Skip to content

Jean-Luc Godard in Retrospect Part I: Abstraction Hero (1930–65)

A brief five-year period produced nearly all the Godard movies that film aficionados still remember, but even these celebrated works have dated poorly.

· 33 min read
A woman and two men, snapping their fingers. Image from Band à Part (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
Band à Part (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)

I. A Deity in Death

Jean-Luc Godard, who died on September 13, 2022, at the age of 91, may be the only famous filmmaker whose “official” last movie—Le Livre d’Image (The Image Book), made when he was already 87 and visibly fading—was accompanied by the unveiling of another “last” movie, Vent d’Ouest (Wind from the West). This hitherto unknown Godard “surprise” film (actually a video montage) debuted at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, which also premiered Le Livre d’Image. It generated considerable electricity, partly because Le Livre d’Image—like most of the 100-odd films and videos Godard made during a 60-year cinematic career—hadn’t made much of an impression at all.

When Godard died, reportedly by assisted suicide in the Swiss town of Rolle where he had lived for 44 years, the praise that film critics lavished upon him resembled the worship of a god: “His prodigious oeuvre and the staggering range of forms and formats in which he worked have redefined our understanding of cinema as an art form and cultural practice, transforming the way we look at ourselves and the world,” wrote James S. Williams in an obituary for the Guardian. “[T]he French Swiss director tore apart Hollywood conventions, inspiring generations of filmmakers after him to embrace a creative freedom they didn’t know was possible,” enthused Tim Grierson in Rolling Stone.

In fact, the only Godard movie that most people can actually remember is his 1960 debut feature, À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), a jazz-punctuated French nouvelle vague exercise that catapulted the young Jean-Paul Belmondo into stardom as a hapless French gangster wannabe smitten by American college girl Jean Seberg. Pressed further, a smaller number of people might come up with a handful of other Godard titles: Une Femme est Une Femme (A Woman is a Woman), Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live), Le Mépris (Contempt), Band à Part (Band of Outsiders), Alphaville, and Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot the Fool). Not one of those films postdates 1965. Scratching their heads, an even smaller number of cinéastes may recall Week End and La Chinoise (both 1967), One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968), and perhaps Le Vent d’Est (Wind from the East, 1970), all products of Godard’s late-1960s plunge from playful antinomianism into hardline didactic Maoism, a move that permanently cost him most of whatever audience he still had.

And after that—was the master still alive? Le Livre d’Image is an 87-minute collage of spliced-together clips from dozens of well-known and obscure films and videos (including Godard’s own), punctuated by recited literary excerpts, snatches of classical music, bewildering color-saturated graphics, and raspy moralistic commentary from Godard himself. If it accomplished nothing else, it neatly demonstrated why he had fallen into five decades’ worth of obscurity. And Le Livre d’Image was actually the encore to an even longer and murkier Godard splice-project titled Histoire(s) du Cinéma, an eight-part TV miniseries made between 1988 and 1998 that clocks in at 266 minutes. According to reviewers (I haven’t seen it), the series is an attempt to align hardcore pornography, capitalism, Hollywood commercialism, and film studios’ indifference to the Holocaust. 

Vent d’Ouest is another story. In May 2018, just before the start of the Cannes festival, this four-and-a-half-minute short surfaced on the internet site of Lundi Matin, a left-leaning French weekly. It appeared to be a classic piece of Godard agitprop reminiscent of the good old days. Its title was a counterpoint to Le Vent d’Est, a product of Godard’s late-1960s radical period that focused on the French student protests, worker strikes, and cultural upheaval of May 1968. Its new companion piece showed riot-police in 2018 bulldozing a squatter camp erected by an alliance of environmental activists and eviction-defying local farmers on the site of a proposed international airport (that never got built) in rural Brittany. The eco-commune was one of several such projects launched by a group calling itself “ZAD” (for Zone à Défendre), a French equivalent of the Occupy movement.

Aerial police video of the destruction of a ramshackle ZAD barn is juxtaposed with screams and explosions (the gendarmes had used grenades), and the jarring editing, haunting music, sans-serif captions, visual references to Godard’s own career, and a voiceover that sounds like Godard lamenting, as he so often did, the co-option of film into a bourgeois medium: “Le cinéma,” the narrator complains, “s’est niché dans chaque arcane du capitalisme.” [“Cinema has ensconced itself in every arcane bit of capitalism.”] The tenor of the text is straight out of Guy Debord, a French Marxist philosopher whose writings had helped influence the May 1968 movement and Godard’s own New Left turn. The populist sympathy for the evicted farmers is also pure Godard; in 2019, he gave an interview to Swiss television expressing his desire to make a film about the gilets jaunes, the French version of MAGA (“mostly Marine Le Pen’s people” Christopher Caldwell has called them), who clashed with police over President Macron’s green agenda and were a prelude to today’s farmer protests against European Union energy diktats.

Vent d’Ouest was haunting in its immediacy. “Le meilleur Godard,” Lundi Matin pronounced. The French edition of Vanity Fair greeted the short’s internet release with enthusiasm, as did Cahiers du Cinéma—the landmark French film journal to which Godard had been a regular contributor during the 1950s—in a (since deleted) tweet. The only problem with all this excitement? Vent d’Ouest was a hoax, apparently directed by someone named David Legrand who deliberately mimicked Godard’s approach and narration.

