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Last of the New Wave: Godard’s ultimate act of rebellion | Tribute

Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022)

By Jake Roslin

Godard is dead, and by his own choice.

The goliath of French New Wave, that painstakingly-planned antidote to the predictable structure of narrative cinema, was 91.

An unlikely survivor from a long gone era, commentators would marvel that the director of À bout de soufflé (1960), Bande à part (1964), and Alphaville (1965) was not only still alive, but still making films. Years after the other rebel directors—Varda, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette—had gone. Decades after Godard’s one time partner in mischief, François Truffaut, had died.

Technically, it was Truffaut who wrote the 1954 manifesto which would create Nouvelle Vague. It oversaw a new language of film which would destroy the so-called ‘Tradition of Quality’ in post-war French cinema, itself a blood relative of the stagnant Hollywood studio system. ‘I pity the French cinema because it has no money. I pity the American cinema because it has no ideas’, Godard once said.

He and Truffaut spent the fifties as film critics for André Bazin’s seminal magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and made their first few shorts together using primitive equipment. But while Truffaut could never quite let go of storytelling and would become estranged from his partner, Godard spent the next 60 years endlessly reinventing, with little regard for commercial success or cinematic convention. Like all true artists (Picasso, the Beatles), there were several periods of Godard, and once one was over he never went back. In those six decades, he produced well over 100 movies including his shorts, many of which will keep those who haunt LLMVC and equivalents busy for the next six centuries.

The ultimate auteur, a term he hated. The control freak who embraced happenchance. The adventitious manipulator. Like all geniuses, he was ‘difficult’. Actors’ psyches were frayed.

Courtesy of Gary Stevens via Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, Godard regulars quickly emerged: Anna Karina, also his first wife, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Jean-Pierre Léaud. Their faces, usually, like Godard, completed with a cigarette, forever embody a semi-mythical lost age,

the decade in which France put two fingers up to the world. Godard rarely worked with a script. He’d give clues, audibly bark questions at the actors off-camera. Juxtapose apparently meaningless or non sequitur scenes.

In One Plus One (1968) the Rolling Stones were perplexed to find a documentary of their recording of Sympathy for the Devil juxtaposed with scenes of the Black Panthers engaged in subversive activity on the banks of the Thames. Even apparent narrative works, usually involving ‘a girl and a gun’ (the only two ingredients, Godard said early on, needed to make a story) would end without conclusion or turn an unexpected corner. Though there were surreal elements, and comparisons with Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc was no surrealist. He just hated structure.

Like all prolific creators, it will be the early works which survive. It will be the familiar yellow and red poster of Breathless (À bout de soufflé) that remains a familiar of Fresher’s Week poster sales, not his little known seventies Maoism, eighties wistfulness or nineties technological experimentation.

It will be the Formica cafés, the sulky youths in tweed jackets, the Marxist slogans, the stumbling, the awkwardness, the impossible romanticism of existential angst, the smouldering desire forever lurking beneath the surface. Godard’s first few movies define our perception of 20th century Paris— always monochrome, always through a heavy cloud of tobacco smoke.

In Weekend (1967), in what at first seems a satire on urbanites in the countryside, a traffic jam is filmed as a single tracking shot. The camera pans a long, long line of gridlocked cars, the frustrated weekenders arguing, hooting horns, playing games, and ignoring the increasingly unlikely animals contained in trailers, the wrecked vehicles and eventually the corpses littering the road. Yet somewhere into this extraordinary seven and a half minute shot, the viewer realises this scene isn’t about a bizarre traffic jam. It’s about the fact that they, the audience, are wondering just how long this single shot can be prolonged, how it was technically possible. Postmodern? Or just a joke? The joke is on you, says Godard, and by implication so is the joke of your existence under capitalism, the apogee of which is your dire weekend.

Like Hamlet, Jean-Luc held the mirror up to nature. Human lives do not follow a script. They are badly constructed, they proceed awkwardly. Our plans switch unexpectedly or tail off into nothing. We value style over substance. We break into dance steps once in a while.

Each of the creative arts has its difficult maverick, appearing at an apposite movement and upending the whole shebang. After Debussy, after Monet, after Brecht, and after Godard, any creator reverting to the old rules produces worthless archaisms. The shock of the new is not comfortable at first and is hated by the establishment. But ultimately all these left their medium and the world a richer place.

Godard never stopped working. He embraced digital video and even 3D. Yet it is that scowling image of the Vague days, with signature dark rimmed glasses, that looms over film schools and a thousand imitators of his, inimitable, style.

Jean-Luc Godard died on 13 September 2022 at his home in Switzerland. The cause of death was assisted suicide, a practice there legal. ‘He wasn’t sick, he was just exhausted’, said his lawyer, `it was his decision and it was important for him that it be known.’ Yet, only last year, Godard told an interviewer he was planning two further pictures prior to retirement. Naturally, he would not stick to his script.

Early Godard movies are well represented in the Sir Duncan Rice Library’s DVD collection.


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