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Jean-Luc Godard

In honor of Jean-Luc Godard's recent death, we're republishing Peter Wollen's essay on the great director, originally published in Paris Hollywood.

Peter Wollen14 September 2022

Jean-Luc Godard

**This essay was originally published in Paris Hollywood in 2002.

Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) and Budd Boetticher's The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond were both released in 1959. I was living in Paris at that time and I went to see both of these films during the first week they appeared on the screen. In fact, I went back to see both of them a number of times. I couldn't help noticing that Godard quoted from another Boetticher movie in the course of Breathless, during the scene in which the small-time gangster Michel Poiccard, played by Jean­-Paul Belmondo, dives into a cinema on the Champs-Elysees in order to shake off a wearisome tail. The film which is up there on the screen turns out to be Budd Boetticher's Westbound, one of the Randolph Scott cycle, although the voice that we hear on the soundtrack is mysteriously speaking some lines of poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire. In a way, this aberrant moment summed up Godard's appeal for me-the perverse mixture of modernism with B-movies, as if an Apollinaire poem somehow fitted quite naturally into a low-budget 'oater', a minor Warner Brothers production, as if you could love both of them at the same time. 1959 was also the year of Samuel Fuller's extraordinary Crimson Kimono and, sure enough, Sam Fuller showed up in a Godard film six years later, in Pierrot le Fou, where le grand Sam appears as a party guest to define film as 'like a battleground. Yes ... Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word ... Emotion.' Fuller, we have been told, is in Paris to make a movie of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal.

At the time, Godard already seemed a film-maker sui generis, a crucial founding figure of the Nouvelle Vague, it went without saying, but also a director with his own very personal and even idiosyncratic agenda. Right from the start, he never seemed likely to develop into a respected master of the art film, a pillar of the new French cinema, as Chabrol, Resnais, Rohmer and Truffaut were all to become. If anything, he seemed more likely to become a new Cocteau, never quite integrated into the industry, always the poet rather than the practitioner, a film-maker with a fatal soft spot for the film maudit. Yet, although Godard was in revolt against conventional ideas of cinema, against le cinema du papa, he was also an unashamed fan of minor Hollywood pictures. Breathless, as Godard readily admitted, was inspired by Richard Quine's Pushover and could be seen as the direct sequel to Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse. The central character of the film, a small-time criminal played by Jean-Paul Bel­mondo, modelled his self-image on that of Humphrey Bogart in Mark Robson's The Harder They Fall. These films were not even 'classics'-they were little-regarded films dating from the mid-fifties, movies which a leading historian of Hollywood, Andrew Sarris, later characterized as 'widely reviled' and 'seldom, if ever, revived'. But there was method in Godard's madness. The dedication of Breathless to Monogram Pictures, the loving tributes to hard-boiled movies that never even made it to cult status, were part and parcel of a coherent and considered re-evaluation of classic American cinema.

My first view of Godard concentrated on this 'Americanism', linked to the auteurist rediscovery of Hollywood undertaken by the group of critics (and future film-makers) who had gathered around Cahiers du Cinema­ Rohmer, Rivette and Truffaut as well as Godard himself. Seen in this light, Godard's early films, his Nouvelle Vague films, echoed important trends which had surfaced within my own English culture: the emer­gence of early (and indeed pre-American) Pop Art after the 1956 'This Is Tomorrow' exhibition. For example, Richard Hamilton's painting Interior 1 portrayed, as its central figure, Pamela Knight as she appeared in Shockproof (directed by Douglas Sirk, from a Samuel Fuller script). It seemed to echo the cultural preoccupations of Godard's Breathless, filled with quotations from American gangster pictures. Lawrence Alloway, who was the critical spokesperson for the This Is Tomorrow group, was the nearest thing there was in England to a Cahiers critic; he was a patron of the parallel English magazine, Movie, which promoted Hollywood repertory cinema and imported the politique des auteurs from across the Channel. In the end, as the sixties progressed, this cannibalizing and reworking of American mass culture became more and more dominant in Britain. In the music world, for example, it produced the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Indeed, English mass cultural 'modernism' was itself exported abroad and became hegemonic to a degree even within the United States itself.

