In the early 1960s, there wasn’t much cooler than French Nouvelle Vague cinema, or rather the Nouvelle Vague. It was romantic, existential, ironic and iconic, populated by beautiful young Gallic stars. And at the forefront of the movement, Jean-Luc Godard.
He was a critic-turned-filmmaker and his film A Bout De Souffle pretty much defined Nouvelle Vague, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as the convicted, amoral criminal on the run and Jean Seberg as the pixie American girlfriend with cropped hair and a striped Breton sweater. .
The film revisits the film noir beloved by French critics – Belmondo’s character was specifically inspired by Bogart. It was shot in black and white, in a handheld documentary style. Production was chaotic, with the script continually being rewritten. Some dialogues were improvised. The innovative cut jumps were dictated by both styling and concerns over run time.
The end result was surprisingly beautiful and at least looked casual. And that had a huge influence on cinema, on fashion and on mentalities. It was remade in Hollywood in Breathless in the 1980s with Richard Gere as Belmondo – Hollywood remaking a French film that recast an entire American genre.
Godard and his peers loved film noir and persuaded British and American audiences that the genre possessed a depth and artistic merit that they may have previously lacked. And yet, at the same time, Godard reduced the process of making a film to a simple formula – “All you need to make a film”, he said, “is a girl and a gun fire”. He was good at soundbites before soundbites were even a thing.
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Godard liked to set an agenda. “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” he said on another occasion. A fierce bespectacled intellectual, he also had a fierce temper and regularly got into physical fights.
Sometimes he made comments just to be controversial or provoke a reaction and it wasn’t always obvious when he was serious and when he was joking. He called cinema a “fraud”, but also said, most famously, “Cinema is truth 24 frames per second”.
Godard was born in Paris in 1930 into a life of money, culture and privilege. His father was a doctor, with his own private clinic, and his maternal grandfather founded Banque Paribas.
He grew up largely in Switzerland, returned to Paris to study anthropology at the Sorbonne, but spent much of his time watching, discussing and writing about films for various publications, including Cahiers du Cinéma. One of his earliest articles was a highly influential article analyzing and praising Hitchcock.
As a person, Godard showed some of his characters’ amoral tendencies. He stole valuable books from his grandfather and was disowned by his family. He even stole from the Cahiers du Cinéma. He returned to Switzerland and worked in television, but could not break the habit of settling for other people’s money and property and spent time in a mental hospital.
He worked as a laborer on the construction of a dam and made his first short documentary about it, titled Operation Beton. He did a stint in the publicity department of 20th Century Fox’s Paris offices and continued to make short films throughout the 1950s before getting the chance to make a feature film with A Bout De Souffle, which he has both written and directed.
Made on a very limited budget, it was a critical and commercial success, winning the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. It then appeared regularly in polls and lists of the greatest films of all time.
His next film is Le Petit Soldat. It featured Anna Karina, a model who had virtually no acting experience. At the end of this shoot, they were a couple. They made several films together. In the romantic musical Une Femme Est Une Femme, Godard cast Karina alongside Belmondo.
Godard was very prolific in the 1960s, during which time he also made Le Mepris (Contempt), starring Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance – who said it was the worst experience he had ever had, Bande apart, whom Godard described as “Alice”. In Wonderland Meets Franz Kafka,” the noir sci-fi film Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou, which again starred Belmondo and Karina.
Godard and Karina got married when she was pregnant, but she lost the baby and their relationship has always been unstable. She attempted suicide more than once, and their union lasted only a few years.
Godard then married Anne Wiazemsky, an aspiring actress who met him after writing to him at Cahiers du Cinéma to tell him how much she loved his work. He cast her in several of his films, including La Chinoise and Week-end. This marriage also ended in divorce.
With social upheaval sweeping France, Godard was instrumental in the cancellation of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, saying nothing in the program was relevant to current issues. He said that in the future he would explicitly make “political films”, which, judged by audience numbers, were actually much less relevant than his previous work.
He loaned to Maosim and worked with very small budgets, even if Everything is fine starred Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. He criticized Kodak’s raw film as “racist” after being commissioned to make a film by the Mozambican government because the physical film did not fully capture the variety and complexity of darker skin tones.
Godard then returned to more mainstream cinema, but none of his films ever had the same impact as A Bout de Souffle. He remains a big name in festivals, but audiences have moved on.
In 2011, he received the honorary Oscar “For passion. For the confrontation. For a new kind of cinema.
He suffered from “multiple disabling illnesses” and chose to end his life with medical assistance in dying in Switzerland, according to his lawyer. He is survived by his longtime partner Anne-Marie Mieville, a multimedia artist who collaborated with him on later works. He had no children.
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