When it comes to Jean-Luc Godard, there’s only one significant question to ponder: Is this enigmatic, narrative-discarding hermit the greatest living cinematic artist? The wisest, most transformative, most original agent provocateur at work in the fields of cinema?
The short answer: sans doute. Godard is to his medium what Joyce, Stravinsky, Eliot, and Picasso were to theirs: rule-rewriting colossi after whom human expression would never be quite the same. Quentin Tarantino may be the most famous public genuflecter before Godard’s legacy, but Martin Scorsese, Abbas Kiarostami, Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee, Lars Von Trier, Leos Carax, Jim Jarmusch, Raul Ruiz, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Richard Linklater, Catherine Breillat, and Wong Kar-wai, among innumerable others, all owe him a debt they could never pay out. Wrestling in any capacity with movies as art means facing his body of work and taking a deep breath. Godard is a one-man aesthetic revolution that hasn’t calmed its cultural mutiny in over four decades. His new, lovely essay-elegy In Praise of Love, opening September 4, may be simultaneously the most relaxed, rueful, and defiant happening our screens have seen in years.
All the same, American culture has had little truck with this prickliest of geniuses since the retardation of the international film market in the ’70s. Despite an unassailable rep as one of the globe’s few movie masters, less than 15 percent of his last 15 years’ worth of work has been released in this country. It’s been seven years since a Godard film received any kind of distribution here (Hélas Pour Moi was force-fed to a few major cities in 1995; the Public’s defunct art-film program gambled on it here). Not since 1985’s Hail Mary has a Godard film made a substantial splash in American art houses.
Workaday reviewers shake in dread at the prospect of having to elucidate the complicated reality of a Godard film to their readers. Sure, he’s not breezily accessible, nor predictable, nor profitable (his 1960 debut, Breathless, remains his only worldwide hit). Still, the public eclipse of Godard has persisted for too long. With the release of his new movie, the time is now for any filmgoers worthy of the title to come to terms with the man’s rebellious voice.
That Godard himself is a recalcitrant, press-shy eccentric has only contributed to his mystique—holed up in his Swiss village, shunning world film culture at large (he has no personal agent or manager per se, just “commissions”), dissing Hollywood and America, acknowledging no obligation to man, beast, or business beyond himself. A notorious publicity no-show, Godard is famous for getting to the airport with ticket in hand, and then going home again. When the New York Film Critics Circle awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, he simply did not appear, faxing instead a wry note slamming, among others, Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner, Bill Gates, and Stanley Kubrick. Last year, he did emerge at Cannes—his old stomping ground—for a rambling press conference, but allowed only one reportedly riotous critics’ screening of In Praise of Love and quixotically submitted to only two interviews, with a Russian and an Argentine. Last week’s stateside press junket for the new film was scotched after national journalists caught their planes, but for reasons unknown Godard missed his. It seems that however the machine of popular media wishes to use, glorify, or portray Godard, he will not go with the flow.
Histoire(s) du Cinema
Essential Godard on Video and DVD
Breathless (1960) The sly little hydrogen bomb that broke all the rules. Required viewing. On DVD from Fox Lorber/Wellspring.
Band of Outsiders (1964) The recently revived anti-heist comedy, complete with jazzy, fall-in-love dance number. A life-marking movie experience. VHS, Hen’s Tooth Video.
Alphaville (1965) Godard’s gritty, sci-fi detective thriller, with tongue cemented in cheek. A masterpiece of found futurism and irreverent illogic. DVD, Criterion Collection.
Pierrot le Fou (1965) In many ways the summation of all that’s Godardian, this faux-noir daydream is also his grooviest valentine to wife-muse Anna Karina. DVD, Fox Lorber/Wellspring.
Masculin-Feminin (1966) Sixties gender combat and seduction; Godard’s most sharply observed, and sexiest, essay on social mores. VHS, New York Video.
Weekend (1967) Fin du cinema? Godard’s car-crash journey to the end of civilization is his most scalding, rageful movie, but also his most spectacular. VHS, New Yorker Video.
hélas Pour Moi (1993) Greek myth and filmmaking are both crucibles of romance in this Gérard Dépardieu-starring implosion of love and anarchy. VHS, Cinemaparallel.com.
Jlg/Jlg (1994) An “autoportrait in December,” this pensive, allusive essay is a stunningly sad and sympathetic exegesis of self—Godard’s dialogue with the world has reached a stage of avuncular musing. VHS, Cinemaparallel.com.
