Director of the Month: Jean-Luc Godard | DaysAreNumbers
Hello and welcome to Director of the Month, your cut-out-and-keep guide to the very finest auteurs in filmland…
This Month: Jean-Luc Godard
Years active: 1957 – present
Number of films (as director): 32 (excluding various art and video projects)
Do say: “It’s highly possible that no one individual has had as much influence on cinema as an artform as you have. You are one of the few surviving innovators of filmmaking, and your body of work will continue to enthrall as long as there are girls, guns, and movie cameras.”
Don’t say: “You are nothing but a shit on a pedestal.”*
*That’s exactly how JLG’s former friend turned bitter rival Francois Truffaut addressed him once in a letter. Oo-er.
Who Hell He? I can’t quite bring myself to call Jean-Luc Godard a “Marmite” filmmaker, so instead I’m going to go with the more appropriate adage that one man’s poisson is another man’s poison. It might seem a bit unusual to begin a Director of the Month by drawing attention to the fact that an awful lot of people don’t like Jean-Luc Godard, but in a strange way it’s almost key to understanding his work. Godard and his French New Wave cohorts were the first people to really grab popular cinema by the scruff of the neck and harnass it’s power to be dangerous, unsettling, and radical; both real and surreal. As a result of taking this revolutionary approach to his chosen field, Godard has the power to alienate people as often as he stimulates them, and accordingly he is regularly referred to as the “Picasso of cinema”. Today, however, I’d like to put across an altogether more crude simile; Godard is The Sex Pistols of cinema.
Picture the scene… Cinema in the mid-50s is like music in the mid-70s, it’s glory years are seemingly behind it, and the current product is bloated, unimiginative and failing to win over audiences. Cue a snotty bunch of upstarts, who appear just in time to give cinema the kick up the arse it needs by setting to it with a new DIY ethic that both thrills and inspires. Of course, just like the punks had been listening to garage rock, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges, so too had the French New Wave-rs been watching Italian neorealism, Alfred Hitchcock, and Samuel Fuller, but that’s besides the point. Both groups managed to channel their collective influences into the zeitgeist, and Godard in particular will forever be associated with the raw energy of the French New Wave, his 1960 debut A bout de souffle being the movement’s Nevermind the Bollocks. Speaking of which…
Six of the Best:
A bout de souffle (1960)
I’d like to stress at this point that, contrary to popular opinion, it’s not essential to have an academic guide to film history handy in order to enjoy a Jean-Luc Godard film. Much of the director’s output (particularly his early work) should appeal as much to fans of cool, off-kilter crime cinema as it does to theorists and pseuds, and A bout de souffle is almost certainly the most famous example of Godard at his gun-toting, existential best. It’s also almost certainly the greatest directorial debut of all time, and with fellow Nouvelle Vague legend Francois Truffaut on co-writing duties, who could possibly argue otherwise?
Vivre sa vie (1962)
In typically provocative fashion, the newly-famous Godard posted an ad in a magazine advertising for a wife, and got a response in the positive from Danish model Anna Karina. Karina would go on to play the lead in eight of her husband’s films, with her role as doomed prostitute Nana in this avant garde melodrama often considered her finest performance under his direction. The sequence in which she narrates the sordid details of her day-to-day business over a shockingly formal and methodical montage is perhaps the greatest single moment in the entire Godard canon.
Le Mepris (1963)
In which Godard temporarily eschews his wife in favour of that ultimate icon of 60s France, Brigitte Bardot, Le Mepris sees the director working with a major budget for the first time, and turning in a simply astounding film that manages to satirize the workings of mainstream filmmaking whilst simultaneously reaping the benefits of the process. Michel Piccoli plays BB’s screenwriter husband, and the pair’s already strained relationship is further threatened as the film he is currently working on is savagely picked apart by tyrannical producer Jack Palance. The photography in this film, by regular Godard collaborator Raoul Coutard, is absolutely stunning, a feat matched by the performances, Godard’s mercurial direction, and Georges Delerue’s breathtaking score.
Bande a part (1964)
The film which gave Quentin Tarantino not only the name of his production company, but also, more famously, the dance sequence for Pulp Fiction, and it’s not hard to see why Bande a part holds so much appeal for the uber-film geek. An ingenious splicing of raw crime aesthetic with witty knockabout humour, this is most likely Godard’s lightest moment, and it’s easy to identify the same zany zip in all of Tarantino’s efforts. Karina returns as a simple housemaid who turns against her wealthy employers at the behest of two smalltime crooks, and Godard keeps us giggling and guessing with any number of gimmicks, surprises and the (sadly never fulfilled) promise of a sequel.
Pierrot le fou (1965)
My personal favourite of all Godard’s films, and perhaps his most definitive, Pierrot le fou has a foot in the director’s “girl and a gun” past and an eye on his Marxist, agitprop future. Anna Karina takes her penultimate Godard bow here, teaming up with A bout de souffle’s Jean-Paul Belmondo as a pair of on-the-run lovers engaging in a bizarre and colourful crime spree along the French Riviera. Raoul Coutard’s photography here manages to top even his work on Le Mepris, showing that even if Godard’s films don’t always necessarily make sense (and Pierrot le fou certainly doesn’t), at least he always gives you something that’s never less than visually bewitching.