Godard's films appeared as the products of a similarly modernist and cosmopolitan intelligentsia when compared with the much more 'dom­estic' and 'French' work of Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer or François Truffaut, whose 'modernity' and 'Americanism' soon began to seem skin­ deep. Godard had long recognized Hitchcock and Lang and Griffith as great masters-alongside Rossellini, Renoir and Eisenstein-but he also recognized the strengths of marginal and eccentric Hollywood produc­tions, the odd films out of the studio system. Talking about his second film, Le Petit Soldat, he invoked Welles's The Lady from Shanghai, which David Thomson has seen as 'deconstructing' film noir.[1] Une Femme Est une Femme reminded him of Lubitsch's supposed 'failure', Design For Living, and Richard Quine's decidedly minor My Sister Eileen. Godard treated Hollywood as a kind of conceptual property store from which he could serendipitously loot ideas for scenes, shots and moods. On the set, he improvised, halting the filming while he disappeared to figure out what should happen next, cueing new lines to actors while the camera was rolling, even fitting them with earphones. He never once worked with a script-writer and he never gave traditional acting directions, preferring to let performers decide for themselves. In fact, his films began to turn into documentaries about their actors. In the editing, he confessed, he just used the shots he liked best, without worrying too much about continuity or coherence. His tightest film, Vivre sa Vie, consisted of a series of sequence shots laid end to end, each of them a first take, so that 'there was no editing. All I had to do was put the shots end to end. What the crew saw at the rushes is more or less what the public sees.' (He was scathing about Delbert Mann-best known as the Oscar­ winning director of Marty-asking, 'What is it ultimately that makes one run a shot on or change to another? A director like Delbert Mann probably doesn't think this way. He follows a pattern. Shot-the character speaks; reverse angle, someone answers.')

In retrospect, I can now see my 'Americanise' fascination with Godard's sixties films as onesided. There were two further, and often conflicting, impulses at work in Godard's cinema, both of which were deeply French in origin. First, there was the strong strain of what we might call 'life­ style modernism', which combined a journalistic sense of the topical with a more sociologically oriented mode of investigation and an attachment to the 'critique of everyday life', to use Henri Lefebvre's phrase. It is this dimension of Godard's work that made him seem both a cultural 'barometer' and an emergent political critic. In cinematic terms, this strain owed a great deal to the films of Jean Rouch, which provided models of filmic urban anthropology, first in Africa, then, with Chronique d'un Ete, made with Edgar Morin, in Paris itself. In intellectual terms, it was from the Arguments group, to which Morin belonged, that Godard drew most, but he also drew, I am sure, from the neighbouring yet bitterly antagonistic group of situationists. Godard's films exhibit any number of situationist characteristics-not only his topography of the 'society of the spectacle', but also, for example, the ideas of derive, of detournement, and of plagiarism as a deliberate policy. Indeed, the films made by Guy Debord, the central figure in the situationist movement, pre-date many of Godard's own later preoccupations and strategies, as Debord himself couldn't help noticing and commenting on with his habitual vitriol.

Second, there was Godard's profound and yet paradoxical attachment to the idea of art, both as a repertory of great works, an available cultural heritage, and also as an anarchic project in process, which simultaneously required the reinscription and destruction of that heritage. It is here that Cocteau's heritage also made itself felt. Like those of Cocteau, Godard's films showed a contradictory reverence for the art of the past and a delinquent refusal to obey any of its rules. This applied both to the cinema and to the other, older arts. Godard's films seem to be made in a consumerist version of Malraux's 'imaginary museum,' a society full of posters and postcards of great paintings, records of great music, shelves of paperback classics and people who can quote instant lines of poetry to each other. But rather than seeing the consumer society as antagonistic to art, as did many anti-modernists, Godard saw the pervasive availability of art as an integral part of consumerism. Art had left its sanctum to become a prominent feature of 'everyday life', alongside pinball machines and advertising posters. In this aspect of his work, Godard often seems to oscillate between a critique of consumerism and mass culture and a delighted fascination with it. In this respect too, Godard's work resembles that of Jean Cocteau. It was Cocteau who first introduced the modern imagery of cabaret, cafe, beach and sports arena to the world of the artistic spectacle, while distancing himself through constant allusions to the classics and to 'high art', using a strategy of citations, rewritings and ironic echoes.

Eventually, of course, Godard's trajectory swept him towards a leftist political commitment, crystallized by the events of May 1968, which threw his latent neo-classicism and aestheticism into crisis. Everyday life itself had become more and more politicized until the streets were filled with militant demonstrations and home, factory and film set all became sites of political ferment. Unlike Cocteau, however, Godard did not recoil from politicization. Indeed, his whole film-making career up to this point was bound up with an unflinching determination to be topical, to keep abreast of the headlines (and particularly the city streets life-style of vanguard urban youth). Once this politicization had passed a certain point, it triggered a transformation of the whole system. Godard's cinema entered its militant phase. At first, this seemed likely to stabilize around some idea of 'Brechtian' or 'guerrilla' cinema, but it soon became clear that Godard's radicalism was impelling him even further, towards a kind of 'Cinema year zero', although even the zero point still carried echoes of earlier work: the Lettrists and Maurice Lema1tre's Le Film Est Deja Commence. Cocteau broke with the surrealists when they began to move to the far left politically, but Godard moved rapidly leftward with the situationists and beyond, eventually joining a Maoist groupuscule, just as Andre Breton had once joined the Communist Party.