Such stubborn iconoclasm in the face of worldwide fame is rare enough, but it is also part and parcel of Godard’s fundamental life project—the investigation of how movies register on the viewer and in the culture, visually, temporally, aurally, emotionally, philosophically, and how that impact ambiguously reflects history and memory. How to submit to an image-processing industry without losing sight of reality, identity, significance, context? Even at 71, Godard won’t allow himself an autumnal fete or a respite from inquiry—for him, movies are life, but show business is death. That’s the deal behind Godard’s relentless lancing of Steven Spielberg’s intercontinental, suffering-as-feel-good-mega-entertainment boil; the climactic dramatic crisis of In Praise of Love is the attempt by Spielberg associates to buy up an elderly couple’s Resistance life-story. The trivialization of history’s horrors by way of the modern age’s most powerful history-making medium is a disaster to which profit and sensation—two factors of modern life Godard places no value on—have blinded us. At the movie’s North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12, 2001, In Praise was in fact regarded by shell-shocked critics as a trivialization itself—its mockery of Hollywood presumption and American ethnocentrism could not be swallowed easily. An eye-opening year later, the film’s jabs seem almost gentle.
Godard’s irascible discontent should be a selling point to the malcontent consumer of high school tattoos and anti-corporate activism, Eminem and Howard Stern, Dave Eggers and Michael Moore. But it isn’t—whatever their motive and m.o., his films represent a discombobulated, non-narrative experience even supposedly sophisticated audiences hesitate to absorb. Why this should be has something to do with the popular, acquired sense of cinema as an analgesic, a visual vacation, with formal cues that secure our distance and safety. This pre-modernist tendency doggedly endures into the new millennium, even though the indefinitely in-print Joyce and Eliot occupy shelf space in every Barnes & Noble, Stravinsky is still played and recorded, and Picasso posters remain available in Penn Station. But a mere fraction of Godard’s output can be bought on video (see sidebar for a sampling).
Of course, Godard had his decade in the spotlight, along with Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Resnais, Buñuel, Kurosawa, Polanski, et al.; in retrospect, the ’60s seem to be the furious peaking of both cinematic fecundity and viewers’ lust for original movie experiences. Godard, owning the era’s generational mojo as no other filmmaker did, had a run of some 15 masterpieces in that span, from Breathless to 1968’s Le Gai Savoir, and including Contempt, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, Masculin-Feminin, and Weekend. The general impression that Godard is a cold, intellectually forbidding filmmaker is decimated by a second look at his ’60s movies, which are quintessentially spontaneous, intimate, quirky, heartfelt, warmly realistic, and sometimes as messy as a fucked-in bed. These movies don’t merely depict things, or present situations, or tell stories—they throb with life.
Which has always been Godard’s primary point—a film is not (or should not be) a free-standing narrative experience that provides a temporary alternative to living, but is as much a factor in the throng of our daily existence as sex, food, work, friendship, illness, music, love. The ordinary visual syntax of movies has been molded since the first years of the last century to stifle this fascinating essence and limit our responses; as a result, almost all filmgoing has been concerned only with a smoothly told story and the stars’ beauty. For Godard, that anesthetizing repression was always political, and from the first minutes of Breathless, when Jean-Paul Belmondo’s non-protagonist turns to the camera to blather while driving, and the film jump-cuts itself into incompleteness, Godard was burning down the palace. Anything could happen here; in many ways, it could be called the first movie.
The reality of cinema is all there: the experience we have watching, the experience Godard and his team had filming, the passage of minutes, the affectionate distance between the actors and their roles, between the genre tropes and their erstwhile significance, between the camera itself and what it photographs—all of it happily naked to the eye and mind, none of it slickly masked by editing sleight-of-hand or plot. The film’s ostensible subject at any given moment is never prioritized over the beauty of a morning landscape, a woman’s watchful eyes, the political injustice currently burning in the filmmaker’s conscience, or the fact that he’s eating an apple. For Godard, it’s all good. In a recent interview with Epok magazine (translated in Film Comment), he explained the enigmatic moment in Every Man for Himself in which Jacques Dutronc tells his class that the unseen Marguerite Duras is in the next room, by saying that she was in the next room—why shouldn’t she be? Willfully disruptive—and at the same time masterfully observed and naturally captured—Godard’s most emblematic films are as generous, affirmative, and embracing as cinema has ever been.
That’s In Praise of Love in a nutshell, a ribbon of rumination and ardor that, because it’s Godard’s scrutiny of moral meaning and aged honor, is ours as well. Of course, the details of Godard’s perspective have always been infinitely complex, dissectable, interpretable. After the revolution of May 1968, Godard’s work became more didactic and less whimsical, and after 1979’s Every Man for Himself he rediscovered an impish buoyancy that survives today (the tone of his films seems to be shaped by the fluctuating degree of his leftist disgust). All the while, he has made cinema in spades, and lived an extraordinarily examined life, which to him are one and the same practice. No one has ever been as committed to exploring the medium’s eloquence and ambivalences, and the least we could do is watch.