Graham Williamson reflects on how the late French film director wove together arts and politics, transforming cinema forever

Aptly for such an elusive character, the biggest impact Jean-Luc Godard made in the years leading up to his death was an appearance he didn’t make.

At the end of Agnes Varda’s 2017 film Faces Places, Varda takes her travelling companion – the street artist J.R. – to meet Godard. But the director, who passed away on 13 September aged 92, is not at home. Varda reads the note he leaves on the front door of his house, finding veiled references to their youth and Varda’s late husband Jacques Demy. She leaves without seeing Godard, visibly upset.

Faces Places featured a clip of Godard acting in Varda’s landmark 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7, and includes a reference to one of the director’s most famous cinematic moments: the dash through the Louvre in Godard’s 1964 film Bande A Part. The references in her film shows how Varda could balance her admiration for Godard the artist against her differences with Godard the man. 

In this, we can follow her example: the stylistic inventiveness, acid wit and political engagement of Godard’s films remain unmatched.

Godard made his debut with Breathless in 1960, a film that is radical in its style rather than its politics. The story of a Bogart-obsessed drifter who goes on the run with his American girlfriend after he kills a policeman, it features iconic performances from Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, the latter of whom came straight to the set from playing the title role in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan. 

Godard’s chaotic, improvisation-heavy shoot was a culture shock after Preminger’s more traditional set, but it liberated Seberg. Convinced the footage they were shooting could never be edited into a releasable film, she loosened up and had fun instead. That editing process would give birth to Godard’s most famous innovation: the jump cuts.

Pressured to deliver a 90-minute final cut, Godard simply removed the bits he thought were boring, even if they came in the middle of a shot. These ‘jump cuts’ dragged the language of cinema, still visibly rooted in the silent era, right into the 1960s. For the rest of the decade, Godard would average two or three films per year. 

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A New Wave

The style of Godard’s films, at once jolting and implacably cool, felt of a piece with the music of Miles Davis, the art of Andy Warhol, the novels of Jack Kerouac. The speed of delivery makes his work feel like news bulletins from a turbulent decade. 

Masculin Féminin, the source of Godard’s much-quoted aphorism that the 1960s generation are “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola”, was shot during France’s December 1965 presidential election, so the action takes place during that election too. Godard has his characters register the shock of Mitterand’s near-victory against de Gaulle. 

Just under four decades later, and that response to current events is present again: his 2002 short Liberty and Homeland references 9/11. Godard made this choice not because the film is about 9/11, but because the idea of making a film in 2002 which pretended that event hadn’t happened would be unthinkable to him.

What Godard represents, most of all, is a kind of engaged cinema that the Anglophone nations have never been comfortable with. Even in France, he was probably its last exponent. The very idea of making an industrial-scale studio movie about a news story seems antiquated compared to Godard’s video essays.

His most recent release, The Image Book, contemplates the Syrian Civil War – unbearably bleak at the time, it may weigh heavier still if it turns out to be his final film.

It was Godard’s habit to worry, unfashionably seriously, whether cinema could truly address 20th Century horrors like the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. This fear seemed to underpin his most public crisis. During the student protests in 1968, Godard took the lead in suspending that year’s Cannes film festival, saying he wasn’t sure if cinema could even address what was happening in the world. 

Typically, he went back on his word almost immediately. His faith in movies was restored after watching a series of silent films, and he joined a film-making collective called the Dziga Vertov Group which was dedicated to putting out cinematic agit-prop.

The work of the DVG – named after a ground-breaking Soviet director – can feel like a parody of 1960s radical cinema, with their scenes of long, abstruse debates and shouted Maoist slogans. As usual, though, you cannot make a criticism of Godard that hasn’t been anticipated by Godard himself. 

One of the Group’s abandoned projects was the documentary Towards Victory, which featured interviews with Yasser Arafat and other PLO members. The intention was to produce a cinematic propaganda poster for the Palestinian cause, yet when Godard managed to translate the film he found his interviewees were all deeply pessimistic.

His first film after the dissolution of the DVG, Here and Elsewhere, uses this footage to excoriate his own blindness to the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

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The Political Director

Unlike many of his generation, Godard never recanted his leftism. Instead, he used his filmmaking to complicate and re-examine it. 

Ever since his second film Le Petit Soldat was banned for daring to tackle the then-unspeakable topic of Algerian independence, Godard remained an implacable opponent of censorship. Later, he would lead the protests against the banning of his friend Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film The Nun: its eventual release sounded the death knell for film censorship in France.

This prepared Godard for the release of his 1985 film Hail Mary, a modern-day virgin birth story that would be condemned by Pope John Paul II. Godard’s claim that he didn’t intend to offend believers is probably true. 

His work following the dissolution of the DVG became increasingly cryptic and personal, albeit always worth wrestling with for the jewels that turned up. One of his best films came relatively late in his career: 1993’s Helas Pour Moi, while 2010’s Film Socialisme deserves points for prescience.

The first of Film Socialisme‘s three parts is set on a cruise-liner, in which Godard offers a metaphor for the idle rich escaping the strictures of nationalism and austerity they have encouraged. He chose the infamous Costa Concordia as the ship to stand in for greedy capitalism which would later hit the rocks in a more literal fashion. 

When Varda arrived at Godard’s empty home and decodes the references in his letter, she taught a new generation how to read his dense, allusive films, even as she alerted them to the fact that he was a very difficult man. His stylistic innovations remain thrilling today, and he was the last of a generation who saw cinema as a vital contribution to the political and intellectual life of a country. 

This, perhaps, is the greatest void he leaves.

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