Instead of the Romanticism of Poe, Dostoyevsky or Garcia Lorca, it was the voice of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-tung Thought that now overloaded the soundtrack of his films with quotations, providing an interminable and pitiless metalanguage, attacking the spectator with a series of inquisitorial monologues, designed, like a Lettrist film, to provoke the audience. Yet, in many respects, elements of Godard's former strategies somehow managed to survive. Films were still structured in blocks and modules (often numbered), voices were divorced from their characters, 'real people' were mingled with fictional roles, genres were shuffled together in the same film, dialogue was replaced by direct address to the camera/audience, cinematic devices and techniques were foregrounded, image track and soundtrack were filled with quotations and wordplay. There was also a new emphasis on the semiotic character of the cinema, its own codes and 'signifying practices', which were explicitly interrogated within the films themselves. Here we can also see the influence of Roland Barthes (another former member of the Arguments group) and his semiology of everyday life, both his inquiries into the rhetoric of images and his insistence that verbal language was always needed to anchor their meaning.[2]

The films of this brief but intense period, which lasted from 1968 to 1972, were didactic and essayistic rather than narrative or dramatic, closer to Brecht than to Hollywood. Even when there was a fictional 'story' it was subordinated to a more or less explicit ideological 'master text'. However, following the breakup of the Dziga Vertov group, the dominance of politics and the 'master text' started to dissolve and, after Godard's removal from Paris to Grenoble and the beginning of his domestic and artistic partnership with Anne-Marie Miéville, a new tentativeness began to be felt. Godard now began to be interested in video as a populist form, as people are interested in the internet today, and to develop an ongoing semiotic inquiry, not only into the meaning of photographic images as such, but also into the specific formal differences between video and film, as distinct from television and cinema. This period saw a revival of Godard's interest in semiotic investigation, now including the televisual alongside the cinematic sign. In Ici et Ailleurs and Comment ça va he picked up many of the threads he had dropped since Le Gai Savoir. Although his films were still political in a sense, they lost much of their dogmatism. In particular, his view of politics had changed in the wake of feminism, and he now tried to explore the ways in which the 'personal' was intertwined with the 'political'. His films and videotapes investigated the relationship between apparently 'personal' categories like 'love' and social categories like 'labour'. In many ways, this was a rich period in Godard's career.

Then, after 1976, when Godard moved again, from Grenoble to Rolle in Switzerland, his films took yet another new turn, this time towards a preoccupation with landscape, metaphysics and cosmic speculation, with the 'sublime', even with religion. It is often assumed that this happened because he was now living and working in the countryside rather than the city. However, we could also see this shift of emphasis as part of a general shift within French intellectual culture itself. Leading Marxists and structuralists began to abandon the master narratives and semiotic systems of the sixties. As the Enlightenment and 'modernity' were increasingly called into question, a process accel­erated by post-1968 disenchantment, French intellectuals turned away from 'knowledge-based' approaches to the humanities and towards the more speculative domains of aesthetics, philosophy and theology, urging a decentralised v1s10n of 'dissemination', 'rhizomes' and 'molecular' microstructures. Godard also abandoned the centre, breaking down his narrative into a mosaic of micro-elements. At the same time, there was also a clear and significant return to another element of the Cocteau tradition, the return to the classics, the development of a personal mythology. Godard's aestheticism and classicism revived and grew again as his political commitment shrank or, at least, became more ethereal.

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Throughout his career, Godard had avoided following a fixed pattern, whether in story construction or editing or choice of genre or develop­ment of a theme. Writing about Jean-Luc Godard for Artforum in 1968, the painter and critic Manny Farber guessed that 'at the end of this director's career, there will probably be a hundred films, each one a bizarrely different species, with its own excruciatingly singular skeleton, tendons, plumage'.[3] At the time Farber wrote this, Godard had just finished his twenty-third film, La Chinoise, plus two episodes for omnibus films. By the time Wheeler Winston Dixon completed his compendious and insightful book on Godard,[4] the unstoppable director was already up to his seventy-sixth (including major works on video, which first appeared as a favoured medium in the mid-seventies). Moreover, just as Farber predicted, each film seems to be sui generis, quite unlike any of his previous work, the same only in being so unpredictably, inconsistently different. Yet Godard's films do have a kind of underlying logic, albeit one which has mutated from time to time as he changed his place of residence, his circle of intimates and his mode of production. Looking back over his biography, we can certainly see significant changes but there is also a clear sense of continuity. In the most useful sketch of Godard's biography, Colin MacCabe divided his life into seven schematic episodes, which could be summarized and recapitulated as follows:[5]


  1. Childhood. Godard was born in Switzerland in 1930. His father was a successful doctor who ran a private clinic in Nyon, his mother a member of an extremely rich banking family, the Schlumbergers, foun­ders of the Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas. Godard remembers his childhood as an idyllic time, especially the happy days spent at his mother's family estate on the banks of Lake Geneva. According to MacCabe, 'the impression one gets is of a rather dreamy child, charming and spoiled, the apple of his mother's eye, but from early on m considerable conflict with his father'.

