of Godard coverage the day after his death, gave space to tennis champion Catherine Tanvier, whom the filmmaker cast in Film Socialisme (2010). She described how good he was on the court, summoning her to play during lack-of-inspiration breaks in Rolle: “It was exquisite.”

This writer recalls one audience member of Le Masque Et La Plume (The Mask And The Quill), the longest-running arts programme on French radio, saying, “I’ve never understood — nor particularly enjoyed — a Godard film. But I know he’s an important artist with things to say. So every time he has a new film, I buy a ticket, hoping this is the time I’ll finally grasp what he’s trying to tell me.”

Of course, Godard did not go out of his way to be a four-quadrant communicator. Lenny Borger, a longtime reviewer for Screen International, reworked the English-language subtitles to Godard’s early films for the Criterion Collection and was subsequently hired to subtitle 2001’s In Praise Of Love.

The filmmaker was so pleased with the response at Cannes that, in 2004, Borger was engaged for the English subtitles on Notre Musique. But on inviting Borger to his home in Rolle and poring over his hard work, Godard decided the subtitles were not “needed”. That decision made trade headlines and was responsible for any number of headaches, since few viewers of the film were likely to understand through sheer hope alone much poetry by a Palestinian writer — however beautifully rendered in Arabic.

Calling the bluff

Breathless_Dir Jean-Luc Godard_Credit NANA PRODUCTIONS-SIPA-Shutterstock_12680256b

Source: Nana productions / Shutterstock


Apropos of wishing, for years the excellent annual Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide listed one Quentin Tarantino as a cast member of Godard’s 1987 King Lear. In the summer of 1992, while queuing for a John Cassavetes film in a deconsecrated church in Avignon during the French-American Film Workshop, I had the opportunity to quiz Tarantino: “I saw Godard’s King Lear but I don’t remember what part you played.”

Tarantino launched into his staccato cackle, and admitted, “I wasn’t actually in that. I just put that down to beef up my resumé. I figured if anybody asked, there’s this scene with three figures off in the distance and I could say I was one of them.”

Godard upended film grammar and bequeathed the foundation of a new cinematic language. Pablo Picasso was one of the 20th century’s consummate innovators in painting and Godard filled a similar slot in cinema — movies were never quite the same after 1960’s Breathless (A Bout De Souffle). You could play fast and loose with continuity and turn the sound on and off and not have people laugh at the “mistakes”. The jump cut was a zippy innovation for iconoclastic New Wavers on a budget.

Self-taught, like his fellow Cahiers Du Cinéma critic pals, Godard soaked up movie after movie at Henri Langlois’ Cinématheque Francaise. At Cannes in the 1990s, I heard Godard tell a gathering of admirers: “I didn’t go to film school, so it’s incredibly strange when somebody tells me what I meant in one of my own films. I’ll say, ‘That’s interesting, but it’s not what I intended — you’re mistaken.’ Only to have the man rankle and proclaim, ‘But I’ll have you know I have a PhD in film studies!’”

Godard made 15 features in nine years, between Breathless in 1960 and One Plus One in 1968, before veering into what some might charitably call his political period. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the student strikes of May 1968, told French radio station France-Inter: “Godard proved it’s possible to be a cinematic genius and politically ridiculous. In his Maoist period, Jean-Luc was absolutely ridiculous.”

Godard was influential to his dying breath — or else it is pure coincidence that French president Emmanuel Macron appointed a panel to speed up his end-of-life options. Godard chose assisted suicide — legal in Switzerland but not in France — and wanted it known he was thereby directing what mattered to him to the very end. Cut. Print it.