- Curious Peoples
- Jean-Luc Godard
The Man Who Altered the Trajectory of Modern Cinema
Cinema has always been a critical aspect of French culture, and rightfully so – indeed, it was in 1895 when the Lumière brothers screened the first films in Paris. Therefore, despite the growing splendor of Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century, French movie culture remained a distinct entity. However, this would change after WWII. France’s economy was left crippled, and thus they turned to the burgeoning superpower across the Atlantic to negotiate their debts, resulting in the Blum-Byrnes Agreements in 1946, which called for an international free market on the French film industry. With a plethora of films now flooding in from the United States, most French critics, such as Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, viewed this influx of American cinematography as commercialistic and propagandistic imperialism. But today’s episode follows the legacy of a director who was simultaneously influenced by American film while speaking back against it, altering the trajectory of modern cinema as we know it.
Godard directing Breathless (1959).
This director, of course, is Jean-Luc Godard. Beginning as a film critic for the prolific Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s and helping to develop what is now called auteur theory, Godard became a figurehead of the French New Wave movement with the release of his first feature-length film, Breathless (À bout de souffle) (1959). The film takes on the storyline of a stereotypical crime film, incorporating Wellesian film-noir tropes; however, Godard manipulates these techniques through spasmodic jump cuts, anti-climactic shoot-outs, and nods to Hollywood (for example, Humphrey Bogart), playing with the fluidity between reality and aesthetics as well as the uncertainty of identity. Godard effectively imbues this empty plot with symbolic, technical, and referential finesse, speaking to the New Wave’s appreciation for mise-en-scène (or the arrangement of the aspects in frame) over subject matter. As the directing “author” and due to low filming costs, Godard went into the film without a script, often feeding the lines to the actors mid-scene, and filmed with handhelds in real locations. As film critic Richard Brody puts it, Breathless is a “high-energy fusion of jazz and philosophy,” capturing the movements of reality under the veil of artistry.
Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Contempt (1963).
Godard developed the New Wave style further with Contempt (Le Mépris) (1963), a colorful, mise-en-abyme story exploring Godard’s disillusionment with the film industry that is also an ode to cinema itself. The relationship between real-life, human interaction and the art of filmmaking – a theme Godard often explores – is exploited to its fullest through allusion, one character even being Fritz Lang, the director of Metropolis (1926). With a higher budget, Godard experimented with complex tracking shots and framing, yet still maintained an in-the-moment, realistic quality with documentary techniques of the improvisatory cinéma vérité.
Constructed two-story set for All’s Well (1963).
After 1968, Godard abandoned his New Wave filmmaking when he turned toward revolutionary Marxist ideology and began working through the Dziga Vertov Group. Relinquishing the glorification of the singular author by developing films as a non-commodifiable collective, Godard argued that the goal was not to “make political films but to make films politically.”
A key influence for this style was the German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his theory of v-effect, or verfremdungseffekt, which calls for critical engagement with an art piece as opposed to empathic absorption in it. One of Godard’s more popular pieces during this period, All’s Well (Tout va Bien) (1972), breaks the cinematic fourth wall by getting characters to address the camera and utilizes a two-story constructed set to alienate the audience in a Brechtian fashion.
Godard’s love for documentary and film would culminate epically in Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-98), an extensive critique of cinema during the 20th century. Not only does this project reflect his highly intellectual and cultured approach to film, it also speaks to his desire to push the boundaries between reality and art. His innovative techniques have greatly influenced cinemas’ finest auteurs, from the Hollywood Renaissance and the postmodern aesthetic, and he even continues to innovate to this day.
“To be or not to be. That's not really a question.” – Jean-Luc Godard
“It's not where you take things from – it's where you take them to.” – Jean-Luc Godard
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” – Jean-Luc Godard
“Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.” – Jean-Luc Godard
“I pity the French Cinema because it has no money. I pity the American Cinema because it has no ideas.” – Jean-Luc Godard
“Beyond the theater is life, and behind life, the theater. My point of departure was the imaginary and I discovered the real; but behind the real there was the imaginary.” – Jean-Luc Godard
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