  1. Cinephilia. At the end of the war, Godard was sent to Paris to study for his baccalaureat and, subsequently, a degree in anthropology at the Sorbonne. He soon became a frequenter of the Cinematheque, the Institute of Filmology and the many small cine-clubs which had sprung up in Paris, partly as a way of catching up with films unseen as a result of the German occupation. Godard began to write about film, first (under the name Hans Lucas [= Jean-Luc} for the tiny Gazette du Cinema and then for France's soon-to-become premier film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, where his colleagues, as we have seen, included Truffaut, Rivette and Rohmer, fellow-founders of the Nouvelle Vague. During this time Godard also travelled to America and Brazil and (like Truffaut) commit­ ted a number of petty thefts-from friends, family, employers-and was lucky to escape relatively unscathed after a much more serious incident, following his return to Switzerland in 1952, led to the police becoming involved. His father, however, had him committed to a psychiatric hospital.

  1. The New Wave. After his release from hospital, family connections made it possible for him to earn the money to make his first film, an industrial short. Godard subsequently returned to Paris, where he quickly made three more short subjects, continued his writing as a critic, found work in the Fox publicity department, and made a number of contacts in the French film industry. His breakthrough came in the annus mirabilis of 1959 when Breathless rocketed him to instant success. The foundations had already been well laid by his friends from the Cahiers 'gang'­ especially Truffaut, the ringleader of what he himself called 'la politique des copains', who had made his own mark the previous year and was now able to give his old partner in crime a helping hand. Godard soon outraged the critics, provoked his audience and flew in the face of the industry protocols. All the same, nobody who saw his sixties films is going to forget them in a hurry.

  1. See you at Mao. The first signs of a shift in Godard's career came as early as 1963 with Le Mépris (Contempt), in which, ironically enough, Fritz Lang quotes to him Brecht's lines on being a screen-writer in Hollywood­ 'Every day, to earn my daily bread / I go to the market where lies are bought I Hopefully / I take my place among the peddlers'-and he continued moving leftwards with Deux ou Trois Choses Que Je Sais d'Elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her), eventually reaching Maoism with La Chinoise-with Vertov now replacing Eisenstein in his esteem. As always, Godard had mixed up his work with his private life and everything began to implode when his stormy relationship with Anna Karina, star of seven fantastic films and also his wife, finally fell to pieces. La Chinoise was about a group of would-be revolutionary students, with the lead played by Anne Wiazemsky, whom Godard was soon to marry, and who appeared in five of his subsequent films. In Le Gai Savoir, his first film for television, he responded directly to the events of May 1968, with a film that was both his most experimental and his most politically committed work. The next year Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin founded a Maoist film-making collec­tive, the Dziga Vertov group, named after the founder of the Kino-Eye movement in the 1920s. Starting with ideas about 'Brechtian' or 'guerrilla' cinema, Godard's radicalism had propelled him to what he called 'Cinema year zero' (an echo of Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero). In 1970, he was driven away in a police van for selling the banned Cause du Peuple on the streets.
  2. Grenoble. Three years later (in 1973), following Godard and Gorin's ill-starred attempt to make a Marxist-Leninist musical with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, the Dziga Vertov adventure was finally wound up and Godard set off down yet another path, once again together with a new partner, Anne-Marie Miéville. Miéville was a stills photographer who had nursed Godard back to health after a motorcycle accident in 1971, just before he began shooting Tout Va Bien. Once the film was out of the way, she insisted that he should leave Paris behind him perma­nently, for his own well-being. Godard's move to Grenoble was both a stage in his personal recovery and also a way to restabilize his career by embarking on a series of video projects for French television, now in partnership with Miéville. In Ici et Ailleurs and Comment ça va, Godard picked up the semiotic trail first blazed in Le Gai Savoir. (Barthes, the founder of semiology, had refused to appear as himself in a Godard film, unlike other celebrities.) With Miéville, Godard now reformulated his entire political position; his self-criticism, partly carried out on screen, led him to a new concern with family and personal relationships, reflecting the emergence of a women's movement. Towards the end of this period he became involved in a utopian plan to create a do-it­ yourself television channel for the Mozambique Ministry of Information, a kind of cross between Kino-Eye and Video Nation which eventually came to nothing.