There are two points worth noting here. The first is that a nontrivial number of critics couldn’t tell the difference between a real Godard movie and a fake. The second is that Legrand’s terse and vivid short was arguably better than anything Godard himself had produced in at least half a century and probably more. Writing for the Village Voice after the festival wound up in May 2018, Bilge Ebiri admitted that he had been taken in, but he added nonetheless: “[T]he idea of it being a hoax is oddly perfect. It seemed like all versions of Godard were here: the youthful romantic; the eternal revolutionary; the aging, gnomic trickster; the fake; the icon; the blur.”

Meanwhile, the critics—as they had with almost every other Godard film for six decades—tied themselves into knots spinning appreciative verbiage about Le Livre d’Image. But even as they heaped it with extravagant praise, they hinted that it was essentially unwatchable. It was as though the 20th-century political philosopher Leo Strauss—who maintained that every text has a surface meaning for ordinary readers and a hidden and subversive “esoteric” meaning for sophisticates—had been reincarnated as a film reviewer for the New York Times. “I found [Le Livre d’Image] haunting, thrilling, and confounding in equal measure,” wrote that paper’s critic A.O. Scott. “It is a work of ecstatic despair, an argument for the futility of human effort that almost refutes itself through the application of a grumpy and tenacious artistic will.”

In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw admitted: “It is bewildering. I’m not sure I understood more than a fraction and of course it can be dismissed as obscurantism and mannerism. But I found The Image Book rich, disturbing and strange.” For the AV Club, Josh Cabrita wrote: “The Image Book sets out to offend aesthetic norms. The sound is out of sync, the montage moves too fast, the aspect ratio constantly shifts, and the images strobe between varying levels of degradation. To the untrained eye, the film could appear amateurish. But its beauty lies in what seems like deficiency.” And in the Voice, Ebiri wrote: “Many of the clips have been degraded: Some have been altered digitally, turned into something close to noise; some look like they came straight from VHS tapes gathering mold and dust in an attic. ... It’s almost as if [Godard is] feeling his way through the images, like a blind man, fumbling for a new path through the century-plus discourse of moving images.”

The Cannes jury was clearly flummoxed by this cinematic oddity, even after its 87-year-old director emerged from self-imposed seclusion in Rolle to discuss it over FaceTime with the press. In the end, the jury invented a “Special Palme d’Or” for the film—a sort of lifetime achievement award for Godard—and that was that.

II. Two Theories of Genius

If all this sounds like an advertisement for not taking the trouble to go see Le Livre d’Image, it was. Godard’s final film went straight from Cannes to Blu-ray, although it is also currently available on streaming. That was a fate typical of a Godard production. Even during his 1960s heyday, few of his movies ever found much of an audience outside of college campuses and big-city art-houses. À Bout de Souffle was his only real hit.

After Godard unveiled his adaptation of King Lear in 1987—an incomprehensible take on Shakespeare’s play that accrued just $62,000 on a budget of $1.5 million—not one of his dozens of subsequent films enjoyed a release in a commercial theater. That was 35 years of near-absence from movie screens for a man whose very artistic life was supposed to be movie screens. On the plus side, Godard’s movies were so low-budget that they usually paid for themselves despite their meager audiences, so he was usually able to scrape up producers to find financing for yet another of his ventures.

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that Jean-Luc Godard was an artist of such stunning depth, originality, subtlety, and attunement to the history, aims, and meaning of cinema itself that his work can be only appreciated at ultraviolet levels of critical sensibility. This seems to be the view of the majority of the film critics and film historians who struggle to explain why the genius of filmmaking they admire so heartily could never find an audience among actually living, breathing human beings. It is certainly the view of Godard’s most devoted admirer, New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, whose 629-page tome Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (2008) is half-hagiography and half-impressively researched and exhaustively detailed Baedeker to Godard’s outer and inner life. In the epilogue, Brody prophesizes: “The cinema will live on for as long as Godard’s films are seen, or as Godard himself is remembered.”

The other (and more obvious) possibility is that Godard was just a terrible filmmaker who managed to bamboozle generations of film critics and film-studies professors into giving him the benefit of the doubt because his name had a radical 1960s-auteur resonance. There’s no question that Godard loved movies obsessively—especially (and despite his leftist bent) Hollywood genre movies (gangsters, Westerns, musicals). As a young man in Paris during the late 1940s and early ’50s, he devoured every film he could see. He was fascinated by the technical possibilities offered by motion pictures, but it turned out that he had no idea how to make one.

Godard could not (or would not) understand that the essence of movies is storytelling. They must—by their very nature—push relentlessly forward, with the images on the screen taking the place of the third-person narrative in a novel. Once the story falters because its maker is trying to do something else—remind viewers, for example, that what they are seeing is only a movie and why—the movie dies. It dissolves into something that may be clever or knowing or visually beautiful or subtly referential to philosophy, art, literature, music, or other films, but it is a walking—or, rather, unreeling—corpse. It may be that “everything is cinema” (Godard’s own most famous summation of his work and his approach to it), but a movie cannot simply be an extended peroration on itself.

But that was exactly what Godard aimed to produce throughout his cinematic career. In preparing to write this article, I watched 16 of his better-known films, nearly all of them for the first time. Unlike most of my age-contemporaries, I had checked out of Godard after À Bout de Souffle because his subsequent efforts had sounded plotless, dull, and (worse) catastrophically whimsical. Did I really want to want to watch a character named “Emily Brontë” dressed like Gigi in Vincente Minelli’s musical be set on fire in Week End because… who knows?

Furthermore, in 1967, I had made the mistake of watching La Chinoise, a 96-minute (although it seems much longer) ramble in which young, stylishly dressed wannabe revolutionaries sit around in a to-die-for Paris apartment (Godard’s own, as it turned out) quoting from Mao’s Little Red Book while yacking on about Louis Althusser, Bertolt Brecht, Communist Party deviance, and the necessity of political assassinations beneath a Vivaldi soundtrack (Godard liked to use classical music ironically). That pretty much did it for me as far as Godard was concerned.

