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Godard – A Retrospective on the French New Wave Director

jean luc godard
Gary Stevens, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Roar writer Caroline Vlachakou reflects on the late director Jean-Luc Godard, the subversive director of the French New Wave.

Tears filled the eyes of every cinephile who had a soft spot for French New Wave films as we learned that, as of the morning of 13 September, the French-Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard is no longer with us. At 91, Godard died through assisted suicide in Rolle, Switzerland. The iconoclastic director’s legal advisor shared with the AFP news agency that the reason behind his voluntary departure was the fact that “he was stricken with ‘multiple invalidating illnesses’, according to the medical report”.

Many paid tribute to the revolutionary director, amongst which was the French president. Mr. Emmanuel Macron took to Twitter to pay tribute with a post, writing that “Jean-Luc Godard, the most iconoclastic of New Wave filmmakers, had invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art”.

The director began as a film critic for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, alongside Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais. His two colleagues quit their jobs and went on to direct masterpieces which arguably acted as catalysts for a new style of cinema, The French New Wave, which had begun developing around a year before. (For Truffaut it was “The 400 blows” and for Resnais, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Godard followed this pattern and began to make “Breathless”, with Truffaut by his side as a producer. 

Released in 1960, “Breathless” shook French cinemas. The film tells the tale of a young man who, through accidental impulse, developed from a petty thief to a policeman murderer. The story follows him as he plans his escape to Italy, whilst also fiercely going after his American love interest. 

“Breathless”, although it is Godard’s first film, is still used as an emblem of his directing style. This refers to the general air of nonchalance in his films combined with obvious talent and self-assurance, along with an abundance of knowledge and judgment. This unorthodox mix is apparent in every aspect of his filmmaking. A glaring example of this is the fact that the film was shot without a script. Instead, Godard continuously drafted the dialogue throughout the filming. In terms of actual shooting, the director once again chooses an inventive approach. 

Yet, before analysing the editing and shooting techniques of Godard, a large element of his films needs to be acknowledged. Godard wanted his films to be films; he wished to constantly remind the viewer that what lies on the cinema screen is a fictitious world with actors. The director, with sly whimsy, picked apart the blocks of not only each of his films, but the entire industry of cinema and then supremely reconstructed them before the audience’s eyes, forming his calculating pictures. He masterfully accomplishes this goal through keeping multiple takes of one scene in the final product, also by having the actors directly speak to the audience, even going as far as calling them out. An artful example of this is in one of his later films “Pierrot le Fou”.

In a scene where we see both of the protagonists’ backs as they are driving in a car, the main character looks directly at the camera and quotes what the woman beside him just said. The woman looks at him and asks him who he is talking to. The character simply responds “the audience”, to which the woman looks back at the camera and playfully waves to the viewers. Then they both turn back and continue their drive. 

Oftentimes, Godard chooses for the camera work to be handheld. To shake and rumble as his actors walk and jump. These low budget cameras allowed the director to move freely, fortuitously becoming an emblem to the shaky, grainy aesthetic of the French New Wave movement. There is a very distinct theatricality in Godard. Every piece of dialogue, every movement, colour, wave and sound is carefully orchestrated to portray exactly what the director had in mind. He innovated film editing; paying a lot of attention on post-production, through his almost aggressive jump cuts, black screens – the editing often posing a general question around the subject of continuity of the film. He often has the actors stand offscreen or have their backs turned to the camera, making them invisible to the viewers. 

His directing inspired multiple movements, such as the American new wave of the 70s, and his films remain relevant to this day. We can detect strokes of Godard’s methods in films by very popular contemporary directors, like Wes Anderson. Godard had always been passionate about politics – he often utilised his film to express criticism toward the sociopolitical climate of the time – a number of his films taking place during wars or including spies as main characters. This resulted in his films often being banned from countries for a number of years. An example of this is “Le Petit Soldat”, a film which was banned for two and a half years due to the prevalent appearances of French spies during the Algerian war.

Godard pushed us all to ask ourselves questions about politics and trust, love, romance – about life and death. Films somehow obtain a rigid, almost aggressive structure, while portraying amorphous tales of passion, emotion and ultimately loss. He continuously challenged and forever changed cinema.

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