  1. Back to Switzerland. In 1976, Godard and Miéville, herself Swiss, left France for good and he returned to his childhood haunts on the banks of Lake Geneva. There they continued working together with video but, apparently in response to Miéville's urging, Godard also embarked on a series of feature films made with bankable stars and serious production values. In 1982 the great cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who had shot all fifteen of his films bar one, in the 1960s, from Breathless through to Weekend, rejoined Godard to work with him on Passion and Prénom Carmen, two films which were widely taken as signalling a partial reconciliation between the new Swiss-based Godard and the Parisian Godard of old. Predictably enough, the possibility that Godard might relaunch his commercial career came to a catastrophic end in 1987 when he signed up to make a version of King Lear with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, then heads of Cannon Films, a pair of producers perhaps even sleazier than Jerry in Contempt. The script was written by Norman Mailer and he and his daughter were supposed to star as Lear and Cordelia. Predictably enough, after half a day's shooting, they walked off the set and Godard, unpanicked, began all over again with Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald. Woody Allen did a brief walk-on as Mr Alien and Godard himself appeared as Professor Pluggy, while Mailer's grandiose vision of the film as a version of The Godfather was systematically thrown to the winds.

  1. Stabilization. In the most recent phase of his career, Godard, together with Miéville, has continued to put together packages that enable him to work as a director for television, very much on his own terms. Most of his TV income was reinvested in technical equipment so that he could do post-production in what is effectively his own personal facility house. He has still averaged a ruminative new feature every three or four years, while devoting the bulk of his energy to the massive eight­ part video epic Histoire(s) du Cinema, a protracted meditation on one hundred years of cinema as seen by one of its own most knowledgeable and unsettling figures-a fermenting collage of favourite moments, springboards for typically Godardian disquisitions and unexpected link­ ages and juxtapositions. Histoire(s) du Cinema was finished several years ago, and is destined to be reissued as a DVD box-set. As for the future, who could hope to tell?

Thus far, although Godard's career has been one of incessant change and movement, it has somehow ended up with an almost crystalline structure. He left Switzerland for Paris, Paris for Grenoble and Grenoble to return again to Switzerland. His family gave way to the Cinematheque and the Cahiers gang, the Cahiers gang to Karina and Coutard, Karina and Coutard to Wiazemsky and Gorin, Wiazemsky and Gorin to Anne-Marie Miéville, a fellow-Swiss with a family, who took him back to his childhood haunts on the shore of Lake Geneva. Film clubs gave way to film journals, journalism gave way to film-making, feature films gave way to TV, TV gave way to video, until he ended up editing and mixing in an artisanal workshop with a pronounced journalistic and film club feel to it, where he constructed his own video version of the ideal Cinémathèque, a televisual Rue de Messine.

Through all these phases ran Godard's own personality and preoccu­pations, eccentric and wayward but always rigorous and inventive. His films always displayed a fascination with both current events and the great classics of the past, they showed a taste for high art as well as for pulp fiction and pornography, they carried the traces of improvisation but also contained elaborate formal compositions. He revered old Holly­ wood movies from the days when studios were studios and everyone ate in the same canteen, but expressed an ever-deeper revulsion for the new Hollywood mode of production. In the seventies he developed the concept of the video script, a kind of do-it-yourself prototype for a film, shot hand-held on video, which he likened to a painter's sketchbook. He scattered quotations from other people's films throughout his own, but he was always audaciously original. He zeroed in on the crucial issues of his time (the collapse of communism, the reunification of Germany, the siege of Sarajevo) while shamelessly following red herrings and squander­ing his attention on side-issues.

Until recently, most of the serious writing in English about Godard still came from the 1960s-from Richard Roud, Manny Farber, Susan Sontag, Robin Wood, Raymond Durgnat and others, including myself. This reflected Godard's much greater cultural centrality during that period and his apparently secure place within the festival/art film system. When he veered off-course with the Dziga Vertov group, he not only baffled and dismayed many former admirers but he also moved into a sui generis mode of production which left him in a kind of cinematic no man's land. He never fitted into the experimental film world, the territory occupied by the 'underground', by structural film and the international Film Co-op movement, which shared Godard's marginalization but had their own very different history, culture and values. On the other hand, he never found safe refuge in the film festival world, the prestige sector of the industry which nurtured a stream of ambitious young directors, many of whom had been directly influenced by Godard-Bertolucci, Wenders, Akerman-but who never abandoned their audiences as irrev­ocably as he did. Wenders and Akerman found their niche and stuck to it, Bertolucci pulled back after 1968 and Partner, ending up the prisoner of his cameraman, Storaro. In France, naturally enough, Godard still retained a loyal critical following, especially in the pages of a revamped Cahiers du Cinema, but in the anglophone world the burden has fallen on a handful of loyal supporters, such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and Colin MacCabe, supplemented by a new generation of admirers, such as Michael Temple and Michael Witt.

