Offscreen Notes

Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022)

September 19th, 2022

The filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (1930 – 2022) was a great and inventive artist, a man with a curious intellect and an impudent spirit, someone whose creativity sparked that of others. His films— from Breathless (1960), Contempt (1983), Band of Outsiders (1964), Alphaville (1965), Masculine Feminine (1966) and Weekend (1967) to Every Man for Himself (1980) and Hail Mary (1985) to Notre Musique (2004), Film Socialisme (2010) and The Image Book (2018)—were provocations. “Godard, one of the original pioneers of the French New Wave, has been an international celebrity for decades, and a controversial one. He’s feuded with some of the major figures in world cinema and major film festivals, and with luminaries in the arts and politics,” wrote film critic Matt Zoller Seitz in his January 25, 2019 comment (via Roger Ebert’s website) of Jean-Luc Godard’s 2018 film The Image Book, a work of contemplation and connections, a history of images and ideas. Godard’s work, whether dramatic or documentary, was alive to the moment. Whereas the films of many directors could seem like filtered memories, Godard’s work has an expansive vision and energy that carries some of the chaos of reality: thus, his films seemed part of our world, and we seem part of his. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote of The Image Book: By the time it ends, it has ruminated on the rise of the image, the fall of the word and the pulverization of every form of information into a nonstop stream of “content;” drawn connections between the mechanization of genocide during the Holocaust and colonization; created a kind of self-contained film-within-a-film, romanticizing the Arabic-speaking world through four decades’ worth of movie clips; and handed viewers a continuous analogy for the film’s own stylistic techniques by grouping together dozens of clips from movies involving trains (“trains of thought,” perhaps?).

Jean-Luc Godard, born in France, died in Switzerland. He had been a bourgeois boy, the son of a clinic director; and he studied ethnology at the University of Paris, and became interested in documentaries. The improvisatory Breathless (1960), about a small criminal, a variation on the American crime picture, had glamour without false romance, and was said to have invented the jump cut. Sometimes the associations in his films were created by something other than logic. He brought a revolutionary approach to cinema. He defied established methods of both craft and narrative. The American girl in Breathless is not true to the infatuated French boy—it might have been an allegory. Godard did make a contentious study of women —his female characters were difficult to manage and sometimes inspired both admiration and hostility. That occurs in Masculine Feminine (1966). His works were interventions in both domestic politics and personal psychology. Some of the best work of writers such as Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael (and many others) has been inspired by Godard, who challenged expectations of what a film might be and mean. Godard did not merely contemplate film; he interrogated cinema. He was unique and he will be missed.

by Daniel Garrett

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