Jean-Luc Godard, who died Tuesday at 91, was the filmmaker who changed everything. He directed “Breathless,” the 1960 landmark that helped to launch the French New Wave, employing a new, fast, leaping-ahead technique and style — the jump cut — that altered the DNA of how movies were made. In the ’60s, he took his camera out into the streets and into cafés, stores, offices, and apartments, so that a Godard film often seemed like a documentary about fictional characters. He drew many of those characters from Old Hollywood, a world he’d grown up on and remained obsessed with, but one that he always made seem a million miles away, like some black-and-white Garden of Eden the world had fallen from. So even as you were watching Jean-Paul Belmondo play a glamorous hoodlum or Anna Karina play a femme fatale, you knew that you were also seeing an actor toy with the very idea that they were playing that role.
Godard’s retro referentiality is incarnated by the famous moment in “Breathless” when Belmondo looks at an image of Humphrey Bogart, fingers his lip and says “Bogie,” almost as if he were saying the word “God.” Yet Godard’s films, even as they gazed back at the past, also stared into the future. Every good filmmaker is out to capture something about life and reality, but Godard wanted to use cinema to take the entire modern world — the look and feel of life in the sterile comfort zone of the 20th century, the products and pop images that saturated our existence, the myths and systems (political, cultural, economic, romantic) we all lived inside, whether we knew it or not — and somehow drag it all onscreen.
So he did something that no previous filmmaker had, something akin to the way James Joyce took the back channels and byways of the human mind and put them right onto the page. Godard’s characters lived the life that they were living, and also talked, onscreen, about what that life meant, and even talked about the fact that they were talking about it. They talked about books, cinema, work, love, and language. Godard was turning cinema into a three-dimensional chess-game vision of experience that was always aware of itself. He made crime movies (“Breathless,” “Band of Outsiders”), love stories (“A Woman Is a Woman,” “Contempt”), even flirted with dystopian sci-fi (“Alphaville”), and he used actors of ultimate beauty and glamour: Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Anna Karina, Yves Montand, Brigitte Bardot. But his true subject was always what was going on in our heads. His films stood inside the reality they were showing you and outside it at the same time.
That quality made Godard’s cinema revolutionary and exciting, and also challenging and forbidding. To watch a Godard film was to enter a playful labyrinth, with the viewer at the center. The image of Godard himself in the ’60s — receding hair, dark glasses, handsome owlish scowl — was that of a dour French hipster brainiac who made it seem cool to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. And it’s safe to say that there was no filmmaker in history who had so much influence, so much cachet, so much mystique — and, at the same time, pitched his films on such a rarefied level of perception. He was the heady verité poet of cinema who busted open our movies from the closed world of the studio system to the flowing existential world around us, with the aesthetics of advertising — slogans, signifiers, propaganda — made as central to life as human emotion (because those things now flowed directly into us; they had become part of us). In doing that, he redefined what the popular medium of movies, going forward, would look and feel like.
But Godard was also the grand deconstructionist of cinema, obsessed with reminding the audience for a movie that they were watching a movie. And that made him, at times, a bit like the James Joyce who people always say they studied in college because there’s almost no way to read him if you aren’t studying him in college. “Breathless” was a hit, and it hit an art-film sweet spot, bridging not just Old Hollywood and the new wave but the audience that wanted to look at a movie screen to forget itself and the audience that projected itself onto everything it saw. But Godard’s own audience shrunk, pretty quickly, down to a refined sliver.
To the extent that there are “films” and there are “movies,” there were a tiny handful of Godard films that could be called movies — “Breathless,” a street-hoodlum movie and infectiously tossed-off, sitting-around-the-apartment love story, and “Contempt” (1963), which was Godard’s confessional drama about the making of a movie and the unmaking of his marriage. (I think those are his two greatest works.) “Band of Outsiders” was celebrated for its iconography, and it’s a movie that loomed large for Quentin Tarantino, because he looked at it and glimpsed the early version of his own aesthetic. (Interestingly, he always talks about it through the lens of Pauline Kael’s review: an analysis of a movie that analyzed images from Old Hollywood.)
But by the time Godard reached the mid-’60s, when the culture was exploding all around him, he was making films like the lyrical talkfest “Masculin Féminin” (1966), which was as much an essay/meditation — on, famously, “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” — as it was a movie. He’d become an artist who was no longer interested in the pretense of telling stories, or in creating characters who weren’t conduits for his larger perceptions.