In the last few years, happily, there seems to have been a burgeoning revival of interest, perhaps because Godard has now achieved the dubious status of historic monument or Grand Old Man, perhaps because of the new alliance which has taken shape between experimental film and video installations in the larger art world, perhaps even because of the cult status given him by the once-famous Quentin Tarantino, of all people. Two recent books stand out. Wheeler Winston Dixon's presents a macroscopic view of Godard's entire career to date, covering every film or video he has ever made. It is divided into five chapters, which correspond more or less to the five film-making periods of MacCabe's biographical schema, except that he divides the New Wave into two at Le Mépris, an elegy for the old studio system of classical film-making (as incarnated in Fritz Lang). Wheeler Dixon sees this film as the turning-point at which Godard recognized that Hollywood was now undergoing an irreversible decline, symbolized by the character of Prokosch, the producer (played by Jack Palance), who is portrayed as 'simultaneously ruthless, vain, childish, arrogant, stupid, greedy, self-deluding'. After Le Mépris, Le Gai Savoir and the work of the Dziga Vertov group seemed inevitable in their rejection of commercial cinema. Dixon rightly interprets King Lear as a kind of second Le Mépris, observing that it 'might arguably be considered Godard's final farewell to feature film production', leading him into a second period of disenchantment. Dixon also lavishes praise on Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) and Passion, Godard and Miéville's two first Swiss features. He describes Passion as 'a catalogue of the difficulties and inherent transcendence afforded by the waking dream of the cinematographic process', a kind of tell-tale confession of ambivalence.

Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, in contrast, adopt a microscopic approach in their book Speaking About Godard, writing about eight select films in an exercise of what they describe as 'close reading', concentrating on specific sequences and shots within each work.[6] Their book is itself bravely experimental in form, written in alternating paragraphs of dialogue as if there was an ongoing conversation between the two authors while they watch the films. As with Godard's own work, there is a tension between improvisation and control which is both provocative and uncannily appropriate. Farocki is himself an outstanding director of what we might call 'essay films', mostly for German television, whose professional experience illuminates his understanding of Godard's choices as director and editor, while Silverman is a leading theorist and feminist scholar whose long-suppressed cinephilia finally comes out into the open as she describes with detailed and loving attention the appeal of particular shots and camera movements, just for themselves rather than as evidence for something else. They pick out eight films from Godard's massive output as key works, with five from the 1960s (Vivre Sa Vie, Le Mépris, Alphaville, Weekend, Le Cai Savoir) and one each from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s (Numéro Deux, Passion, Nouvelle Vague). Thus, their interest is weighted towards films from the second half of the 1960s, skipping right over Breathless, for instance. They are particularly insightful in their discussion of Le Cai Savoir, a notoriously difficult film, finally summing it up, in Godard's own words, as _'444,000 images speaking about themselves'. While they skip over the Dziga Vertov films, they cover all three phases of the Miéville years, ending with a tightly argued paean of praise to the film Nouvelle Vague, the story of an industrialist and her lover who are saved from death by a miracle, saved by love, signalled by a quotation from Dante's Inferno: 'So while my soul yet fled did I contrive/ To turn and gaze on that dread pass once more/Which no man yet came ever out alive.'

Fredric Jameson once observed that Godard began in the sixties as a 'post-modernist avant la lettre' but ended up, two decades later, as 'the ultimate survivor of the modern as such', always swimming against the current of the age.[7] The futurist visionary and rebel turned eventually into the disenchanted historian in search of transcendence. This view of Godard as a premature postmodernist is based on the combination of two of Godard's qualities-his life-long penchant for quotation and recycling and his view that film-making should be a form of journalism or, perhaps, instant ethnography, seeking to grasp what is happening in contemporary society at the time of production and presenting it in a kind of visual mosaic. In fact, the contemporary French film-maker whom Godard cited most often during his years as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema was Jean Rouch, whose extraordinary films Moi, un Noir and Jaguar, set in Africa, and Chronicle of a Summer, made in Paris itself and co-directed with the sociologist Edgar Morin, clearly had an enormous impact on him. Moi, un Noir, Godard wrote in 1958, 'is a paving-stone in the marsh of French cinema, as [Rossellini's} Rome, Open City was in world cinema'. Rouch and Morin's film, released in 1961, contained extempore interviews on the street with passers-by, a discussion of the Algerian war with students sitting round a dinner table (including the young Regis Debray), a wrenching first-person soul-baring direct to camera by an employee at Cahiers du Cinema and, in one of the great sequences of cinema, a survivor's account of her experience in a concentration camp, spoken into the Nagra tape-recorder that she carries as she walks through the old Les Balles market, filmed by a hand-held Eclair camera in classic cinema verite style.

