Jean-Luc Godard, the influential French New Wave writer-director who broke new ground in cinematic expression in the 1960s with films such as “Breathless,” “Contempt” and “Weekend” and became a guiding light for fellow filmmakers of film in his more than six-decade career, has died. He is 91.
Several French media outlets reported that they learned the news of Godard’s death from the filmmaker’s relatives on Tuesday. French President Emmanuel Macron praised Godard as a “national treasure” who “invented a completely modern, intensely free art” in his pioneering works.
Forever content to forgo commercial success in exchange for artistic freedom, Godard was the most inventive and radical of the French New Wave directors, who elevated European cinema in the 1950s and ’60s, reflecting their personal visions. and challenging traditional filmmaking conventions.
Like fellow New Wave directors Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol, the film-obsessed Godard came to filmmaking after becoming a critic. He was one of the earliest contributors to the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, the birthplace of the auteur theory, which states that a director can be the “author” of a film, in the same way a writer is the author of a novel .
“Godard was one of the inventors of auteur theory and perhaps the most rigorous of the New Wave filmmakers in practicing that idea,” film critic David Sterritt told The Times in 2006.
“Each of his films and videos is very personal to him and represents his own very unique view of the world and the people in it,” Sterritt said.
Godard had already directed several short films when, at the age of 29, he gained international attention in 1960 with his first feature film, “Breathless,” a boldly modern homage to American gangster B-movies.
Shot on location in Paris, the low-budget romantic crime-drama stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as an amoral young thug with a Humphrey Bogart fixation who goes on the run after stealing a car and killing a police officer. His love interest is an American girl, played by Jean Seberg, who ends up betraying him.
“Breathless” became popular for its rule-breaking use of hand-held cameras that revolve around the action, natural lighting, direct sound recording, jump-cut editing and a sense of spontaneity — as well as those without -this is a reference to Hollywood movies.
“This is where modern movies begin,” the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote of “Breathless” in 2003. “No debut film since 1942’s ‘Citizen Kane’ has been as influential.”
In the 1960s alone, Godard directed nearly 30 shorts and features, including “Le Petit Soldat,” “A Woman Is a Woman,” “My Life to Live,” “Les Carabiniers,” “Band of Outsiders,” “A Married Woman ,” “Alphaville,” “Masculine Feminine,” “Pierrot Le Fou,” “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” and “Weekend,” which famously features a tragic seven-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam created by an abomination. crash.
In the late ’60s, Godard began what Sterritt calls his “ultra-radical political phase” as a filmmaker.
As Julia Lesage wrote in her 1979 bibliography, “Jean-Luc Godard: A Guide to References and Sources”: “Godard seems to be searching for the best way to make a political film and the best way to include his metier, filmmaking, with militant Marxist-Leninist political activity.”
In the late 1970s, Sterritt said, Godard returned to filmmaking partially geared toward a theatrical audience, although the films remained artistically radical.
“The important thing about Godard is that he broke all the rules, and he showed that everything can be cinematic if your conceptualization – your ideas – are bold enough,” said Marsha Kinder, a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, said. The Times in 2006.
“No matter how apocalyptic or bleak his vision, his films made me feel hopeful because his brilliance and creativity were so dazzling,” Kinder said. “He just changed what kind of pleasure the cinema could give you.”
But for audiences, Kinder acknowledged, Godard’s rule-breaking “can be very annoying.”
Indeed, Godard was known for challenging his audience.
“I don’t really like to tell stories,” he once said. “I prefer to use a kind of tapestry, a background on which I can embroider my own ideas.”
And starting with ideas, Godard said in a 1995 interview with The Times, “doesn’t help the audience. But I still prefer a good audience. I’d rather feed 100% of 10 people. Hollywood would rather to feed 1% of 1 million people. Commercially speaking, my way is no better.”
Godard’s films have influenced countless filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese. While watching Godard’s films as a film student in the ’60s, Scorsese said he was drawn to a “sense of freedom, of being able to do anything — there was a kind of joy that came over me when I watched the movies.”
Another noted fan, director Quentin Tarantino, named his production company A Band Apart after the French title (“Bande a Part”) for Godard’s 1964 film “Band of Outsiders” and listened to one of Godard’s sayings when he filmed “Pulp Fiction” : “A film must have a beginning, middle and end, although not in that order.”
The late director Bernardo Bertolucci said it simply: “We all want to be Jean-Luc Godard.”
“There was nothing like him in the entire history of cinema,” Kinder said. “He used his revenge against Hollywood. He never stopped attacking the dominance of Hollywood cinema, and he never stopped expanding the language and subversive possibilities of cinema.
“This is why he is, in my opinion, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of world cinema. He made everything possible.”
One of four children, Godard was born in Paris on December 3, 1930. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy Parisian banker and his father was a Swiss physician, who divided his work between Paris and Switzerland.
In 1933, Godard’s family moved permanently to Switzerland after his father landed a position at a clinic near the village of Gland. Five years later, they moved to Nyon, Switzerland, where they lived during World War II.
After the war, the 15-year-old Godard moved to Paris to study at the prestigious Lycee Buffon, a school devoted to the physical and biological sciences. He returned to Switzerland to study at a college in Lausanne in 1948, but a year later he returned to Paris, where he registered at the Sorbonne for a certificate in anthropology.
However, at that time, Godard was so fond of cinema that he did not pay attention to his studies.
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He says he was a casual filmgoer until he began attending a Left Bank film club run by critic Andre Bazin, where he met future New Wave directors Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette. He and his friends also regularly visit the Cinematheque Francaise.
“We systematically saw everything there was to see,” he told Jean Collet, author of the 1970 book “Jean-Luc Godard.”
In 1950, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette founded the short-lived La Gazette du Cinema, which published their film criticism; it only lasted five issues. After Bazin founded Cahiers du Cinema in 1951, Godard began publishing essays there. He also started learning filmmaking by acting in his friends’ short films.
For several years, Godard was also a petty thief, who repeatedly stole to support himself and was often caught, according to Colin MacCabe’s 2003 book, “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy .”
Godard, MacCabe writes, financed Rivette’s first short film by stealing from an uncle. And in the early ’50s, after working for a company building dams in the Swiss Alps, Godard spent three days in prison after stealing from the Swiss television service he was then working for in Zurich.
After Godard was released from prison, his father convinced him to go to a Swiss mental clinic that specialized in psychotherapy.
After a few months at the clinic, Godard returned to the construction company in the Alps, where he shot his first film, a 20-minute documentary on dam construction, “Operation Beton.” He then directed a 10-minute comedy short in Geneva before returning to Paris.
In 1961, Godard married Anna Karina, who starred in “A Woman Is a Woman,” “My Life to Live,” “Band of Outsiders” and other Godard films of the ’60s. His marriage to Karina ended in divorce — as did his marriage to Anne Wiazemsky, who starred in several of his films, including 1967’s “La Chinoise.” Godard later began a long-term relationship with his collaborator, Anne -Marie Mieville. The two moved to Switzerland in the ’70s.
In recent decades, Godard has worked in both film and video. And, Sterritt says, “what some consider his magnum opus, the crowning achievement of his career,” is Godard’s “Histoire(s) du Cinema,” a multi-segment video work launched in 1989. His last films include “Goodbye to Language,” a fragmented 3D film about a young couple who communicate through their pet dog.
Late in life, Godard seemed pleased but perplexed that critics were still scrutinizing his work. He admits, however, that the audience for his films has grown.
“I don’t understand why I’m remembered,” he once told The Times. “I always wonder why I am still known because no one sees my films now. Well, hardly anyone.”
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.