Re-watching La Chinoise and watching his other films for the first time turned out to be an exhausting experience. From the beginning, Godard refused to work from a screenplay. His friend (until the two became mortal enemies) and fellow New Waver François Truffaut was technically the screenwriter for À Bout de Souffle, but Truffaut’s actual contribution to the finished film was exiguous. Godard either rewrote his actors’ dialogue piecemeal, handing out pages just before shooting, or he had the actors improvise. The results were unsurprisingly unfocused because Godard would get distracted by abstract ideas and have his characters discuss them endlessly. Other French New Wave filmmakers like Éric Rohmer also made talky films, but the chatter in those movies arose from personal and moral dilemmas in which Godard displayed almost no interest.

From 1967 onwards, Godard renounced his previous work as “bourgeois representation” and embarked on his relentlessly didactic Maoist period. As the 1970s progressed, and even diehard leftists realized there was something suboptimal about smashing priceless cultural antiquities and shoveling dissenters into reeducation camps, Godard retreated into cinematic solipsism. Hardly anyone—except a faithful coterie of film critics and academic admirers—has seen anything produced during Godard’s 50-year “late period,” because hardly any of those works found either distributors or venues.

III. Breathless in Paris

À Bout de Souffle was Godard’s first film and the best movie he ever made. It succeeded in spite of its shortcomings because it was a tour de force of style, and because it appeared at exactly the right moment in Western postwar cultural history. Godard was working on a shoestring—$90,000 in 1959 dollars, of which $15,000 was earmarked to pay 21-year-old Jean Seberg, the only star in the film when it was made—but he compensated with an eye for what was hip. Everything about the filmthe clothes, the music, the attitude and attendant philosophical pretensionswas chic and up-to-date for its time.

According to Richard Brody, Godard picked Seberg because he knew her then-husband François Moreuil (who got a bit part), and because Godard decided that she personified young American womanhood: blonde, creamy-skinned, freckled, and conspicuously Midwestern (she hailed from Marshalltown, Iowa). It didn’t hurt that Seberg also possessed the quintessential Godard leading-lady figure, manifested in his two successive leading-lady wives of the 1960s, Anna Karina (who died in 2019) and Anne Wiazemsky (who died in 2017): petite and gracile but indisputably busty.

Much of the action in À Bout de Souffle takes place on Paris streets, prominently the Champs-Élysées, which meant free sets. Godard spent just 23 days shooting in August and September 1959 and declined to obtain the required municipal permits, which meant he had to shoot fast before the authorities chased him away. Further hurrying his actual shooting time was Godard’s lifelong propensity for collecting all his actors and crew on location before deciding he had nothing to film that day and dismissing them. It helped that he wanted his film to look deliberately amateurish, so he relied on the vagaries of natural light and outlandishly long tracking shots that involved pushing his cinematographer Raoul Coutard down the uneven Paris sidewalks in a shopping cart since there was no time to lay dolly tracks.

Godard’s DIY modus operandi was borrowed from postwar Italian neorealism, in which directors like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, strapped for cash and eager to create a sense of unfiltered immediacy, used untrained actors to play supporting roles and the streets of Rome to give their films the raw appearance of a documentary. But it also marked the first manifestation of Godard’s determination to jar his audiences into Brechtian detachment from what they were seeing on the screen. In this respect, Godard was, paradoxically, an anti-neorealist. He virtually invented the jump cut, artificially compressing screen-time within shots, which helped him to snip 30 minutes’ worth of celluloid from his original two-hour rough cut. That, combined with Coutard’s long tracking shots and the variability of the lighting, gave the film a haphazard feel that seemed to mirror modernity’s displacement of values. This was exactly the effect that Godard wanted and that his audience relished.

Godard also peppered À Bout de Souffle with knowing allusions to other films, and Coutard’s compositions were careful to capture the movie posters plastered across Parisian walls. This, too, was innovative—never before had a film so pointedly announced itself as another chapter in the history of cinema. It had been Hollywood convention—and European cinematic convention, too—for movies to pretend that they were offering glimpses of real life, but Godard wanted his audiences to be aware of their artifice. Thanks to a postwar proliferation of film-studies programs at universities, 1960s cinema-goers were learning that a medium deemed pure entertainment, sometimes highbrow but mostly lowbrow, was actually an art form with its own history. 

Belmondo’s petty-thief Michel Poiccard—modeled after a real-life 1950s French criminal named Michel Portail, who also had an American journalist girlfriend—is mesmerized by glamorous images of tough-guy Humphrey Bogart in a dinner jacket. (He also takes the alias of Hungarian cinematographer László Kovács in one of Godard’s many in-jokes.) But Poiccard’s persona is actually somewhat pathetic. Clad in a shoddily tailored sport-jacket too large for his frame and a fedora too large for his head, he leads a criminal life that even in the world of criminals looks shabby: hot-wiring cars, stiffing cafés on the check, and pilfering from the purses of the women he has sweet-talked into bed.

The crime that leads to Poiccard’s death is an act of sheer stupidity. He steals a car in Marseille, nearly causes an accident, and then he kills the cop pursuing him with a gun he finds in the stolen vehicle’s glove compartment. Back in Paris, Poiccard is on the run and out of money. His American inamorata is Patricia (Seberg), who hawks the New York Herald-Tribune to motorists on the Champs-Élysées while she tries to gin up a journalism career for herself. Patricia is intrigued enough by Poiccard to sleep with him. But she then decides—either whimsically or because she realizes that he is too outré for her—to get rid of him by turning him in (it helps that the French cops are putting the screws on her by threatening her with deportation). Since his photograph is now everywhere in newspapers and street handbills, it is only a matter of time before he is either captured or killed.

