Of course, Godard himself is a provocative figure whose reclusive ways and grumpy resistance to cinematic formula has kept him at the forefront of the medium’s evolution for over 50 years. Whether darting around the streets with a handful of young cinephiles for “Breathless” or reinventing the possibilities of 3D storytelling with 2014’s “Goodbye to Language,” Godard’s enthusiasm for deconstructing his chosen art form is defined by relentless innovation.
It’s certainly possible that Louie Garrel, who has been cast as the filmmaker opposite “Nymphomaniac” star Stacy Martin, could do something memorable with the part. (Word on the street is that he does a killer Godard impersonation.) But there’s a reason why Godard has thrived in solitude for decades, hardly giving any interviews or attempting to explain his work. It speaks loud and clear: Surprising, baffling, sometimes profound and elsewhere hopelessly convoluted, Godard is a creature of the movies through and through.
One of the best moments in his 1964 crime romp “Band of Outsiders,” which begins screening at repertory houses around the country in a new restoration this week, comes with the opening credits: The filmmaker labels himself “Jean-Luc Cinema Godard,” a haughty tongue-in-cheek assessment that, in retrospect, has a matter-of-fact quality. Any attempt to get at the essence of Godard through his love life, rather than his work, defeats its purpose.
To be fair, there is one chapter of Godard’s career that has already provided great fodder for a movie. The 2010 documentary “Two in the Wave” explores the undulating relationship between Godard and his fellow French New Wave pioneer Francois Truffaut, tracking cultural impact of their work, their activist antics in the wake of the May 1968 riots, and the artistic differences they endured in the early seventies. Unlike the salacious details of Godard’s personal life, “Two in the Wave” contextualizes the tantalizing nature of Godard’s impact through his developing creativity.
But to get a sense for the romantic elements that contributed to Godard’s work off-screen, his movies do the talking as well — more explicitly in his collaborations with his first wife, Anna Karina. In “Band of Outsiders” and “Vivre Sa Vie,” Karina embodies movie magic with a few ramshackle dance moves and soulful glances at the camera. Godard’s playful narrative technique is energized by Karina’s jubilance; in her absence, his movies gradually shifted to an angrier, polemical tone. They’re still often quite brilliant, but less life-affirming; the world became a darker place and Godard went with it.
The biographical nature of the material is embedded in the art. In “Band of Outsiders,” Karina plays the object of desire by two young men cajoling her to rob her aunt, but that plot device matters less than the way she manages to both inhabit an ugly “dumb blond” stereotype while criticizing that same notion with her whimsical attitude.
That was the essence of early Godard: His movies gave actors room to play while playing along with them. It’s not the kind of concept that lends itself to imitation. With “The Artist,” Hazanavicius could salute silent film by simply copying the visual style, but a movie saluting the spirit of the French New Wave is an oxymoron. The work is already done. Godard’s entire career exists in opposition to conventional storytelling, which runs counter to any attempt at capturing his essence with just that. “Week End” is a brilliant condemnation of bourgeois society spiraling into primal chaos; the moment a movie exists about the love affair behind the camera, its legacy is muddied by something else.
If “Redoubtable” winds up celebrating Godard’s achievements above all else, perhaps it will find some modicum of justification. But even so, its existence seems like something of a red herring. In an age dominated by ephemeral media and television, Godard’s uncompromising spirit offers a potent contrast to the marketplace, and a movie about one love affair threatens to distract potential new audiences for his accomplishments. At a time when we need Godard’s cinema more than ever, this new project threatens to bury it.