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Jean-Luc Godard, French New Wave Icon, Dies at 91

Godard's career was defined by pushing cinematic language to its boundaries, then breaking them.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - NOVEMBER 30:  Director Jean-Luc Godard looks on befroe receiving the Swiss Federal Design Award Grand Prix held at X-Tra on November 30, 2010 in Zurich, Switzerland. Jean-Luc Godard, who will be celebrating his 80th birthday on Friday, claimed he will spend the money of the prize to pay his Swiss tax he never had to pay the 35 previous years he lived in Switzerland.  (Photo by The Image Gate/Getty Images)

Jean-Luc Godard

Getty Images

Jean-Luc Godard, the pioneering French New Wave director who challenged and upended conventional filmmaking methods for over half a century, died today according to multiple reports in the French media. He was 91.

Godard’s celebrity mystique was defined by the image of the enigmatic chain-smoking auteur, adorned in sunglasses while indulging in existential insight, revolutionary politics, and radical ideas about art. But his career never rested on that cartoonish brand.

Though he would remain most famous for his first feature, the 1960 meta-noir “Breathless,” that iconic debut kickstarted a lifetime of ambitious, often confrontational work. His filmography consists of everything from genre deconstructions to political screeds and avant-garde gambles designed to confuse and provoke new avenues for an evolving art form. Through it all, Godard remained a divisive figure whose prolific output embodied — and often interrogated — the cultural and intellectual proclivities of French society and the world at large.

His legacy is as complex and unclassifiable as any of his credits. Few directors in film history cast such a vast influence on the state of cinema, and his experimental impulses only grew more audacious and strange with time. Even Godard’s more “conventional” works wrestled with the limitations of narrative filmmaking, while confronting a dysfunctional society at war itself. Pluck a random Godard title out of a hat and prepare for something different — the essence of a Godardian achievement is cinema that comments on its own superficial edges or ignores them altogether, while using that same edgy approach to interrogate modern times.

On Twitter, French president Emmanuel Macron  said, “Jean-Luc Godard, the most iconoclastic of New Wave filmmakers, had invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art. We are losing a national treasure, a look of genius.”

Godard’s passing has a symbolic resonance as well. For years he has been the last living member of the French New Wave, complex tapestry of new creative voices that emerged in post-war Paris and upended film culture. Many New Wave contributors began as film critics for the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and under the tutelage of co-founder Andre Bazin, contemplated the aesthetic potential of the medium while becoming versed in Hollywood thanks to the proliferation of film clubs throughout the city.

Godard’s New Wave peers included Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, as well as “Left Bank” contributors Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, many of whom continued their own complex filmmaking undertakings late into their careers. As they died off, however, Godard eventually emerged as the sole torchbearer of New Wave ingenuity, even as he grew more isolated from his community and the world at large.

After his early days as an ethnology student at the University of Sorbonne, Godard was drawn to the art of cinema while attending the Cinématheque started by influential curator Henri Langlois, and started writing for Cahiers du Cinema in the early ’50s. During that time, he also tried his hand at directing short films and worked as an editor, before making his feature-length debut with the 1959 production of “A bout de soufflé,” known internationally as “Breathless.” The movie, which starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as a reckless, two-bit gangster who styled himself on Humphrey Bogart and Jean Seberg as his short-haired American lover, played off traditional gangster tropes while embellishing on them with comical extremes.

From a technical perspective, “Breathless” is best known for pioneering the method of the “jump cut,” with mid-scene edits that disrupted the continuity of individual shots. The legend of the “Breathless” was that Godard, working with tight restrictions on time and budget, relied on jump cuts simply because he ran out of film. That has been disputed over the years, but nobody debated the sheer cultural impact of “Breathless” on the global popularization of film as art, or its empathy for a rebellious anti-hero leading the charge for a rascally new generation. Though Truffaut’s delicate coming-of-age drama “The 400 Blows” and Resnais’ sociopolitical romance “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” made waves a year earlier (and Varda’s debut “Le Pointe Courte” came first), “Breathless” effectively took the New Wave mainstream, providing a new template for cinematic creativity.

The movie was a commercial and critical hit alike that catapulted Godard into global stardom, and he never slowed down from there. During the first decade of his career, Godard directed close to 20 features in addition to several short films, amplifying his reputation along the way. Along with his first wife, actress Anna Karina — and later, his second, Anne Wiazemsky — Godard made some of his most endearing and playful stories of outcasts and rabble-roused whose rage against the bourgeoisie reflected the director’s own Marxist inclinations.

Yet even as his filmmaking encouraged viewers to look beyond the candy-colored surfaces of consumerist society, those same surfaces emboldened the tres chic impression of French society as a global phenomenon.  Karina, her gentle features accentuated by a touch of eye shadow, the sailor hats, stripped t-shirts and denim galore, became a living signifier of modern sophistication and a thriving youth culture. “The children of Marx and Coca Cola,” as one character put it in 1966’s “Masculin Feminin.”

These works also provided a platform for Godard to craft his most innovative work. Highlights of this period included the prostitution tragedy “Vivre sa vie,” the tale of reckless thievery in “Bande a part,” the dystopian detective noir “Alphaville,” and the cartoonish couple-on-the-lam saga “Pierrot le Fou.” Each of them had its own Godardian flourishes, with satirical and often melancholic swipes at French society and American popular culture grounded in bonafide melodrama and high-stakes adventure. From Karina — as the solemn hooker of “Vivre sa vie,” swaying to jukebox melodies — to the coffee swirling in a cosmic closeup in “2 or 3 Things I know About Her,” Godard’s ‘60s films epitomized the idea of the movies that could cast an entrancing, poetic spell on their own terms.

