Jean-Luc Godard was a titan of cinema. From his debut feature film Breathless to his final film The Image Book, Godard pushed the envelope on technical and storytelling innovation through filmmaking. Directing more than forty films over six decades, it’s hard to imagine what the course of cinema would have been without Godard. His work is often divided into periods – the French New Wave, the Dziga Vertov Group, ‘late period Godard’, amongst others – evidencing the broad scope and significance of his films. In our Retrospective Roundtable this October, we wrote about just a few of our Godard favorites and encourage readers to seek out the films of this great auteur.
Years of culture influenced by not only Breathless, but also other Godard films, may make it difficult for some viewers to see just how impactful Godard’s first feature was. But serious research and critique of that same culture can only deepen that appreciation. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Breathless that resonates with modern audiences is its deliberate, stark homage to movies and culture. The handheld aesthetic and the meshing of style (faux-newsreel footage and noir) would have seemed amateurish even back then but also jarring in a way that would have been appealing to young cinephiles longing for something starkly different from big budget studio fare. Since then, many filmmakers have mashed genres and techniques together simply because that is the nature of the creation of art, but Godard’s attempt was perhaps the most impactful. Quentin Tarantino himself, the first name that usually comes up when genre mishmash is brought up, would name his production company for the French name for Godard’s later feature Band of Outsiders.
Breathless also interestingly falls into the category of cinema for youth, or at least young cinephiles. The disaffected air of the two magnetic stars appealed to generations raised on postwar nihilism in the arts. Its take on a standard crime thriller would go so far as to influence Bonnie and Clyde in its nihlistic viewpoint (Interestingly, Godard had at one point expressed interest in working on Bonnie and Clyde). Even the subtle but impactful artistic choices such as the constant jump cuts were enough to make this movie must-see watching, even if those cuts apparently came by accident. Like any great work of art, Breathless becomes richer the more you learn about film, making it absolutely essential to anyone who wants to understand the past 70 years of cinema. – Eugene Kang
Alphaville is unlike any science fiction you have seen. Despite evoking themes common to the genre (individualism v collectivism, etc), there are no special sets constructed for the film and little in terms of the visual effects that one expects to see going into a sci-fi film (there are, however, flourishes of the camera). Jean-Luc Godard’s vision of dystopia seems to be not too different from France leading up to May 68; much of Alphaville is shot in the streets of Paris.
In Alphaville, expressions of emotion have been made illegal, those who show emotion executed or sent elsewhere to spur revolts. The effect is that personal desire and agency is suppressed. Alphaville is ruled by a computer, Alpha 60, which determines how Alphaville’s citizens should live and what words should or should not be spoken since words can evoke emotion. Alphaville stars Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, a character introduced through a series of novels before being adapted to the screen for the first time in 1952. Caution’s story in Alphaville became so controversial for its defiance of the Lemmy Caution character that Constantine wouldn’t play Lemmy Caution again until 1980. Nonetheless, Alphaville has become one of Godard’s most revered films over time for its defiance of conventions and its celebration of individual freedom. – Alex Sitaras
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
When it comes to the foundational elements of storytelling and entertainment, Pierrot le Fou flies in the face of all those conventions. Its plot, cobbled together from earlier crime pictures and noirs, is episodic and lacks drive. Its main characters, who are shoddily drawn archetypes on paper, are objectively terrible people. At some point, both characters throw away money for stupid reasons and can barely stand each other once the romance and excitement has worn off very quickly.
But Pierrot le Fou is also a dazzling piece of visual filmmaking. The striking color scheme dominated by primary colors is the apotheosis of cinematic pop art. The editing choices are idiosyncratic, characterized by a serious playfulness that forces us to look beyond its pedestrian plot and think of the film as a critique of those same genre elements. Godard even manages to both praise and condemn the American culture that so deeply influenced his work – from the odd, striking cameo from Samuel Fuller to the borderline racist morality play on the Vietnam War that the two lovers stage for dumb, affable American militarymen. Also, both Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina make their paper-thin characters compelling with their charisma and how bold they are in their performances, throwing themselves into the archetypes they are playing rather than going for realism. In Pierrot, one can see how Godard was pushing as hard as he could against cinematic storytelling conventions, and his later deep dive into experimental cinema would be apparent in the bold, artistic choices he would make in this film. – Eugene Kang
Tout Va Bien (1972)
Tout Va Bien (English: “All’s Well”) was Jean-Luc Godard’s response to the period of civil unrest that occurred in France throughout May 1968. A biting, class-conscious political satire, the film unfolds loosely under the plot of a sausage factory strike as seen through the eyes of a reporter played by leftist actress Jane Fonda, taking many detours and fourth wall-breaking asides along the way.
Like much of his work, Godard employs a very deliberate, self-reflexive style to the film, never allowing his audience to forget that they should be participating and thinking about the ideas the film is presenting rather than passively absorbing a tidy narrative that gives them all the emotions and themes for free. Nevertheless, the film is neither didactic nor boring; its iconic factory set piece is an extravagant work of production design that depicts the factory with all its walls cut away to reveal its individual rooms, somewhere between the sets of Hitchock’s Rear Window and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. In an interview available on the Criterion Channel, Godard discusses the subtle difficulties in making a film about class struggle, arguing that Tout Va Bien aims not only to give voice to the exploited and oppressed working people of France, but a “strongly conditioned” voice, directed against the powerful. To that end, even removed from the context of France in the 1960s and 70s, Tout Va Bien remains a remarkably effective and intellectually stimulating piece of filmmaking. – Ben McDonald
Goodbye to Language (2014)
There’s two sides to Goodbye to Language. On one hand, the film is cryptic, a cornucopia of literary, film, and philosophical references, while on the other, the narrative to Goodbye to Language is fairly simple – a couple is having an affair, and revenge is taken upon discovery of the affair. Like much of Terrence Malick’s work in the 2010s, Goodbye to Language revels in everyday life, its cinematography showing magnificence where we might otherwise struggle to see it. All the while, the film’s title and emphasis on depicting the activities of Godard’s dog Roxy predisposes us to consider themes of communication and existence. One thinks too of the barriers we construct to distance ourselves from others, and of the barriers we build within to avert feeling.
One of Jean-Luc Godard’s final films, Goodbye to Language is thought-provoking. I’d be inclined to believe that no two people would have an identical response to the film given that there is so much to latch onto (or not latch onto) in the film’s just under 70 minute runtime. In addition, cinematographer Fabrice Aragno captures a number of innovative shots for the film that challenge conventions in filming using 3D. At the bare minimum, one can find Goodbye to Language to be a very rewarding film to see from its technical elements. – Alex Sitaras