It is hard to overestimate the appeal of all this to a postwar generation tired of both the high Western culture that had informed its education and the patriotic pieties that had motivated its immediate forbears to war and death. The cool soundtrack alone, composed by jazz pianist Martial Solal, represented the height of that era’s aural fashion. Cinematically, À Bout de Souffle is a tourist’s guide to Paris, with landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre-Dame Cathedral frequently visible in the background, and of course, the Champs-Élysées itself. During the postwar years, Europe was a low-cost travel destination, especially for college students on gap-year and summer vacation, and Paris was its summit.

All things French—from existentialism (Sartre was at his peak of philosophical eminence) to cuisine—were the cynosure of the youthful Grand Tour. Seberg’s Patricia is a wonderfully satiric junior-year-abroad creation, with her French 101 vocabulary and American accent, her pretensions to deep thinking (she tries to get the semi-literate Poiccard interested in Faulkner), and the unframed modern-art posters she tacks to the walls of the Paris hotel room where she lives. I was in college myself only a few years after Patricia, and I had the same poster as she does of Picasso’s The Lovers (1923) masking-taped to my own dorm-room wall.

But even with this potentially rich material inspired by a true story with a beginning, middle, and end, Godard could not resist boring his audience to tears from time to time. The film’s centerpiece is a conversation between Poiccard and Patricia in that hotel room (where he has been hiding out from les flics in her unmade bed) that clocks in at a full 20 minutes. This interminable scene kills the movie dead. Belmondo is electrically sexy, chain-smoking the cigarettes dangling from his lips and rolling under the sheets with an acrobat’s kinesis. The problem is Seberg, who is an Iowa creamed-corn casserole of inertia. Godard seems to be so unsure of what to do with her that he has her change clothes three times during this scene (he had an eye for women’s fashion) and utter Sartre-esque banalities like “I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or I’m not free because I’m unhappy.” But she cannot inject any chemistry into her cinematic interactions with Belmondo or anyone else.

Finally—mercifully!—the two do make love in an additional seven-minute sequence, but then we are taken to a highbrow press conference at which Patricia (on assignment from the Herald-Tribune) asks a novelist named Parvulesco (played by French policier director Jean-Pierre Melville) a series of pedestrian questions like “What is your greatest ambition in life?” and “Do women have a role to play in modern society?” Like the earlier scene in the hotel room, the interview does nothing to advance the film’s plot. Its function—and this became a favorite topos for Godard in subsequent films—is to inject the appearance of philosophical gravitas via a talking intellectual head.

The plot does eventually return, with Patricia at the wheel of a Thunderbird convertible—hotwired in a parking garage by Poiccard—as the police give chase through the streets of Paris. Then, her final betrayal, and the inevitable denouement that offers no resolution. As he dies in the street with Patricia and the cop who has shot him in the back standing over him, Poiccard utters his final words: “C’est vraiment dégueulasse—the last an impossible-to-translate French adjective that roughly means “disgusting” or “nasty.” To which Patricia responds with a question right out of French class: “Qu’est-ce que c’est ‘dégueulasse’?

À Bout de Souffle might have been a moral tragedy, with Poiccard as a bumbling latter-day Lucien Chardon mesmerized by big-city crime-glamour and fatally undone by the delusional belief that he can shortcut his way to fame, wealth, and women’s love. But that was not the story Godard wanted to tell. Godard wanted to make a dramatization—informed by the existentialist philosophy that was the intellectual rage in 1950s France—of the meaninglessness and absurdity of human existence and action. And it was this that made his film so mesmerizing to his postwar-generation audiences, and to a generation of aspiring young American filmmakers, in particular.

Poiccard is certainly hapless, but there is no moral framework within which his life and death plays. Patricia is a college-age Daisy Buchanan in her indifference to others—that is, when she is not a caricature of American throwaway culture. The police are as ruthless as the criminals they chase, and perhaps more so. The movie extends no sympathy to the motorcycle cop in Marseille murdered for doing his job trying to apprehend a traffic violator. Godard just wants us to identify with his film’s surface smartness: good-looking young people evading the Man in a sleek American car to the beat of Solal’s cool jazz score. 

Embed from Getty Images

IV. Cinematic Revolutionaries

Godard’s problem was that he was a film theorist above all, and from the very beginning, his theories and ideas smothered even his flourishes of visual brilliance. He was enraptured by movies (especially the Hollywood movies that his radical ideology taught him to hate), he took to the technology, and his scripts were in many ways monologues and dialogues about film itself. But he stubbornly refused to make a watchable movie of his own. What enabled him to persist with his perverse career was extraordinary self-regard and an ability to impose his iron will on those around him. To use the term “dark triad” to describe Godard may be an exaggeration, but it is neither a large nor an unfair one. His narcissism and desire to manipulate others were boundless.

Godard was born in 1930. He was obviously highly intelligent, although this was never evident in his spotty scholastic record as a youth. His brainpower had been nurtured in sensitivity to art, music, and literature by his Swiss-lineage family, which was cultivated and also fabulously wealthy. His father, Paul Godard, was a moderately successful physician, but his mother, Odile Godard (divorced from his father when Jean-Luc was a young man), hailed from the Swiss-Protestant Monod family dynasty that had, like a page out of Max Weber, specialized in producing generations of bankers and Calvinist theologians, while throwing out notable secular academics and politicians from time to time.

