01 January 1970

Jean-Luc Godard: The Man Who Became Immortal... And Then Died

Weekend Reads

Jean-Luc Godard: The Man Who Became Immortal... And Then Died

Godard is indeed a cinema giant and yes, it is quite difficult if not impossible to wrap him up between the beginning and the end of an article. There is no doubt that the influence of Godard will never be undone.

Jean-Luc Godard in his young days.
Jean-Luc Godard in his young days.

How can any obituary of Jean-Luc Godard be written without opting for the Godardian way: Quotes from philosophy, Marxism, politics; poetry; references to the cinema, juxtaposition of images, objects which may never be juxtaposed in reality, long takes in contrast to itching for a cut and jump cut where conventionality demands smoothness. In nutshell, an obituary of Godard deserves writing which shall be equivalent to Godardian cinema on paper. To put a cinema giant like Godard on paper is an insurmountable task. Sometimes I think what Godard deserves is a film not an article as the way he turned and twisted the space, time and matter within them are not viable for the paper to hold. It's the cinema which can withstand the weight of Godard. Alas! This is beyond my size. So let me have some mercy on myself and just write.
The last master of cinema has died a month ago. Jean Luc Godard died by assisted suicide (euthanasia) in Switzerland and thus French New Wave lost its last survivor. Godard's house, with green shutters and a green bench out front, had its shades drawn on 13th September, with an abandoned ashtray and teapot on the windowsill. He had been living as a virtual recluse for decades in the Swiss village of Rolle.

In the movie Breathless, the debut feature of Godard, Patricia Franchini asked Parvulesco, “What is your greatest ambition in life?” To which Parvulesco replied, “To become immortal... and then die.” Cinema made Godard immortal and then he chose death for the reason that he was “simply exhausted”. Last year, during a virtual conversation with the International Film Festival of Kerala, Godard said he planned to “retire” from directing after the completion of two films, “I’m finishing my movie life—yes, my moviemaker life—by doing two scripts. After, I will say, ‘Goodbye, cinema.” But they both were one: Godard and his cinema. Cinema has been his life for so long that it is impossible to separate the two. For Godard saying goodbye to cinema was the precursor to saying goodbye to himself.

However, for Godard, “To be or not to be” was not really a question as “he who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” And he “jumped” into the void, into the “no entry” as per the rule book of conventional cinema with his first feature itself. The famous jump cuts in Breathless, which took a mythical status have many stories. Some say, Godard either ran out of film stock and others say the film was just too long and needed a ruthless editing pass. Whatever might have “pushed” him but Godard jumped and landed in limelight. Like a sculptor, he found out how much could be removed from his source material without it falling apart.  In Breathless there is a scene of a long car ride shared by small-time thief Michel and his girlfriend, Patricia. Michel goes on a good long rant and the cuts, all over the back of Patricia’s head, start to speed up alongside his dialogue. These jump cuts create a jarring sense of dislocation for the viewers, save them from drowning in the “flow of plot” and force them to read the scene like reading between the lines in literature.  

He, however, did not only challenge the desire of viewers for a smooth edit by jumping in time but also itches viewers for a cut and provides none. Watch his famous long shot from the 1967 movie Weekend which castigates the absurdity, callousness, ugliness, and violence of capitalism through a married couple’s slow crawl up a traffic jam.

It is another device he put to work for the alienation of the viewer, a technique often associated with Bertolt Brecht whom he holds in very high regard. He exemplified his own quote “Politics is a travelling shot”. The longer he held on to a take, the more he could interweave his politics into his art form and compelled viewers to use their heads rather than their hearts.

He used a variety of devices, some of which he discovered himself and others he borrowed and made his own. “It's not where you take things from — it's where you take them to.”

He had chosen befitting forms for the different content. What seems clumsy in the form actually contains content of absurdities and what bores you in an image is an unbearable reality.
Filmmakers associated with French New Wave including Godard became the target of the intellectual left which attacked the early films of all the French New Wave directors for their narrow concern with private and intimate matters. Friendship of Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard with right-wing figures like Lucien Rebatet and Paul Gégauff had further worsened the case and they were accused to be the supporters of extreme rightism. Godard himself was attacked by a critic who dubbed Breathless as 'fascist arrogance'.
Godard took it upon himself and ventured into political filmmaking with his second film The Little Soldier concerning France’s war in Algeria, a French colony since 1830. Its protagonist is Bruno Forestier, a supporter of the right-wing OAS who is on the run in France and engaged in an undercover war in Switzerland. Anna Karina plays Veronica Dreyer, a pro-Algerian activist who falls in love with him. Bruno is blackmailed into committing an assassination but before he can carry it out, he is captured and tortured by Algerian militants.  
After the shoot, the lead actress of the film Anna and Godard started living together and thus began the intermingling of the personal life of Godard with his cinema. After Breathless (a crime thriller) and a spy film (The Little Soldier), Godard’s next film was a surprising change of mood. A Woman is a Woman was a musical comedy with a realistic setting and an unsentimental storyline about a stripper who is determined to have a baby and blackmails her boyfriend into committing to marriage and parenthood by having an affair with his friend.

