Jean-Luc Godard has been one of the most celebrated filmmakers for nearly 60 years, and he’s not slowing down anytime soon. At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the 87-year-old filmmaker will premiere “The Image Book” in Official Competition. However, while Godard’s stature hasn’t changed, the French New Wave legend is far away from the kind of films he made during the first decade of his career, when his whimsical and daring formalism transformed him into an internationally renowned artist. His transition into an angrier recluse, more inclined toward experimental projects with abstract political views, forms the centerpiece of “Godard Mon Amour” (previous titled “Redoubtable”), director Michel Hazanavicius’ playful dramatization of a young Godard (Louis Garrel) and his relationship with muse Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin). Wiazemsky, who passed away last year, wrote a memoir that forms the basis of the movie — but “Godard Mon Amour” is mostly a referendum on the filmmaker as he grew disgruntled with the world around him.
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It’s not the first time Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of “The Artist,” has delved into film history. However, as a French cinephile, this project had particular resonance for him. “I had a very classical relationship to Godard and his movies,” he said in an interview this week. “I really loved the first decade, his early works. Then, when he started to go in that very political, radical cinema in the ‘70s, I became a bit more confused. I always go back to the first ones.”
While preparing his new movie, Hazanavicius focused on that first period. “I rewatched all of them,” he said. “It was really cool. really think you can recognize a director through his movies. I learned a lot about Godard’s life, and it’s a different experience to rewatch these movies and know what he was going through at the moment.”
The filmmaker shared the following four titles as his favorites from the first chapter of Godard’s career.
Godard’s seminal debut stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a two-bit gangster who models himself on Humphrey Bogart and romances a young American woman played by Jean Seberg. The movie was particularly notable for the way it mashed up the motifs of American crime films into a loose pastiche that introduced the world to Godard’s ragtag aesthetic.
“What struck me about this is liberty of it, the freedom he had,” Hazanavicius said. “He doesn’t really care about the character as much as the actor. The real topic is Jean-Paul Belmondo. When you look at other actors from this period in France, they’re very, very classical, with traditional faces. Back in the day, Belmondo was considered ugly! Godard gives him a touch of class. And he treats Paris the same way. He films Paris, Belmondo, and Jean Seberg as his real topics. He doesn’t use actors to film characters; he films what he films.”
“Vivre Sa Vie” (1962)
Also known as “My Life to Live,” Godard’s tender Anna Karina vehicle finds her playing a young woman who leaves her family to become an actress and fails, becoming a prostitute instead. “This is a very melancholy movie,” Hazanvicius said. “There’s something really sad about how he treats prostitution. It was very new at the time.”
The film unfolds across 12 chapters, and one of its most iconic moments finds Karina dancing to a jukebox in a bar. However, Hazanvicius is more entranced by another moments. “It’s one of his best sequences,” he said, “when Anna Karina goes to the cinema and watches ‘Joan of Arc.’ She cries as the actress cries. This is pure cinematic poetry, elegant and simple, just images and sound. At this, he was a master.”
“A Married Woman” (1964)
Godard’s eighth feature in half as many years doesn’t receive as much attention as some of the works in this period, but it’s arguably the most philosophical movie from the filmmaker at this time. It focuses on married couple Charlotte (Sacha Meril) and Pierre (Phillippe Leroy) as they contend with various problems — Charlotte’s body image problems are exacerbated by the fashion industry, all while she maintains an affair with an actor (Bernard Noel), while Pierre lives a highbrow existence on a totally different plane. Over the course of the movie, Charlotte grapples with new developments in her life that leave her future uncertain.
“It’s a very sweet, small movie that looks like it was made in two weeks,” Hazanavicius said. “It’s got a real joi de vivre to it. Very Paris in the summertime. This woman full of desire. It’s a very Parisian movie. I really like it. It’s very discrete.”
“Masculine Feminine” (1966)
Outside of “Breathless,” this iconoclastic statement on French youth culture stands out as one of the filmmaker’s best-known works from the first decade of his career. The playful, discursive narrative revolves around a series of revolutionary types, including one played by “The 400 Blows” star Jean-Pierre Léaud, as they drift through a series of romances and hangout sessions while sharing fragmented thoughts about their political moment.
“When you look at all the other movies at this period, Godard wasn’t seen as a naturalist,” Hazanavicius said. “His movies were seen as fake. The others were realistic. But now, when you go back and look at this same period, the only ones that look real are these.” Hazanavicius cited Godard’s breaking of the fourth wall with his actors. “He was one of the first who really let television into his cinema, using tricks to shoot that are supposed to be for television,” he said. “I mean, things that were like news reports. He does interviews and puts them into his movie. He would interview his actors. It’s very fresh, very free.”
Even as Godard moved away from traditional narratives in the years ahead, Hazanavicius said, he remained a fan of the filmmaker’s investment in the art form. “I highly respect his trajectory as an artist, and his freedom, most of all,” he said. He’s maybe the freest filmmaker ever.”
“Godard Mon Amour” opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 20.