Godard’s parents did their best to try to make him financially responsible by occasionally cutting off the family subsidies. He managed to subsist by noodling at the Sorbonne for several years without earning a degree while intermittently stealing from the tills of various employers (on one occasion, only his father’s intervention released him from jail—on the condition that he spend some time in a psychiatric hospital). One of his thefts consisted of a Renoir owned by his Monod grandfather, whose library he regularly raided for rare books to purloin and sell. Godard loved luxury living (American cars were one of his passions) but he had chronic trouble handling his finances and was constantly strapped for cash even during his 1960s filmmaking heyday. It is hard not to surmise that it was inherited Monod money, not the diminishing returns from his subsequent half-century of theatrically unviable movies, that paid for decades of comfortable living in Rolle, a picturesque town on the shores of Lake Geneva where he made his home from 1978 until his death. 

In Paris off and on since 1946 (his parents had enrolled him in a prestigious lycée but he had failed his baccalaureate exams), Godard fell in with a coterie of avant-garde Left Bankers that included Truffaut, Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and others who became the first contributors to Cahiers du Cinéma. The journal, founded in 1951 by film theorist André Bazin, intellectualized the viewing of movies, particularly Hollywood movies. These had hitherto been regarded as mostly low-grade popular entertainment and denounced as industrialized products of capitalist culture by the Communist Party, the political affiliation of choice for most French intellectuals.

Bazin pioneered the auteur theory of filmmaking—that movie directors are genuine artists, not mere studio journeymen, and that their products should be analyzed like other works of art. The Cahiers crowd especially idolized cheaply made black-and-white Hollywood “B” movies—a genre that its French fans dubbed film noir—with their seedy criminals, down-at-heel private investigators, and corrupt cops on the take. Those noir were as stylized and artificial as anything the major Hollywood studios produced, but their grittiness and moral ambivalence gave them an aura of authenticity. Godard debuted at Cahiers at the age of 22, with a 1952 article paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). 

But the Cahiers crowd’s real target was the “cinéma de qualité” (Truffaut’s coinage in a searing Cahiers essay of 1954)the French studio cinema of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Via a rigid directorial apprentice system, devotion to technological craft, highly professionalized acting, and meticulously researched historical sets and costumes, this kind of cinema had produced masterpieces like La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937) and Le Rouge et le Noir (Claude Autant-Lara, 1954). The iconoclasts at Cahiers dubbed this sort of thing “cinéma de papa” (“Dad-cinema”). They finally admitted Renoir into auteur Valhalla, but Autant-Lara was cast permanently into one of the Cahiers circles of hell.

Esteemed French actresses such as Danielle Darrieux were now deemed inferior to Debbie Reynolds. A particular Cahiers target was Marcel Carné, whose Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was widely regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made. Carné was an object of derision for Truffaut and Godard, and although Truffaut eventually admitted that he would have given up every one of his films to have made Les Enfants, Godard, being Godard, snubbed Carné entirely: “[I]f I was in a studio or whatever, and Mr. Godard came in, he said nothing to me, not even hello,” Carné told the Criterion Collection in a 1990 interview. “It’s almost as if he turned his back on me.”

Many of the Cahiers contributors were determined to turn their notions about film—the preeminence of spontaneity, intimacy, handheld cameras, and documentary technique—into creations of their own. And they succeeded. By 1959, when Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups won the Best Director award at Cannes, nouvelle vague occupied the entire field of French moviemaking, encompassing even such non-Cahiers directors as Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda, whose films nonetheless incorporated the stylish cutting and impressionistic, even meandering storylines that were Cahiers trademarks.

The heyday of the New Wave coincided with a sudden surge during the early 1960s of brand-new and reinvigorated film-studies programs at colleges and universities, especially in America. Cahiers had made the study of film intellectually respectable, and under the rule of the professors, film studies could now be taken as seriously as any other academic discipline, with an intellectual history and a theoretical framework of its own. I saw that phenomenon during my own college years: classmates abruptly switched their majors from history and political science so they could lug heavy mid-century cameras around and inveigle their dorm-mates into playing extras in their class projects. They would endlessly discuss the output of Truffaut, Chabrol, and perhaps most vividly Godard, who played most forcefully to the intellectual aspirations—and also to the culturally rebellious mindset—of beneficiaries of postwar affluence who could afford to be fashionably cynical.

The most obvious example of the New Wave-influenced output from Hollywood was Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which portrayed the 1930s bank-robbers and multiple murderers as 1960s Beautiful People. Telegenic Hollywood actors like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway dressed in sleek Theodora Van Runkle costumes looked nothing like their runty, malnourished real-life counterparts of the Great Depression, but they made unusually gorgeous victims when they were plugged full of holes by Texas Rangers in front of their snazzy Ford V8 sedan. (Both Godard and Truffaut were briefly considered as Bonnie and Clyde’s directors.)

And there were other imitators: Steve Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). All these films glamorized outlaws as youthful, charismatically attractive social rebels who pay for their rebellion with a romantic death, and all valorized their crimes as acts of existential self-definition that conventional society could not tolerate.

V. Karina, Karina

After À Bout de Souffle, Godard launched himself into a flurry of filmmaking activity, directing 13 features between 1961 and 1967. All of these films were noticeably worse than his first, although just as ramshackle and self-indulgent—in fact, even more so, since the runaway success of À Bout de Souffle had conferred upon Godard the kind of star status that allowed him to do even more of what he wanted without interference. All featured deadly intellectual monologues (or their corollary, deadly lovers’ quarrels) that went on and on, tracking shots lasting into perpetuity, irritatingly arch allusions to other movies, and heavy literary and philosophical window-trimming.