The parallel between the stormy relationship between Godard and Karina and that of the characters of the film was further underlined when Karina became pregnant. They tore each other apart, argued, loved each other, and hated each other, screamed at each other. Godard had sketched out the scenario for the film long before he met Karina, originally intending it to be a light-hearted comedy, but the adjustments he made during filming made the story much more autobiographical, especially in regard to their relationship. The relationship was finally over as their obsession with Godard for Cinema was too intense and there was no space for Karina’s desperate yet genuine need for affection.

In 1966, Godard came in contact with Anne Waizemsky, the eighteen-year-old star of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and they become a couple. Through Wiazemsky, Godard met a new breed of radicalized students turning to the teachings of Mao Tse Tung and saw the Cultural Revolution in China as being closer to true Marxist-Leninism than the Bureaucratic set-up of the Soviet Union. By this time Godard was a declared artist of the left, and his film La Chinoise (1967) was the penultimate step toward overtly political filmmaking by renouncing the "bourgeois" narrative filmmaking. It was a story of five university students who spend their summer vacation holed up in an apartment borrowed from a friend’s wealthy parents. The group spend their time studying political texts, delivering lectures to each other, and discussing how they can apply the teachings of Mao Tse-tung to their own lives. After being convinced of using violence for the cause of revolution, the group plans to carry out a political assassination. Watching the 1967 film today in the backdrop of protests of May 1968, one can be convinced of the fact that “the cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”. It seems that Godard was closely observing the frustration simmering beneath the surface well before it boiled over. La Chinoise depicted the inner workings of middle-class students, disillusioned and frustrated with capitalist society and attempted to find a way out in political activism. The film was shot with a complete wilderness even by the standards of Godard himself. Many scenes were improvised and reshot a number of times and became exclusively a film of montage. Godard said in an interview “I shot autonomous sequences, without any order, and I organized them later”. Once again, he proved that he was the master of finding forms befitting to the subject matter. 

His next feature Weekend offered a nightmarish vision of capitalist society in which the sensitivity of people lies with objects rather than others, in which cataclysmic traffic jams, rape, murder, pillage and cannibalism are so common that they render people desensitized. “Objects exist and if one pays more attention to them than to people, it is precise because they exist more than the people. Dead objects are still alive. Living people are often already dead.” Godard called the film 'closer to a cry' than a movie. Weekend concluded with the statements 'end of story' and 'end of cinema'. At the end of the shoot, he gathered his crew together and told them they should look for other work because he was going to stop making films for a while.  

What he renounced was not cinema but the bourgeois narrative moviemaking as the commercial film industry was part of capitalism and he no longer wanted to contribute to it.  In fact, he started using 'cinema' at its fullest potential for serving his political cause and making films at an even faster rate than before. He formed “Dziga Vertov Group”, named after the 1920s-30s Soviet filmmaker with other politically active filmmakers including  Jean-Pierre Gorin. Their films are defined primarily for Brechtian forms, Marxist ideology, and a lack of personal authorship. Films made under this group were characterized by Brechtian forms, Marxist ideology and a lack of personal authorship. In one of such films Wind from the East footage that Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin shot in Paris, teaching militants how to buy weapons and assemble the materials needed to make homemade bombs was featured. He literally wielded cinema as a weapon for the political fight and epitomized his own quote “My aesthetic is that of the sniper on the roof”. 
Godard made quite a few movies under the Dziva Vertov Group. Thereafter he took his refuse in television and video for some years and here he culminated his years of thought on the subject of cinema history into an 8-part video project titled “Histoire(s) du cinéma”. His conception of the project included key historical events of the twentieth century, in particular, the Holocaust and World War II 'because that’s where everything (the cinema) came to a halt'. This historic break in the history of cinema came about because 'nobody filmed the concentration camps, no one wanted to show them or to see them'. This failure resulted in 'the death of the European cinema and the triumph of the American cinema'. The grand spectacle of Hollywood swallowed documentary realism and the recording of history.  

However, none can separate him and cinema for long and he returned without any loss of experimental spirit and produced a great body of work let alone completing a cinematic equivalent of the self-portrait JLG/JLG, which was filmed mostly in his own home, in which he watches films, reads, writes, engages in business, plays tennis, and reflects on the state of cinema and the world. 

Godard is indeed a cinema giant and yes, it is quite difficult if not impossible to wrap him up between the beginning and the end of an article. There is no doubt that the influence of Godard will never be undone. His films will survive even if the cinema does not. Being helpless to free myself from mediocrity, I borrow words from another great French filmmaker Jean Renoir to bid adieu to Maestro Godard, “Civilization is but a sieve through the holes of which there passes the discard and good remains”. Godard will remain forever.

(Kuldeep Kaur is Assistant Professor at Modi College, Patiala, Punjab.)