And this made his films, to most of what we would quaintly call “the audience,” at once playful and forbidding. “Weekend” (1967) is a movie that became legendary for its seven-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam — a vast stretch of cars stuck along a Parisian roadway, with the camera traveling slowly past all of them, for three-quarters of a mile, as a kind of free-form metaphor for what our society was becoming. (A bunch of isolated people, at home in their machines, alive but indifferent; the end of the world as we know it.) But when was the last time you tried sitting through the rest of the movie? Susan Sontag loved it. Even Kael, who was much more of a populist, loved it. The demimonde of cinephilia loved it.
Godard, though, was already well along the path he’d remain on for the rest of his career, which would encompass 55 years of increasingly austere and experimental film and video making, breakdowns and comebacks, a moment of tabloid art-house infamy (the release of “Hail Mary” in 1985, a movie that depicted the Virgin Mary with a lot of racy nudity and therefore pissed off the 1980s church grumblers), along with a mini acting career, as he cast himself in “First Name: Carmen” and began to realize, instinctively, that his irascible middle-aged presence — waving that cigar, peering from behind those glasses, tossing out his counterintuitive cosmic pensées about the state of the world — made him the best character he’d come up with in decades.
Godard, virtually the inventor of modern movies, is the rare filmmaker who can be called a god of cinema. As a critic, though, I’ve notoriously had less patience for him than most other critics do, which likely has something to do with the fact that I came along too late to experience the perceptual pow of his films. The first Godard movie I ever saw was “One Plus One,” which I caught at a college film society in the ’70s when I was 13. I’d never heard of the filmmaker and wasn’t yet a movie buff. But me and a couple of buddies were eager to go see the documentary about the Rolling Stones — which, in part, is what it was. The film was even called “Sympathy for the Devil” (it had been retitled by its distributor). So we watched a movie that showed the Stones, in the recording studio, creating that song, and that was enthralling. It remains one of the best films about the artistic process ever made.
But those scenes alternated with bizarre staged sketches, notably an extended surreal sequence in which Black revolutionaries, standing next to a pile of junked cars, stockpile weapons as they talk about the coming insurrection. Even my know-nothing teenage self could see that the film was exalting these revolutionaries and mocking them too. I was intrigued, but also befuddled. The irony is that as I got older and became a movie buff, I often had more or less the same reaction to Godard’s films, even to some of the classics. I felt fascinated and confounded at the same time. I don’t think I’m alone.
It became the standard thing to say about Godard that his movies from “Breathless” to “Weekend” — his equivalent of Woody Allen’s “early, funny films” — added up to one of the greatest runs in cinema history, but then he had his Marxist/structuralist break with everything (a schism that the impish 2017 biopic “Godard Mon Amour” amusingly posits as a narcissistic personality crisis of elitism run amok), at which point it became acceptable for even high-end film buffs to say that his work had become impenetrable. Then he had his comeback — in 1980, with the rapturously received “Every Man for Himself.” But that was an anomaly. Going forward, Godard’s films retreated very much into a cerebral asceticism, typified by the 1994 video work “JLG/JLG.” That said, the last film of his I saw and wrote about, “The Image Book” (2018), is like a postmodern MTV apocalypse that channels, with foreboding awe, the dread of our time.
As time went on, I tried to shift the balance in my love-hate relationship with Godard by expanding the understanding. I would go back and re-watch his films, which sometimes didn’t work (“La Chinoise” was even more severe and exasperating) and sometimes did (I fell in love with “Vivre Sa Vie,” and am intermittently possessed by “Tout Va Bien,” the 1972 film he made with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand). I raise all this because I think it’s in the nature of who Godard was that he became a meta deconstructionist of the soul, someone with a laser mind that could slice through anything, including how the powers that be had conspired to turn life itself into an opiate of the masses. And so he came to see the pleasures of movies (the story, the romance, the escape) as an opiate of the masses. He was probably right. His own refusal of escape made him daunting to the end, and that’s part of Godard’s legacy. Yet before he became that visionary scold, Jean-Luc Godard was someone who saw the very act of making cinema as a salvation. That’s what you feel watching his greatest movies: that they’re as alive as the world around them. And that cinema should never be anything less.