And of course, all featured Godard’s signature critique of consumerist, America-poisoned postwar French bourgeois society that actually betrayed his fascination with fashion, advertising, sleek midcentury interior design, and the logos and vivid packaging colors of American consumer goods: Detroit automobiles (Godard’s own 1962 Ford Galaxie figured prominently), electronic doodads, travel posters, and brightly packaged household products. The tile-walled, porcelain-sink kitchens alone, in the supposedly soul-deadening postwar apartment buildings where Godard’s characters lived their supposedly pointless lives, were in fact stylish repositories of intricate faucet systems and colorful, artfully arranged boxes of brand-name cleansers, often of American provenance.

Eight of the films Godard directed during this period starred Danish-born actress Anna Karina, whom he had met in 1959 while he was shooting À Bout de Souffle. Karina was 18 at the time and already a top commercial model in Paris. Godard offered her a part in his first film, but he wanted it to include a nude scene and she demurred. (This was typical Godard: He had been entranced by an ad featuring Karina up to her shoulders in Palmolive soap bubbles in a bathtub, and it hadn’t occurred to him that under the bubbles she had worn a bathing suit.)

By 1961, the two were married. She was the first of the three “Annes” who became Godard’s three wives; the others were Anne Wiazemsky (1967–79), and Anne-Marie Miéville, with whom he lived in Rolle from 1978 on, reputedly marrying her at some point before his death. Godard’s tumultuous four-year marriage to Karina was marked by glamour shots of the two in the media and unexplained absences by Godard, during one of which Karina suffered a miscarriage. As their relationship worsened, she attempted suicide twice and then had an affair with actor-director Maurice Ronet, which blew up the marriage for good.

I’ve seen the five best-known of the Godard-Karina collaborations: Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961), Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Band à Part (1964), Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou (both 1965). One of the remarkable aspects of all five is Godard’s persistent inability to make a riveting film presence out of his wife, or to project much sexual chemistry upon her at all, despite the erotic roles in which he repeatedly cast her: prostitute, stripper, straying spouse, and lover. This was especially odd because Karina was strikingly beautiful—raven-haired and doe-eyed—and she had a varied and well-regarded acting career that lasted well into the 1970s.

In 1966, Karina would win acclaim for her performance in La Religieuse (The Nun), Jacques Rivette’s controversial Palme d’Or-nominated adaptation of Diderot’s equally controversial Enlightenment novel about a young woman forced to enter a convent in ancien-régime France. But in Godard’s films, Karina is blank and inert, if indisputably charming in an ingenue way that Godard seemed eager to exploit and costume accordingly. Godard personally picked out the girlish togs that Karina wore in his movies: schoolgirl plaid skirts, sailor middy blouses, Peter Pan collars, and ruffle-trimmed frocks. She looked wonderful in all of these, and as with Seberg, one of the treats of watching Karina in a Godard movie is savoring the outfits that never seemed to go out of style. 

The best of Karina and Godard’s collaborative efforts is Vivre Sa Vie, in which Karina played a housewife-turned-streetwalker named Nana (a typically Godard-esque Zola allusion, just as the unflattering bob she sports is an allusion to Louise Brooks in Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s 1929 Weimar-decadence film, Pandora’s Box). When the film begins, Nana inexplicably abandons her husband and six-year-old son in order to experience freedom. “I raise my hand — I am responsible. I turn my head to the right — I am responsible. I am unhappy — I am responsible. I smoke a cigarette — I am responsible. I shut my eyes — I am responsible,” is how one of Nana’s friends explains the film’s ambient existentialism in a monologue that could have been lifted from Sartre.

From Sartre, then France’s premier postwar public intellectual, Godard borrowed themes of personal “authenticity” and a horror at consumer culture. And from Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 feminist manifesto and succès de scandale The Second Sex he took the notion that women could renounce motherhood and domesticity as forms of reproductive slavery. When the newly liberated Nana discovers that working as a clerk in a record store doesn’t pay her rent, she turns to prostitution. The film makes no bones about the degrading nature of this work, although Karina looks a shade too elegant in a fur-trimmed coat (reminiscent of Chanel) to be convincing as a take-all-comers slattern.

Godard’s entire production budget for Vivre Sa Vie was $40,000 (it is almost all first takes and was shot in three weeks). If you want to take in seedy midcentury Paris sidewalks in bad weather and one-star hotel plumbing shot cinéma verité-style by Coutard, Vivre Sa Vie is the cinematic experience for you. There is also Nana’s ice-blooded pimp, Raoul, who reads her a laundry list of prostitution rules (copied from a sociology text) that spell out the frequency of her expected assignations and the amount of francs to be turned over weekly. When Nana falls in love with a young intellectual client (Peter Kassovitz) and announces that she wants to quit “the life,” Raoul attempts to sell her to another pimp. The transaction quickly sours in a gunfight over the price, and Nana takes a bullet for her pimp when he uses her as a human shield. The two men flee in their respective cars, leaving her body lying in the street.

Godard broke up Nana’s tale of progressive degradation into 12 separately titled tableaux, a Brechtian device he seems to have borrowed from Rossellini’s Francesco, Giullare di Dio (1950). Unlike most of Godard’s audience-distancing tricks, this one mostly worked, because Vivre Sa Vie is a stylized morality tale, a rake’s progress, the message of which is: “The wages of sin is death.” The woman craving Sartrean freedom from bourgeois family attachments makes herself a slave, abandoned just as thoroughly as she has abandoned her husband and young child. For all his radical posturing, it may be that Godard inherited a streak of social conservatism from his mother’s Calvinist ancestors. (As it happens, the moral of À Bout de Souffle is also that the wages of sin is death: a body on the street because its impulsive owner made a series of bad moral decisions.)