Jameson talks, quite rightly, about Godard's 'aesthetic of quotation' but I think it is important to stress there was nothing ironic or emptily eclectic about his mode of sampling and recycling high art. It was much deeper than pastiche. It stemmed from a recognition that contemporary French society both exhibited signs of a self-destructive future and simultaneously had preserved within itself the traces of other and quite contrasting kinds of value, which still threatened to break through the crust of alienation and fetishism in a volcanic burst of romantic freedom. Godard's characters cling desperately to the hopes represented by these fragments. His New Wave films are far from celebratory. They almost all have tragic endings-Michel Poiccard is shot by the cops, Nana Klein­frankenheim (yes!) is shot by the pimps (always the bad guys for Godard-the producers), Paul Javal leaves the set of Fritz Lang's Odyssey with his life in ruins, Ferdinand blows himself to pieces with sticks of brightly coloured gelignite. Only Lemmy Caution and Natacha Von Braun are able to reach their goal, escape to freedom from the dystopian city of Alphaville, although we never actually see them reach the border. As Silverman points out, it is a psychological rather than a geographical barrier. They succeed because Natacha proves able to say, 'I love you'. As Farocki puts it,

Natacha does not find these crucial words at once. She claims that she does not know what to say, and, twice, like Orpheus with Eurydice, she even begins to turn around to see what she and Lemmy are leaving behind. But finally the woman with the name from the past makes that simple declaration which, no matter how many times it is repeated, brings light to those who hear it, and humanity to those who utter it. Although Lemmy and Natacha still have many miles to drive, they have already reached their destination.[8]

Silverman draws the conclusion that the surrealist commitment to amour Jou lies at the heart of the film. Alphaville is a reworking of Eluard's Capita/e de la Dou/eur or Breton's Nadja with a happy end.

In Godard's films everybody seems lost in a tangle of confusions and deceptions and pointless escapades, and yet the key which unlocks the door to freedom is usually very simple. In the end, all you ever need is to keep faith with the essential humanist values-values like beauty, love and truth. It is these values to which Godard's quotations always seem to point. On the one hand, they reflect the aforementioned society crammed with posters and postcards of great paintings, recordings of great music, shelves of paperback classics, clips from great movies and people swap­ ping lines of great poetry-the society in which Art has left its sanctum to become a generalised feature of 'everyday life'. On the other hand, they are like the quotations assembled in a private commonplace book, Godard's own enchiridion of favourite images and sounds and citations. Godard once observed that 'people who speak should find beautiful things to say-recite Shakespeare, for instance--or else it's not worth the trouble to speak. You're better off keeping quiet.' It is this insistence on the value of beauty that directs Godard towards the enduring art of the past. The quotations which survive, however commodified, are still emblematic figures of beauty, love and truth, carrying against the odds the durable values which alone can bring us hope. In Nouvelle Vague, as Kaja Silverman notes, 'virtually every line is a quotation, from sources as diverse as Dante, Proust, Chandler, Schiller, de Rougemont (on courtly love}, Marx, Heming­ way, Lacan, and Rimbaud'.[9] But also, as Wheeler Dixon notes, the beauty of the landscape in Nouvelle Vague seems somehow more impor­tant than the actions of the characters, for whom, as he puts it, 'beauty is only worthwhile if it can be possessed, or transferred to another for a price'.[10]

Over time, Godard came to distrust spectacle more and more, yet he did so without ever abandoning his fundamental cinephilia, his abiding passion for film. His disenchantment sprang from the cinema's inability to respond to its times, to act as a kind of seismographic early warning system, registering the first tell-tale tremors of social and cultural upheaval, as he tried to do in his own work. As Michael Witt has recently observed, Godard finally became convinced that the cinema was indeed a doomed art, that it had lost the will to live, when he concluded that it had abandoned its former cinematic grandeur to pander to an audience whose subjectivity had been constructed by their experience of television and video.[11] For Godard, with his usual quirky insight, cinema involved projection, a beam of light projected in the dark as in the myth of Plato's cave. 'Cinema will disappear', Godard has predicted, 'when it is no longer projected', when the beam of light has gone.[12] Entering the cinema, entering the darkness to find the light, allows us to exit from ourselves, to live for a while in another space and another time, one which casts a prophetic light on the real society and history existing outside. Television, on the other hand, lives in the ephemeral. Its space is within the home, it is a 'family affair', domesticated and insulated. Godard was always at the forefront of technical change and experiment, from bounce lighting and the Aaron camera (with whose inventor he worked in close collaboration) to technologies of video editing and digital enhancement, but his own recent work for television should be seen as a form of resistance against a symbolic but real occupation, a way of infiltrating enemy-held territory in order to maintain the memory of cinema, to keep a desire for true cinema somehow flickeringly alive for the next millennium.

Godard's return to aestheticism, and thus to a form of ultra­modernism, was the result of his refusal to submit to the norms of our post-oil-shock society, with its global system of telecommunications, its debasement of public life and its ceaseless drive towards the consumption of commodities, driven, of course, first by television and then by the World Wide Web. Moreover, he has always held fast to an exalted idea of the role to be played by art-one which came to him from such early intellectual mentors as Elie Faure and Andre Malraux. From the begin­ning, Godard had shown a profound and yet paradoxical attachment to the traditions of European art, both as a heritage of great works and, at the same time, as an anarchic project which inevitably threatens every kind of tradition and norm. (All artists, even Celine, were on the left, natural rebels, he once said.) This applies both to the older arts and to the once young, now ailing, art of cinema. As suggested earlier, Godard's films combine a contradictory reverence for the art of the past with a refusal to conform to any of its rules. His films have always been filled with references to the cinematic archive-Le Mépris is an extended act of homage to a classical cinema, a Homeric cinema, which was already superseded. Although Godard's own films broke with all the conventions of the classical cinema he admired, they formed a conscious coda to it.

