Godard, Jean-Luc (b. 1930)

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GODARD, JEAN-LUC (b. 1930)


French filmmaker.

Born in 1930 into a Protestant bourgeois family, from an early age Jean-Luc Godard frequented Henri Langlois's French Cinémathèque religiously. He met André Bazin, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer there, and joined them as a writer for the Cahiers du cinéma (Cinema notebooks). In this journal, he criticized the established norms and defended the famous idea of "la politique des auteurs" (politics of the author), which stated that a filmmaker should only make his film according to his own personal preoccupations. It was with this in mind that, when he began filmmaking himself, he joined what was called the new wave.

This movement, which was developed between 1957 and 1962, was in utter conflict with the film production ideas of the time and was characterized by great creative freedom. The new wave movement includes a group of films that, whether explicitly or implicitly, dealt with existential, social, or political issues. Despite the great variety of personalities that made up the movement, it can be said that it was a school whose films were impertinent, playful, inventive, and whose aesthetic choices, while encouraging improvisation, had many things in common with modern art. At the same time, it was a kind of cinema that constantly referred to the history of cinema, which these young movie buffs usually knew well (they appreciated the classics of the silent era, but also American films, especially those of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks).

In 1959, after having made four short films, Godard used a script by Truffaut to make his landmark film À bout de souffle (1960; Breathless). The originality of the script, the "B" movie characters, the very modern acting method of the actors (the unforgettable Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo), and the syncopated editing were striking to contemporary moviegoers. The producer, Georges de Beauregard, would go on to finance six more of the filmmaker's full-length films: Le petit soldat in 1960 (The Little Soldier was banned for three years by French censure because of its references to the war in Algeria), Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman) in 1961, Les carabiniers and Le Mépris (The Riflemen and Contempt) in 1963, and Made in U.S.A. in 1966.

From one film to the next, Godard explored every aspect of cinematographic expression and became a politically engaged artist. After having very subtly referenced Vietnam in Pierrotlefou (1965), Masculin, féminin (1966; Masculine-Feminine), Made in U.S.A., and more directly in La Chinoise (1967; The Chinese Woman), he entered a period of activism with his collaboration in the group project film Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam) in 1967. His contribution, the short film Camera Eye, was a brutal confrontation between political speech and its practice, a process that seeks to expose the mechanics of film to better denounce the illusion of an image's realistic objectivity. Very similar to the Brechtian method, this putting into perspective of the devices of cinema hinders any belief in what is shown to benefit critical judgment, changing the viewer's involvement from passivity to active comprehension. Filmed with a large Mitchell camera, the filmmaker began (the voiceover is the voice of Godard) by asking how the Vietnamese cause could be represented. To that end, he declared that if he had been a cameraman for American or Soviet news networks, he would have recorded the effects of the bombings on farmers. But he never received permission to go to Vietnam. According to Godard, this difficulty to endorse creative responsibility was even greater, as far as he was concerned, because his films primarily targeted intellectuals, a small community of cultured people, and not the masses. He focused on the gap that separated him from the working class who did not go see his films. Consequently, he deemed that the only solution was to let himself be completely absorbed by Vietnam. His film, he said, was not just a war film but a general symbol of resistance that would serve as a political framework to express any form of opposition.

After this film, Godard's approach to moviemaking rested primarily on questioning his own view of films, in which "the images serve not to see but to think," as he said. All of his following works (the most emblematic of which was Passion, made in 1982), beyond the constraints of reality, expressed this will to escape from dominant cultural models, in order to constantly question his own creative methods. From this point of view, his most ambitious enterprise was his Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989, 1997, 1998), an idea that dated back to 1975 but started off in 1980 with a book titled Introduction àunevéritable histoire du cinéma (Introduction to a true history of film), which afterward became a film in eight parts, more than five hours long, about art history, humanity, and the shattering events of the twentieth century.

This tremendous work of collage and juxtaposition of images (his own and others') and sounds, interspersed with digressions and reflections (voiced by Godard himself), is a meditation on and retrospective vision of the place of film in human society that is simultaneously mournful and full of pertinence and beauty. In other words, it is film in the century, and the century in film. The result was dizzying but fascinating editing, lyrical as well as elliptical, saturated with aesthetic, philosophical, political, and religious references. Melancholy, poetry, light-heartedness, and humor melded together.

As a painter before his palette (which, in his case, would be graphic), Godard exposed the links, the relationships, and the similarities between painting and film, inspired by Élie Faure and André Malraux. From For Ever Mozart (1996) to Notre musique (2004; Our Music), most of Godard's films have been molded by the idea that film is not the witness but the analyst of history, far from the alleged duty of objectivity advocated by some audio-visual productions that are completely formatted for television (and, here, his films were also critical of the media). However, film is but one element in the great history of representation. It is an element, according to Godard's pessimism, that is in danger of disappearing, whose traces are perishable due to the very nature of the material that supports it. If the prophecy comes true, it is clear that his body of work, and his Histoire(s) du cinéma in particular, will serve as one of film's most beautiful graves.

See alsoCinema; French New Wave; Situationism.


Esquenazi, Jean-Pierre. Godard et la société française des années 1960. Paris, 2004.

Temple, Michael, Michael Witt, and James S. Williams. For Ever Godard. London, 2004.

Laurent Veray