But as usual, Godard couldn’t resist weighing down—and ultimately deadening—his story with more of the same cinematic devices that were already wearying the first time around: mostly film allusion piled upon film allusion. Vivre Sa Vie includes nods to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, Otto Preminger’s Exodus, Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, Jean Renoir’s 1926 film version of Zola’s Nana, Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir, and a raft of minor cinematic intimations of interest only to film-buff diehards. A viewer might well start asking: Is this an actual movie with a story to tell, or is it a Where’s Waldo? puzzle with a prize for spotting the maximum number of references to every movie Godard had viewed to date?

Long stretches of the movie seem to be little more than exercises in Godard’s own preening self-display. We are made to endure a mind-numbing nine minutes of improvised dialogue between Nana and Godard’s former philosophy professor at the Sorbonne, Bruce Parain, who appears as himself. Parain—perhaps intentionally but perhaps not—turns himself into a community-college French-existentialism professor parody (“love can be a solution, if it is true”), while Karina smokes cigarettes and looks vaguely embarrassed. Godard also has the smitten Kassovitz read aloud to his beloved from Edgar Allen Poe’s death-tinged story The Oval Portrait—except that the voice-over actually belongs to Godard himself.

VI. Divorce and Disorder

The rest of Godard’s oeuvre during this period was marked by similar forays into the cutely and ultimately tiresomely allusive. Other Cahiers alumni—Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette—used their intellectualized take on moviemaking to incorporate the techniques they had learned from Hollywood noir and Italian neorealism into small-scale, technically innovative storytelling. Godard applied his intellectualized take literally. He had to constantly remind his viewers that he knew a lot about previous movies—which he did; he just didn’t seem to understand them very well.

Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961), starring Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo, was billed as Godard’s homage to the Hollywood musical—so he shot the film in color, cast Karina as a stripper with a singing act, and surnamed Belmondo’s character “Lubitsch,” after the German-born Hollywood director of sophisticated 1930s comedies. But Godard’s film bore no relation to the Hollywood musical genre during any decade. The plot, such as it was, dealt with Karina’s hope of getting pregnant by either Belmondo or her other lover, played by Jean-Claude Brialy (with whom she improbably shares one of the glamorous Paris apartments that Godard loved to use as sets). Jeanne Moreau has a cameo appearance as herself, which served only to remind viewers of Truffaut’s far more coherent Jules et Jim (in which Moreau had the starring role) and Godard’s clearly rivalrous obsession with his erstwhile best friend.

Bande à Part (1964) was Godard’s take on the Hollywood gangster movie—“a girl and a gun” film that would “sell a lot of tickets,” he boasted. It was actually a box-office flop—booed at the Locarno Film Festival where it debuted—probably because audiences who had come expecting action were greeted instead by a pair of movie-besotted amateurs (Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur) meandering distractedly through a scheme to rob and murder the Karina character’s avaricious aunt.

The film’s most memorable scenes involved the trio’s record-breaking nine-minute sprint through the Louvre, and their four-minute line dance in a Parisian cafe to the rhythm-and bluesy soundtrack of Michel Legrand, who had also composed the score for Une Femme Est Une Femme. The line dance was the only scene that wasn’t improvised under Godard’s tutelage—Karina and her two cinematic beaux spent four weeks rehearsing their steps on their own time. Karina certainly looks adorable in this scene, but neither of these exercises in conspicuous whimsy had the slightest thing to do with the story.

Alphaville (1965) was another Hollywood gangster-movie encomium, with a dystopian science-fiction theme thrown in. Godard hired expatriate American actor Eddie Constantine (1913–93), who had made a comfortable living in French B-movies as a rumpled-trenchcoat private investigator of the hard-boiled school who called himself “Lemmy Caution.” In Godard’s film, Constantine-as-Caution is tasked with eliminating the evil mastermind behind the 21st-century galaxy capital Alphaville, where science rules and hyper-rationality makes expressions of love and other emotions treasonable. As might be expected from someone who had largely ditched school during his youth, Godard had only a primitive notion of what the “science” in science fiction might involve: mostly a flashing “E = mc²” neon sign and a giant blinking mainframe computer that was supposed to be in charge of Alphaville but looked like it was made of plywood. Godard evidently didn’t have the first idea about how a computer might work.

Most of Alphaville’s action consisted of Constantine running down extraordinarily long corridors with a glamorous prostitute (naturally) played by Karina. The movie, which nearly derailed Constantine’s career after audiences reacted with bemused negativity, did have one extraordinary virtue: Raoul Coutard’s fabulous monochrome cinematography. Godard couldn’t afford to build sets, so nearly all the action was shot on location in Paris by night amid massive concrete Brutalist architecture that made for a convincingly futuristic dystopia. Coutard really did make it look noir-fantastic.

Pierrot Le Fou (1965) was one of Godard’s last collaborations with Karina, and by the time he made it, their marriage was already in ruins—Karina had filed for divorce before shooting began. The threadbare screenplay (yet another Godard improvisation, with the script pages of scenes emerging the day they were shot) was loosely adapted from Obsession, a novel by the American noir-writer Lionel White. The plot concerns an advertising man (Belmondo, dragooned into his last Godard film) who flees his bourgeois life and bourgeois wife (not to mention their sumptuous Paris apartment) for the Côte d’Azur (rendered in gorgeous supersaturated color by Coutard) in a stolen car with his children’s babysitter (Karina). Murderous right-wing gangsters are involved, as are suitcases full of cash and expensive automobiles, including Godard’s Ford Galaxie, which Belmondo’s character drives into the Mediterranean.