The filmmaker toyed with the prospects of more commercial filmmaking, working with Bridgette Bardot and Michel Piccoli on the lush marriage drama “Contempt” before entertaining an offer to direct “Bonnie and Clyde.” By the end of the decade, however, Godard’s career took a more dramatic turn along with the state of the world. It was 1967’s “Weekend,” in which the story of a warring couple culminates in free-love and shocking cannibalism, that spoke to Godard’s bleak vision of the society as a whole. The next year, he took action: The strikes and civil warfare that roiled France in May 1968 motivated Godard and Truffaut to lead a protest against the Cannes Film Festival that year that ultimately shut down the proceedings. When some in the film community resisted the decision, Godard spat back: “I’m talking solidarity with the students and workers, and you’re talking about tracking shots and close-ups!” The decision helped catalyze discussions about the hierarchy of the festival itself, leading to the foundation fo the independently-run Directors’ Fortnight the following year.

Godard, meanwhile, embraced his new role as a figure of protest, taking issue not only with the industry but the commercial pressures on film form. With Jean-Pierre Gorin, he launched the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective designed to produce lo-fi political efforts. Those highly experimental works failed to satisfy most audiences or register anywhere near the level of the work he directed in the previous decade, but Godard found a happy medium with 1972’s “Tout va bien,” the sophisticated look at a factory strike co-starring Jane Fonda that merged the filmmaker’s political interests with his now-famous deconstructive style. By the beginning of the ‘80s, Godard seemed to have wormed his way back to the kind of adventurous narrative style that first put him on the map, starting with 1980’s “Every Man for Himself.”

Nevertheless, Godard’s incompatibility with the wider commercial arena persisted, as evidenced by his only English-language undertaking, “King Lear” — a commission from Cannon Films that went awry when Godard departed from the source material, delivering a dystopian movie about a post-Chernobyl landscape and the efforts of Shakespeare’s descendent to save art from extinction, with bit parts for Molly Ringwald, theater director Peter Sellars, Julie Delpy, Norman Mailer, and Woody Allen. (Reviled at the time, it has found defenders over the years.)

Despite the storied career behind him, Godard’s ambition only accelerated over the next 30 years. He spent much of the nineties cobbling together “Histoire(s) du cinema,” an eight-part, 266-minute epistemological look at the role of cinema throughout the past century that also played like a mission statement, reconciling the idea that the medium had exhausted its potential with the drive to keep it relevant. From 2002’s multipart, documentary-narrative hybrid “Notre Musique” onward, his filmmaking was more uncompromising than ever.

Yet anyone willing to engage his efforts with an open-mind found much to appreciate about the quest for meaning in his labyrinthine visions. 2010’s “Film Socialism,” which careened from a cruise-ship full of internet obsessives to a lama at a gas pump and squeezed in a cameo for Patti Smith, embodied Godard’s penchant for combining absurdist details with fleeting poignance and lyrical abstraction as only he could. Yet that was just the prologue for 2014 3-D excursion “Goodbye to Language,” which merged the flimsy tale of a dissolving marriage with Godard’s ruminations on the collapse of society as a whole, and ended with the image of his dog Roxy returning to nature.

When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize, one eager audience member famously shouted “Godard forever!” as the lights went down; when Godard twisted his audiences’ eyes by moving two 3-D images in opposing directions before uniting them again, the audience erupted into spontaneous applause. The movie was an arthouse hit in the U.S. later that year.

If “Goodbye to Language” chronicled the end of the world as cinema could understand, 2018’s “The Image Book” captured the aftermath: an archive-heavy collection of still images, title cards, and old movies, the movie — primarily designed as a site-specific installation piece with unique audio specifications — won a special jury prize at Cannes, where Cate Blanchett headed the jury. Announcing the award, Blanchett said the movie was “outside time and space; we couldn’t even consider it in the same way” as the other movies in competition that year.

Needless to say, while Cannes celebrated Godard, he didn’t exactly return the favor. In his later decades, Godard’s reputation devolved into that of a dyspeptic recluse, as he receded from public eye and spent much of his time lurking in Rolle, Switzerland, where he lived with his third wife, photographer Anne-Marie Mievielle, since 1978. In 2010, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced it was awarding Godard with an honorary Oscar, which the filmmaker declined to accept or even acknowledge until tracked down by a journalist. The Oscar meant “nothing” to Godard, he said. “I asked myself: Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films? The award is called The Governor’s Award. Does that mean that Schwarzenegger gives me the award?”

The attention to that prize also resurrected long-dormant criticism of comments Godard made about the film industry that were deemed anti-Semitic. The Academy rejected those allegations, but the media brouhaha further cemented the idea that Godard and public life were done for good. When his old peer Agnes Varda knocked on his door for her penultimate film, “Faces Places,” he didn’t show up. “I like you, you dirty rat,” she said, sauntering away, speaking for many passionate cinephiles who had developed a complex, sometimes contradictory relationship to Godard and his work over the years.

But Godard never sought affection, both in work and life, retaining a defiant sensibility that spoke to the uncompromising nature of his art. At its best, his filmmaking offered a transportive experience for audiences eager to engage with ephemeral meanings and soul-searching flourishes, all in the service of making sense out of murky times. Godard’s commitment to that task lasted through the ages, and it wasn’t until 2021, at the age of 90, that he said in a public conversation that he would be retiring as a filmmaker — but only after he completed two new experimental projects, though both remain in various stages of incompletion.

Godard solidified his historic significance decades ago, but his career more than lasted half as long as the movies themselves, and he always seemed to be a few steps ahead of its evolution. His legacy is best summed up in a line spoken by no less than Jean-Pierre Melville, in “Breathless,” playing a famous director who’s asked about his greatest ambition in life. “To become immortal,” he says, “and then die.”

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