Godard spent several years working on his massive video project, Histoire(s) du Cinema. But, as Michael Temple has reminded us, in a conference paper on 'The Nutty Professor: Jean-Luc Godard, Historian of the Cinema?',[13] he thereby found himself faced yet again with the problem of narrative. In narrating the history of the cinema itself, he found himself telling a story whose end, whose death, was already inscribed within it. The persona that he chose to adopt was that of the pedagogue, a role for which he had already shown a leaning. Indeed, in the late 1970s, Serge Daney took him to task in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema itself for his drill-master style of pedagogy, for setting citation against citation while avoiding responsibility for either, for his decontex­tualization of sources and his terroristic use of theory. Godard responded by adopting the persona of the crackpot seer who is both an utter idiot and a poete maudit, casting himself as the Nutty Professor, a quick-change artist whose tragic truths are presented as if they were buffooneries. But the story he now had to tell was a cruel and melancholy one-how the cinema, despite its moments of glory, ultimately betrayed us and was doomed to die. Silent film was ruined by the coming of sound. After the collapse of the old studio system, the cinema capitulated to television, accepting its insidious degradation of the visual. Most damning of all, Hollywood had fatally shirked its historic responsibility to record the seismic shocks of history when it failed to respond to the threat or the reality of the Holocaust. (Lubitsch's madcap anti-Nazi comedy, To Be or Not to Be, released in 1942, was perhaps the one oblique exception to Godard's indictment. Spielberg's belated Schindler's List was scorned as 'rebuilding Auschwitz'.) Cinema had looked the other way. Its death was overdue. Godard could tell this particular story with conviction because he knew it was true and because, although he may have been viewed as a charlatan, a provocateur and a Pied Piper, he knew that he had never been, like so many of his accusers, a collaborator. He had always been fearless and intransigent in his resistance.

Resistance can take many forms. For Godard, I believe, it has been inseparable from his mania for refunctioning the great masterpieces he admired, reincorporating them into his own work, wanting, as he put it, talking about Breathless, to 'take a conventional story and remake, but differently, everything the cinema had done'.[14] Not only did he cite Preminger and invoke Bogart from the film noir canon, but he quoted or alluded to Lang's Tiger of Eschnapur, Mann's Man of the West, Eisenstein's October and Rouch's Moi, un Noir, the film from which he drew the most-a documentary about a set of characters, in Cote d'Ivoire, who lovingly recycle, in their own style, the words and gestures of their movie heroes. In effect, the originality of Breathless depended on its status as creative sampling, as a remix of fragments adapted from other films or from the works of poetry or music or art which Godard revered, a remake, but different, personalized. Breathless was both a loving appropriation of narrative film and its desecration in the name of youth and improvised revolt, so that all the conventional rules of editing, lighting, screen­ writing and direction were trashed, all the time-honoured conventions ignored. It was only a beginning. Godard's career combines an unflagging resistance to the demands of the industry with a recurrent commitment to cinema as art, classic and yet personal.


[1] David Thomson, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (New York: Knopf, 1997).

[2] Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988).

[3] Manny Farber, ‘The Films of Jean-Luc Godard’, Artforum, no. 7 (October 1968), pp. 58-61; p. 58.

[4] Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997).

[5] Colin MacCabe, ‘Jean-Luc Godard: A Life in Seven Episodes (To Date)’, in Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (eds.), Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image, 1974-1991 (New York: Abrams, 1992), pp. 13-21.

[6] Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, Speaking about Godard (New York: NYU Press, 1998).

[7] Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 233).

[8] Silverman and Farocki, Speaking about Godard, p. 82.

[9] Ibid., p. 198.

[10] Dixon, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard.

[11] Michael Witt, “The Death(s) of Cinema According to Godard’, Screen, vol. 40, no. 3, Autumn 1999.

[12] Jean-Luc Godard, ‘Films un peu partout causant français’. Introductory address for a screening of For Ever Mozart, National Film Theatre, London, 1996.

[13] Published as Michael Temple, ‘The Nutty Professor: Teaching Film with Jean-Luc Godard’, Screen, no. 40 (Summer 1999).

[14] Jean-Luc Godard, in Jean Narboni and Tom Milne (eds.), Godard on Godard: Critical Writings by Jean-Luc Godard (New York: Da Capo, 1986), p. 173.

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