There’s also a cameo appearance by Samuel Fuller, an American favorite among New Wavers, and some excruciatingly tedious scenes in which Belmondo’s character, now free to live the life of a hippie avant la lettre, philosophizes whimsically on the beach and writes in his diary. Karina’s character changes into and out of many a modish ensemble, sings and dances delightfully with Belmondo, and reaquires an old boyfriend whom she passes off as her brother. Belmondo’s character chases her hither and yon, shoots her dead (after he has killed her new lover), festoons himself with sticks of dynamite, paints his face blue, and blows himself up. It all seems to have been a grim dramatization of Godard’s own failed marriage—he took Karina’s departure hard. Pierrot Le Fou may have been jeered at the 1965 Venice Film Festival and the box-office, but the critics loved it. In the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris called it “the kind of last film a director can make only once in his career.” Unfortunately, it was far from Godard’s last.

Godard did make one movie during this period that involved a real story and a properly developed relationship between its male and female leads: Le Mépris in 1963. This film succeeded partly because its screenplay—although improvised and/or crash-written by Godard himself—was not only based on a 1954 novel, Il Disprezzo by Alberto Moravia, but Godard actually followed the source material’s plot fairly closely (he may have flinched at tampering with Moravia’s literary reputation, which was then at its highest point).

It helped that the film’s female lead wasn’t Karina but, paradoxically, Brigitte Bardot. Bardot was famous mostly as an international sex bomb (Godard was forced to include a nude boudoir scene, which he shot perfunctorily after finishing the rest of the film), but here she also proved to be an actress of surprisingly touching affectivity. There was a warmth and sincerity, even a pathos to her that resonated. Godard had secured himself—for the first and only time—an almost Hollywood-level budget of $1 million (although half of that went to pay Bardot’s salary), plus major producers, Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine. Coutard rose to cinematographic magnificence with this film, capturing the photogenic isle of Capri’s summer beauty in elegant Cinemascope compositions and rapturously brilliant color.

Of course, Godard did his best to turn these exquisite components into his usual mess, littering the set with enormous statues of Greek gods, casting Fritz Lang (who must have owed Godard a favor) as himself, and shooting an argument between Bardot and her onscreen husband, Michel Piccoli, that dragged on for a full half-hour (in a 110-minute movie!). During that scene, Bardot was obliged to wear a bouffant black wig that made her look like a parody of Karina in Vivre Sa Vie. Oh, and Godard awarded himself a cameo as Lang’s assistant director.

Still, the plot at least benefitted from a real story: a mediocre and neurotically insecure playwright (Piccoli) is hired to write the screenplay for a schlocky swords-and-sandals adaptation of The Odyssey, and feels compelled to pimp his wife (Bardot) to the movie’s crass American producer (Jack Palance) in order to secure his job. Bardot’s character, who wants only to be respected and loved for herself, experiences the contempt that is the movie’s theme, not least because her husband is willing to make a cuckold of himself in order to advance his career. It is the mirror image of the contempt she senses he feels for her as less than his intellectual equal. This is psychologically riveting, because it lies directly on the fault line of relations between men and women: Bardot runs off with the alpha male out of spite and frustration and then dies with him when he hubristically crashes his Alfa Romeo. Le Mépris was one of the few movies Godard ever made besides À Bout de Souffle that managed to rise above repetitive self-referentiality and facile existentialism.

This very brief five-year period during the first half of the 1960s produced nearly all the Godard movies that most film aficionados now remember. It was, in general, a time of euphoria—the culmination of the prosperous and enthusiastic rebuilding of the West after its near-destruction amid the unspeakable infrastructural and human devastation of World War II, which the inhabitants of France had felt most acutely. The artefacts of 20th-century modernity suddenly seemed magical and infinite in their expressive possibilities: the hyper-stylish midcentury design and couture, the jazz compositions of Martial Solal and Michel Legrand, the cinematic explosions of New Wave creativity.

Godard’s limitations were only made more obvious by those who followed him. The New Hollywood directors of the late 1960s, who paid homage to him in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke, made much better pictures than he did because they understood the Old Hollywood conventions of strong and coherent storytelling in a way that Godard could not, despite the hundreds of Hollywood movies that he had seen. Nevertheless, the signature touches that Godard had pioneered—the jump-cutting urgency, the disorienting Brechtian flourishes, the propulsive use of music (Flatt and Scruggs’s bluegrass in Bonnie and Clyde, Lalo Schifrin’s distinctive jazz rhythms in Cool Hand Luke, Simon and Garfunkel in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate), and of course, the bravura visual style—were a big part of what made the New Hollywood cinema so electrifying. Today, many of Godard’s innovations in cinematic language have been completely absorbed by mainstream television and film. In this respect, he was a monumental force.

Even a determined cultural nonconformist like Godard could partake of the sheer energy generated during this brief interlude before reality, in the form of the massively destructive social conflicts of the late 1960s, descended with a thud like a stage curtain. He had just enough talent and inventiveness—and also sheer will—to make a memorable name for himself before it all ended. But he was also unfortunate enough to live a very long life afterwards, during which his career entered a precipitous decline. 

The concluding part of Charlotte Allen’s Godard retrospective can be read here.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette