A cinematic innovator who began as a critic planting the seeds of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard has never been shy to say something controversial or make films that deliberately remind people that they are watching cinema. Even into his 80s, Godard continues to provoke audiences.
Our thoughts are not the substance of reality, but its shadow. ~ Godard’s narration from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
After his work with the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma ended in the late 1950s, Godard began making a series of radical and ever changing features that would constantly bend the rules of editing, sound, storytelling, and all realms of conventional narrative cinema. Between 1960 to 1967, Godard directed 15 films before going underground for a short time to make political films, something his career had already developed into by the time of the infamous student riots of May 1968. It is very hard to make an ordered list of his best work, but I am bored at work and thought I would give it a try.
5) Band of Outsiders (1964)
Based on the 1958 American crime novel Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens, Bande à part (the film’s French title) is perhaps Godard’s most playful film, and often considered the Godard film that even people who hate Godard can enjoy. It involves a young trio (2 boys, 1 girl) who attempt to rob the girl’s aunt of a hidden fortune. Though like most of Godard’s films, the story is just the starting point for cinematic exercises and shenanigans, full of film and literary references.
Starring Godard’s then wife Anna Karina, the film includes tongue-and-cheek narration from the director, a memorable sequence with the main characters running through the Louvre to beat the museum’s fastest visit record (previously set by an American, of course), a “minute” of silence that reminds the viewer of the difference between dialogue and background noise, and a dance sequence that inspired a scene in Pulp Fiction.
4) Tout va bien (1972)
Co-directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin, this Marxist drama is almost two separate films, dealing with a strike at a sausage factory as observed by an American reporter (Jane Fonda) and her French director husband (Yves Montand). The first half of the film takes place mostly at the factory and is filmed brilliantly on an ant farm-like set paying homage to Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man (a similar set was used for the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). The second half deals more closely with the two main characters, their failing marriage, and their growing political ambivalence a few years after being tremendously affected by the student riots of 1968.
Shot in vibrant colors with very precise staging and mise en scène, Tout va bien improves upon the disintegration-of-marriage theme explored in Godard’s Contempt, and goes about itself in a similar radical fashion to Week End, though it’s as if this time around Godard isn’t trying to destroy cinema, but lament for it. The long take through the supermarket is a great damning image of consumerism, and one cannot help but think Godard is revealing more than a little of himself through Montand’s character.
3) 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)
Godard, even for him, does something unique with this feature. A hard film to describe, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her deals with an upper-middle class woman who decides to prostitute herself in order to better afford material household items. A skewering satire on the economic miracle of post-WWII France, Godard transitions to a cinematic essay format for the film, putting less emphasis on story and focusing on the themes of consumerism, prostitution, the Vietnam war, and the continuing urban development of 1967 Paris.
Godard narrates the film in a rushed whisper, as if hiding under a table and expressing all of his thoughts as fast as he can, but quietly enough so as not to reveal his subversive hiding place. Shot in bright colors with an emphasis on the colors of the French flag, most of the narration is shown over shots of construction sites building a modern Paris while Godard discusses consumerism as prostitution of the mind. The color schemes appear artificial in contrast to the political message of the film. And there are so many great images to choose from, whether the extreme closeup of cream mixing with coffee in an allusion to the cosmos (see clip above), or the final image of a number of household cleaning products laid out on a lawn. A film more about the 1960s than anything else.
2) Masculine Feminine: 15 Precise Facts (1966)
This could be considered the first real sequel to The 400 Blows. Starring that film’s lead and French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as Paul, the film follows him and his romantic and political misadventures in 1966 Paris after his recent release from military service. The sentiment of the youth established in Truffaut’s (a longtime colleague of Godard) The 400 Blows feels updated here, as we experience lust, infatuation, and a political awakening. Told in chapters (with headings like The mole has no consciousness, yet it borrows in a specific direction), the film is one of Godard’s most free spirited and youthful. He had his pulse on the youth of that generation, and it is as if Léaud’s Paul is an extension of the Antoine Doinel character he portrayed in The 400 Blows, only represented through Godard’s lens of the mid-1960s.
Like Godard’s other works and other movies from the French New Wave, Masculine Feminine does innovative things with the transitions between chapters and sound, with certain parts of the picture serving as mere episodes or moments to showcase the times. In the above clip, Paul interviews a beauty pageant winner, starting the interview off friendly enough, but eventually asking about birth control and the word “reactionary”, revealing in a 6 1/2 minute single take this girl’s (and most of the youth’s) shallowness and naivety. Referencing Bob Dylan and the Vietnam War, the film is another step in the political direction that Godard’s career was soon to evolve into.
1) Pierrot le Fou (1965)
I lied. Pierrot le Fou is Godard’s most playful film. It his most everything film. The film’s visual style exudes color in an intoxicating way, making it the best collaboration between Godard and his frequent cinematographer Raoul Coutard. It also offers up what might be the first case of postmodernism in cinema, with scenes referencing Robert Louis Stevenson to comic books, going from musical numbers to downright Hitchcockian moments of suspense. Godard draws from the old lovers-on-the-run sub-genre from films like Nicholas Ray’s They Lived by Night, while anticipating New Wave inspired flicks like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands in his plot of a married father (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who, feeling trapped in the boring actions and rhetoric of his everyday life, commits murder and goes on the lamb with his daughter’s babysitter (Anna Karina).
As with many of Godard’s films, the theme of communication between man and woman is essential, and comes to a breaking point when the film slows down to have the two lovers living on a secluded island together. With character’s talking right into the camera, American filmmaker Samuel Fuller delivering a monologue in an inspired cameo, a one act “play” representing the Vietnam War (see clip above), and a truly explosive ending, Pierrot le Fou is the original midlife crisis film, one that, like the main characters, exhibits a contagious feeling of throwing caution, and as a result ‘cinema’, into the wind. It is Godard reinventing himself, and perhaps beginning to come to terms with his own failing marriage to the film’s star and his growing political conscious. A film that set the tone for the rest of his career, but yet is able to sum him up perfectly. Or maybe not so perfectly.
Godard’s films beg for multiple viewings. I have seen some more recently than others, so I am biased toward certain Godard films depending on how often I have seen them and what not. This list is flawed, and my summaries are slight and don’t do the films justice, but I wanted to try something like this. I didn’t include Breathless or Week End, because, while I have seen both multiple times, they are the ones that always get mentioned and as a result, have become a little overrated to me in some ways. I guess the same could be said for Pierrot le Fou, but what have you. Vivre Sa Vie and Contempt are two I’ve seen just once that I would really like to see again.
Best of the rest:
The Carabineers (1963)
Hail Mary (1985)
In Praise of Love (2001)
Une Femme Mariée (1964)
Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Week End (1967)
Godard Films I Haven’t Seen
(Aside from Sympathy for the Devil (1968), I’ve seen none of his documentaries)
Every Man for Himself (1980)
Film socialisme (2010)
Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991)
Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989-98)
King Lear (1987)
La rapport Darty (1989)
Nouvelle vague (1990)
Numéro deux (1975)
Soft and Hard (1986)