Godard Essay

November 6, 2013 | By Film Department (New York)
Numéro Deux (Jean-Luc Godard, 1975)

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.

Jean-Luc Godard is the most emblematic figure of the second half of the cinema’s century-long existence, much as Sergei Eisenstein was the key figure for cinema’s first half-century. This isn’t to insist or even imply that Eisenstein and Godard were the greatest filmmakers of their respective eras—although good arguments exactly for those propositions could be made in each case. Rather, each in their time, Godard and Eisenstein came to embody the challenges, the hopes and the possibilities of the cinema. For Eisenstein, that meant the question of the cinema as art; a voracious reader in art history, literature, psychology and politics, Eisenstein fashioned a vision of cinema as the culmination of a major line of thinking about and creating art, to which he responded as both a major film theorist and a filmmaker of great power and extraordinary influence.

For Godard, who directed his first feature film ten years after Eisenstein’s death, the question about film’s status as art had already become moot; the omnipresence of moving images in most cultures, and the cinema’s growing influence over other media, made discussions of the worth or value of cinema as art seem hopelessly quaint.  Instead the new questions to which film theorists and occasionally filmmakers now addressed were: How is it that films create and express meaning and ideas? And perhaps as an addendum to that question: what is the relationship between the American cinema—the dominant cinema economically and aesthetically since World War I—and the ideology of capitalist society that has created it.

After three short films and working steadily as a film critic, Godard literally burst onto the scene with his first feature film, Breathless. A friend who saw the film during its initial run in Paris told me that at one screening she attended a well-dressed gentleman rose from his seat during the film and shouted, “He can’t do that!”  Full of jump-cuts, narrative ellipses and extraordinarily self-consciousness, Breathless took as the raw material for its art the cinema itself—it was in its essence a movie about movies, or more specifically movie watching. In quick succession, Godard carried the interrogation of film form begun with the film noir in Breathless to other classic film genres: the musical in A Woman is a Woman; science fiction in Alphaville, the melodrama in A Married Woman. Perhaps his most perfect work of this initial period was the haunting My Life to Live, a kind of social drama Godard divided into twelve chapters, each one filmed in a completely distinctive way.  

The watershed moment separating Godard’s work into discernible periods was 1967’s Weekend; both an anticipation and inspiration for the events of 1968, the film begins with the classic Godardian plot (a couple on the run) but then spins the action into outer space, as our heroes travel from the countryside through History to wind up with a band of cannibalistic guerillas.  There’s a sense of the film as a kind of purging for Godard, an admission perhaps that he no longer was sure how to reconcile his interrogations of cinematic form (some of which had been hugely popular) with his increasingly radicalized politics.

Godard was perhaps more profoundly affected by the events of 1968 than his colleagues in the French cinema; for a few years, he left commercial, “art cinema” and worked in a collective on a series of militant films. He re-emerged (somewhat) in the mid-Seventies with three remarkable if little-known films: Numero Deux, Here and Elsewhere, and Comment Ça Va?, meticulous meditations on the state of cinema at a moment it had begun to face its greatest challenge: the arrival of video and other forms of electronic image recording.  “Cain and Abel” is how Godard would refer to the relationship between the cinema and its dubious sibling, and Godard would be the first of the great modern film masters to seriously delve into the aesthetics and politics of this new medium. 

For the past thirty years, Jean-Luc Godard has been as much a “video artist” as a  filmmaker, alternating his feature films with video works of various lengths. For many, his single greatest work of this late period has been the multi-part, shape-shifting Histoire(s) du cinema, a project begin in the late Eighties and worked on in between other projects, finally culminating a 4 ½ -hour entity (including revised versions of parts premiered earlier) that was released on VHS and DVD in 1998. Using a flood of clips drawn from extraordinarily disparate sources, as well as interviews and his own wry commentaries, Godard attempt to create a kind of Summa of the cinema, tracing the major currents and movements while leaving enough space in his account for continued interrogation by him or anyone else who’d like to join in the discussion.

In 1990, Godard’s Nouvelle Vague—a remarkable if difficult work featuring Alain Delon as twins (Cain and Abel?)—received a withering critique from critic Vincent Canby in the New York Times who ended his litany of sneers and attacks against Godard with the epitaph, “The party’s over.”  Happily, the following decades have proved Mr. Canby wrong; Godard has continued to work at a steady clip, producing a number of major works (Histoire(s) de cinema, and especially recent features such as Notre Musique and Film Socialisme,  while continuing to excite and inspire new filmmakers and cinephiles who discover his work on DVD or at the increasingly frequent retrospectives of his work. For many of them, the party’s just getting started.

About the author

Richard Peña is Director Emeritus of the New York Film Festival and Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University

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.

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