Week End (1967)
Those people I mentioned at the beginning, the one’s who don’t care much for Godard? Well, Week End is a prime example of the sort of Godard film that these people really can’t stand. Continually convention-busting, freewheeling, loose, lucid, shocking, anarchic, frequently bewildering, and featuring the longest, most intense traffic jam sequence in film history, if you insist on your films being strictly narrative, then this admittedly probably isn’t one for you. However, if you’re feeling a bit adventurous then come along for the ride, and don’t forget to note Godard’s subtle, yet winningly saucy, sense of humour which perfectly counterbalances the film’s experimental shock-tactics, and never lets things get too serious (“What a rotten film, all we meet are idiots”, bemoans a leading character at one point… I say LOL).
What about the rest?: Le Petit Soldat (1960) is a political reboot of A bout de souffle, featuring a torture sequence which got it banned on release, and remains shocking to this day… After shooting in black and white on his first two films, Godard explodes into colour with Une Femme est une femme (1961), a bawdy and typically oddball tribute to the Hollywood musical… Les Carabiniers (1963) is a fable-like denouncement of the moral futility of war, and marked a rapidly developing interest in ever-more experimental filmmaking techniques… Une femme mariee (1963) is the sensual and provocative tale of a love affair which shocked Godard’s loathed French bourgeois society on it’s release… Alphaville (1965) is one of Godard’s most influential films, an icy and avant garde marriage of fiction of both the science and detective variety… Masculin, feminin (1966) is another step in the experimental direction, but it’s plot concerning a disgruntled intellectual’s troubled relationship with his optimistic, aspirational girlfriend is still relevant today… Anna Karina took her leave as Godard’s muse in Made in USA (1966), which feels like a less stimulating retread of Pierrot le fou… 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967) sees Godard at his most anarchic and experimental, following the daily life of a housewife doubling as a prostitute… La Chinoise (1967) deals with a small cell of student revolutionairies in Paris, pointing perceptively towards events that would engulf the French capital the following year… One Plus One (1968) is a rather notorious meeting of two 60s icons as Godard films The Rolling Stones rehearsing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, but rather than show us them doing finished song (which we never even hear!), he instead has his wife hung off a crane by the Black Panthers… Le Gai savoir (1969) is yet another pop-art tinged rumination on politics and modern society, starring Truffaut alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud, who by this point was beginning to notch up a similar number of appearances in Godard’s films… The strike drama Tout va bien (1972) pairs Jane Fonda with Yves Montand, and boasts a tracking shot across the aisles of a supermarket that almost matches Week End’s traffic jam sequence for verve and audacity… Numero deux (1975) utilises a revolutionary, pre-De Palma split screen technique to detail the nuances of everyday French family life… After spending most of the 70s working on experimental projects, Godard returned to commercial, narrative filmmaking with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), in which pop star Jacques Dutronc plays a recognisable caricature of the director himself… Raoul Coutard returns for the first time since Week End to shoot Passion (1982), a suitably elegant film, yet one that ultimately lacks any real punch… Just as well, then, that he hung around to work on the much better Prenom Carmen (1983), which sees not only Godard’s fascination with robbers and terrorists return to the fore, alongside that old staple classical music, but also the director himself make his acting debut as a dirty old uncle… Je vous salue, Marie (1985) is a modern retelling of the Virgin birth, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Godard’s most controversial modern film… Detective (1985) is an excellent neo-neo-noir about an estranged couple, the washed-up boxing promoter who owes them money, and the bungling hotel detective who is watching them all, and it might well be Godard’s most underrated film… Unfortunately he chose to follow it up with a vapid arthouse take on King Lear (1987), which is nevertheless memorable for boasting a bizarre cast featuring Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, and Molly Ringwald… Nouvelle Vague (1990), despite it’s self-referrential title, is sadly not a return to form, but it does star the great Alain Delon… For Ever Mozart (1996) touches on the conflict in the Balkans, but the intense political passion of yore has mellowed, and you just might find yourself drifting off… Much better is Eloge de l’amour (2001) a series of episodes on reminiscence and regret, culminating in an insightful account of an unscrupulous film company’s attempt to purchase a WWII memoir, that is almost certainly Godard’s most emotionally moving film… Notre musique (2004) is a similar effort which this time focuses on the impact of modern terrorism, and is equally rewarding… And Film Socialisme (2010) has only just come out and I ain’t seen it yet… And yes I did choose to refer to all the films by their original, French titles because I’m pretentious… I mean, “a purist”… Au revoir…
Pssst! If you wanna see some of these great Godard films yourself, then get down to the Barbican between July 16th and 20th, when they’ll be showing a handful as part of their great Directorspective series!