Half a century after his first film, Godard remains one of cinema’s greatest visionaries.
Exactly 54 years after the release of his first film Un Boute De Souffle, Jean-Luc Godard remains the absolute and definitive cool kid of the movie industry. Simply put, his films are a love letter to cinema, its limitations, and its past and potential triumphs. His insistence on mixing mediums, including 3D and rapid editing, proves his comfort in stylistically uniting different moments of cinematic history. The existential nostalgia that drifts into his films springs out of an intricate pastiche of references, spanning philosophy, film and jazz – references that sometimes the characters, and always the audience, are aware of, maintaining a distance that never allows the viewer to forget that they’re watching a film.
As Pauline Kael put it, “Godard is the Scott Fitzgerald of the movie world”. Like Fitzgerald, every joke, wink, and homage the audience connects with notes the passing of culture and the people creating it. He exists both in and out of time and mocks characters that mould themselves on greater figures, while doing the same himself – the only difference being that he lets the audience know he’s doing it. Why, then are his films that came out half a decade ago still relevant?
The answer is what separates Godard from a lesser director like Woody Allen: adaptability. While Allen can name drop like the best of them (something that comes directly from the French New Wave and specifically Godard), his references exist in a cultural vacuum. Allen makes no attempt to connect with his audience on their terms, either in content or format, and so fails to achieve the relevance of Godard’s films and creates the same film twenty years later. While Godard’s movies are naturally more enjoyable if one understands that the protagonist in Breathless impersonates Humphrey Bogart but fails to see just how cliched the characters he plays are, for example, it’s not necessary to an understanding of the film as a whole. The rhythm and mood of the film exist independent of the dialogue or storyline. In fact, most of Godard’s plots are ridiculously simplistic – Bonnie and Clyde love affairs, the literal conflict between artistic expression and commercialism – and lack any semblance of narrative. It’s a well-known fact that most of his scripts are improvised and written an hour before shooting.
Clearly his talent for recreating atmosphere lies in his ability to construct meaning through contrast. In particular, quick cuts between images and music, create a feeling of giddiness in the viewer, while conveying both the impermanence of the characters, who are often at the centre of the shot only to be forgotten in the next, and of the audience itself.
Additionally, most of his films carefully toe the line between documentary and theatre. His camera rarely stands still for more than a second yet many of his shots are beautifully composed, therefore reminding the viewer that we are watching a movie, while simultaneously breaking through that artifice. The audience is reminded that what applies to the characters who attempt to create meaning out of art also applies to them. Meaning is not to be found in films or in art, and trying to give sense to that which is fundamentally senseless is not only a futile endeavor but a fundamentally dangerous one. This existential mood, showing lives devoid of meaning is universally recognizable and Godard’s continued success as a filmmaker comes as a result of his capability to recreate this in the latest film format.
Half a century later, the world has yet to see another director that embraces film and the industry that produces it so playfully and wholeheartedly, while recognizing the futility of filmmaking itself. No one knows what’s next for Mr. Godard but all suggest it’ll be worth waiting for.