Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy

When it comes to Jean-Luc Godard -- fanatical cinephile, idiosyncratic critic and essayist, Maoist revolutionary, video innovator and most inventive of French New Wave directors -- no one book can suffice. Or, as writer James Monaco has pleaded, "Where does one begin with Godard?"

When it comes to Jean-Luc Godard — fanatical cinephile, idiosyncratic critic and essayist, Maoist revolutionary, video innovator and most inventive of French New Wave directors — no one book can suffice. Or, as writer James Monaco has pleaded, “Where does one begin with Godard?”

Author Colin MacCabe’s solution is to resist the temptation to deliver yet another critical assessment of the filmmaker’s massive output, which numbers 96 features and shorts to date, some in collaboration with his partner for the past 28 years, Anne-Marie Mieville. Instead, as his book’s subtitle suggests, MacCabe provides a detailed study of Godard’s life — the first in English, which, by definition, makes it essential reading for any serious lover of his movies. That it’s also thoroughly researched, cogently conceived and deeply thoughtful makes it invaluable.

For many in Hollywood, perhaps too often cut off from trends in international film, Godard has been a non-entity for years. Quiz them on the last movie they remember, and they’ll be lucky to come up with a title after 1965’s Jean-Paul Belmondo/Anna Karina starrer “Pierrot le fou.” They will be shocked to learn that Godard has not only had a life after “Pierrot,” but that he has actually had many, experiencing an evolving and varied artistic existence that can only be compared in the 20th century to Picasso’s.

MacCabe is in an excellent position to look across the span of this career. A former critic for the theory-driven Screen magazine and a scholar on James Joyce, he has previously co-authored a very different volume on the director (“Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics”) and has served as producer on a handful of Godard/Mieville projects, including an episode for the BFI-produced “Century of Cinema” series and the brilliant 1999 work “The Old Place.”

With one foot in film academia and one in film business, MacCabe brings an enormously useful set of perspectives to Godard. He’s just as able to methodically yet succinctly describe each key intellectual movement that affected the critic-turned-director as he’s able to reveal the unusual, sometimes ugly business dealings that are a hallmark of Godard’s career.

Indeed, the shifts back and forth between grand, overarching ideas and their sources in European history and society and personal and showbiz details gives the book its dazzling texture and rhythm and makes for a biography of pulsing energy.

It all starts with the family, a bourgeois, Protestant Swiss (not French) clan whose identity unmistakably stamped Godard for life, even as he eventually sought to stay as far away from them as possible. Rather than the tale of a young man on a mission in Paris to discover movies, the Godard who emerges here is a frequently depressive, wandering soul whose youth and sojourns (some mysterious years in South America) continue to resist full documentation. He dabbled in painting and novels before finding his true calling with a cadre of cinephiles who haunted Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque Francaise and later founded the seminal French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, including future fellow New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette.

Of this group, Godard was by far the most radical behind the camera (starting with “Breathless,” he basically invented the jump-cut and went on to bend fictional narrative and the essay film until they were one and the same) but was also the most loyal to the group’s eminence grise, critic Andre Bazin. One of MacCabe’s real accomplishments is to restore Bazin’s place as the most essential film critic-theorist and to note how his belief that honest filmmakers, in MacCabe’s words, “render reality in all its contradictions rather than mold it to an externally determined model.”

More than any of the countless books on Godard, this one rightly repositions him in a European art tradition, contrary to the media’s (and many American critics’) trendy view of him as a rule-breaking rebel. MacCabe bluntly states Godard’s main goal: “To find a way of uniting the classics of Europe’s past with the great modernists of the twentieth century through a cinema which will allow any and every subject.”

This may sound dry, but it defines Godard’s wonderful flexibility as an artist. As the book demonstrates, this made him able to depart from recognizably narrative films in 1968 after “Weekend,” then trudge through a dubious if necessary period making so-called “cine-tracts” with fellow anti-Vietnam War Maoists (films more popular on U.S. campuses in the ’70s than they ever were in Europe), and finally join with Mieville to find his refreshed voice with such marvelous work as “Sauve qui peut (la vie),” “Passion” and, recently, “Eloge de l’amour,” as well as his multipart magnum opus essay, “L’Histoire(s) du cinema.” Along the way, he has created a nearly self-sustaining studio for himself and Mieville in Rolle, Switzerland. More than most Godard books, McCabe stresses the filmmaker’s work in his studio creating the rich, dense soundtracks that are a distinctive feature of his ouevre.

For some, Godard is “flexible” in more ways than one. His early habit of stealing (money, books, you-name-it) today appears funnier than it likely felt at the time, and it matured into Godard’s regular habit of crafting deals with producers that give him more cash than those producers ever expected. MacCabe gives fellow New Waver Claude Chabrol the last word, when he notes that “for Jean-Luc to be happy there must be something crooked about the deal.” However, Godard’s career-long flaunting of copyright laws (by including unauthorized films clips and other references) receives applause from MacCabe, who makes a persuasive case that international copyright law must be significantly changed.

Unfortunately, MacCabe also sides with Godard’s ridiculous, doomy pronouncements that “the cinema is dead.” The author declares that critics, Hollywood and even film culture in general, are moribund. It’s a curious lapse for an otherwise enthralling biography, and it will come as news to those who are happily involved with film today. But it may be the author’s crowning, unintended irony, that his book is a major contribution to film culture, which, rest assured, is alive and kicking.

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