Jean-Luc Godard, who always forged his own way in cinema- leading The French New Wave and later the radical film movement- forged his own way in death. Aged 91, he chose to die by assisted suicide at his home in Switzerland. Sight & Sound magazine once ranked him as the third most influential director of all time. President Macron said France had lost a “national treasure.”
It would not be fair to say that Godard was an underdog in the way that many of his New Wave contemporaries were he had been born into great wealth: his father was a doctor and his mother the daughter of a rich Swiss banker. Yet, he also shared the passion for film that burned in each member of the group. Distracted from his university degree by Parisian film clubs, he soon began writing for the journal “Les Cahiers du Cinéma”, in which he and other young cinephiles criticised the established “Cinéma à Papa” of France, whilst revering American stars such as Hitchcock and Bogart.
The writers of “Les Cahiers du Cinéma” set about creating their unique kind of cinema, later called The French New Wave film movement. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was not the first film of the movement but screened in 1960, it foresaw the excitement and liberation of the decade to come. It was filmed on a tiny budget of $70,000. Later, Jean-Luc Godard would say “all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun”. This may be true for the simplest of Hollywood blockbusters, but Breathless’ genius was that it took this cliché and inverted it to create a truly original film. The first time I watched it I remembered thinking it felt so much more real than any modern film I had seen, despite the shaky black and white camera. It was filmed on the streets of Paris, instead of a studio, and almost no artificial lighting was used. Godard had written a script before filming began- but he tore it up instead deciding to pen scenes on the morning of filming. This translated into real unease from the actors. Godard was a pioneer of the “caméra-stylo” the idea of an auteur who has complete control over a film, as an author does over a novel. Classics such as Vivre Sa Vie, Pierre Le Fou, and Alphaville soon followed. Only once in this period did he try to make a big-budget studio-backed epic. The result, however, was Le Mépris (Contempt) which, while it cast Brigitte Bardot, France’s biggest name of the time, was a curious philosophical slow-burn about the purpose of filmmaking.
As his career went on, Godard increasingly broke tradition and the rules. He became progressively political, fascinated by Marxist and Existentialist philosophy. He, and director Francois Truffaut, helped shut down the Cannes Film Festival of 1968 at the time of France’s general strike. He became more radical and founded the Dziga Vertov Group with Maoist director Jean-Pierre Gorin. He continued to make radical films, both in political content and in style, for the rest of his career. His final film Goodbye to Language was shot in 3D and won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His references to other forms of art and to films he admires remain constant throughout his oeuvre.
Godard is constantly referenced too. Directors around the world were inspired by his innovative use of jump-cuts, location shooting, and fourth-wall-breaking storytelling. Quentin Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart after the director’s 1964 film Bande à Part. Martin Scorsese, Edgar Wright, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Steven Soderberg and many others revere him. In 1969 Roger Ebert wrote of him: “Godard is a director of the very first rank; no other director in the 1960s has had more influence on the development of the feature-length film. The next generation will be able to look back at his films and see that this is where their cinema began.”
Generations later he remains momentous. My interest in French cinema, my love of storytelling, and my idea of comedy and tragedy began with Godard.