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Godard Cinephilia

To mark the 50th anniversary of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, and on the occasion of a major retrospective of the director's work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Film Department at the Cultural Services is delighted to present Godard & Me, a blog dedicated to the iconic French filmmaker. Throughout the fall, we will post thoughts and reflections on Godard and his work from film critics, scholars, students and fans.


Few things are more seductive onscreen than wholehearted enthusiasm convincingly portrayed. I suspect that the seductive pull that Godard’s early work exerts on cinephiles stems from the love of cinema the films portray so enthusiastically. From Breathless’ experiments in editing to the manic pop thrill of the colors and rhythms of Made in USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, the films of the early and mid-1960s bear abundant witness to a filmmaker so in love with the language of cinema that he effortlessly invents new ways to use it.

Meanwhile, the abundant references to other films and other filmmakers make it clear that Godard’s love of film extends beyond the medium’s formal possibilities and is rooted in the history of cinema itself. Not all filmmakers are themselves cinephiles, although many are. But few foreground their cinephilia as often and as wholeheartedly as Godard, beginning in these first films with the nods to Bogart and to Monogram Pictures in Breathless, numerous references to Eisenstein and Rossellini, and onscreen appearances by Melville, Lang and Fuller.

Certainly an important part of my own love for Godard’s work is the obvious joy he takes in all kinds of cinema. Over the years, this joy has been tempered by a mournful melancholy, and his love of cinema has revealed itself to be rather a case of amour-haine. And yet, this trajectory makes of Godard an exemplary cinephile. He models a kind of cinephilia that goes straight to the heart of what’s important about watching and loving movies.

For one thing, Godard’s cinephilia has always incorporated a good deal of irony and skepticism. Godard’s response to a 1965 Cahiers du Cinéma questionnaire that contains a clear statement that the filmmaker’s cinephilia was already ambivalent.  He wrote, “I await the end of Cinema with optimism,” a statement that (as always with Godard) requires a certain amount of interpretation. What prompts this hope for the death of cinema? Presumably its ability to promote all manner of false consciousness—alienation, escapism, ressentiment—and the ease with which it can be co-opted by any stripe of ideology. At the same time, the capital “C” in the statement shouldn’t be overlooked—perhaps the discontent underneath this statement is aimed primarily at cinema as industry and institution. After all, by 1965, Godard had already made, in Contempt, his first envisioning of cinema as trapped in the corruptive but inescapable grip of that other capital “C,” capital.

Since Contempt, filmmakers and filmmaking have reappeared regularly as the subject matter of Godard’s films, as the exuberant cinephilia of the first films gave way to more pointed critiques of cinema, most obviously in 1972’s Tout va bien. More recently, Godard’s cinematic reflections on the medium have focused on its own history and on its role in history as a record of the 20th century. This approach is announced in the series of videos entitled Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98), in which Godard juxtaposes innumerable images, both moving and still, from European filmmaking and classical Hollywood in dizzying sequences that speak both to praise cinema and, perhaps, to mourn it, reducing it to a series of fragmented ruins.

That act of criticism has continued in recent features, particularly In Praise of Love (2001), which is preoccupied with cinema as both maker and victim of history, and the opening section of Notre musique (2004), a montage of images from war and propaganda films. Film socialisme (2010) seems like a recent variation on this critical and historical project, with its vision of a Europe adrift, rendered as a series of digital and video images of varying degrees of resolution filmed on a Mediterranean cruise ship and punctuated by gnomic statements about the cultural history of the continent and its current economic and political crises. The film’s title is a kind of word montage, juxtaposing two systems of thought dating from opposite ends of the nineteenth century that seem to be in danger of extinction, or at least in deep retreat, at the dawn of the twenty-first.

What makes Godard’s cinephilia so fascinating, so valuable and ultimately so moving is its Janus-like aspect: it looks back and forwards, inwards and outwards, tender and fiercely critical all at the same time. It acknowledges the seductive power of the moving image while asserting that the cinema will not save us. That remains for us to do. Certainly the constant linkage between cinema and war in these recent works can be understood biographically, as the reflections of a filmmaker whose adolescence coincided with World War II. But this linkage also reminds us of cinema as both a part of history and as the writing of history.

Cinephilia begs the question: “what is cinema for?” Godard’s cinephilia foregrounds the viewing of images as the occasion for a reflection on the world, a corrective for those whose cinephilia implies a retreat from the world into fantasy. After all, another obviously cinephilic director, Quentin Tarantino, has revived a sagging reputation with two rapturously received films in which cinema rescues us from the terrors of Nazism and slavery in the antebellum South: Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), respectively.

(Mis)quoting Bazin, Godard begins Contempt with the following epigraph: “The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires.” Tarantino’s cinephilia as exhibited in his two most recent films is similarly that which provides us with a world tailored not to history but to our desires. In Inglourious Basterds, cinema, in the form of highly flammable nitrate film, wins World War II for the Allies by incinerating Hitler and Goebbels. And Tarantino’s Django exists in a world fashioned after the spaghetti Western that allows him single-handedly to exterminate the overseers of a Louisiana plantation. The film’s conclusion finds him triumphantly reunited with his wife without any worries about whether or how the pair might flee to the North hundreds of miles away, let alone any concern for how Django’s rebellion might be avenged on all the slaves left behind. Both films are as seductively designed to delight cinephiles with their references and their impressive deployment of spectacle as those early films by Godard.

The difference is that Tarantino’s cinephilia is redemptive and restorative, designed to excite, soothe and reassure, where Godard’s is interrogatory, leading us to questions about art, ethics and history. (One irony of Tarantino’s appropriation of the spaghetti Western is that that genre’s greatest exponent, Sergio Leone, was another cinephilic director whose own use of film history was much closer to Godard’s than to Tarantino’s). To the question “what is cinema for?”, Godard’s answer seems to be, “It helps us remember the 20th century, a history we’ll need both in order to retain its utopian aspirations and to avoid its numberless nightmares.” This approach echoes Gramsci’s prescription of “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will,” a nice description, actually, of cinephilia’s attention to history on the one hand and it’s ability to kindle hope and desire on the other.

About the author :

David Pendleton is programmer at the Harvard Film Archives.

What's your Godard experience : Are you a big fan or an ardent detractor? Have you seen all of his movies? Do you feel like a young Brigitte Bardot in Contempt sometimes? Do you feel like all one needs to make a movie is “a girl and a gun”? Let the comment box gathers your Godard’s outpourings and share with us what makes him such a buzz.