The Eye of Godard’s ‘I’©

godardI - Version 2

Caveat for the reader: This essay considers Jean-Luc Godard’s oeuvre in the first two phases of his work. It seeks to reveal an insight on Godard’s film styles and the relationships he has forged with audiences and practitioners alike. But the Godardisms and the impact of his work is best analysed through a two-way communication considering each film from a personal perspective. Notwithstanding additional subject areas, discussions could involve historical film styles, the generations before and after, an understanding of non-mainstream social, political, artistic and philosophical concerns of the period as well as their relevance to the present day and of course, the future. 

No one recognised the importance of, let alone created the god-like status of cinema directors before Jean-Luc Godard. But a new film movement, of which Godard would be an instrumental part, would not have been possible without the young French critics who challenged traditional cinema to become critics turned maverick film makers. These critics used magazine Cahiers du cinéma, which was founded by film critic and philosopher André Bazin, to literally launch the “Nouvelle Vague”, French New Wave of Cinema. 

It was Paris 1945, the occupation and the war had ended. A heady mix of intellectuals in bars, coffee houses and theatres in the Latin Quarter were at the epicentre of a French renaissance which included the Paris premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Parisian cinema goers watched films that had been banned during the war. Existential philosopher and scriptwriter Jean Paul Sartre’s visit to the US led him to write a critique of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1945. This prompted Andrea Bazin, to write essay The techniques of Citizen Kane on the use of deep focus instead of edited montage in 1947.

The Nouvelle Vague magazine Cahiers Du Cinema, which was founded in 1951, gave a platform to critics with intellectual and visionary ideas about cinema through essays and discussions to criticise, extol, reference and analyse the language of cinema at an international level. The Nouvelle Vague began with Andrea Bazin’s idea to reject traditional French cinema but went on to challenge mainstream Hollywood ideas of studios determining film styles and leaving viewers in a state of “willing suspension of disbelief”. Nouvelle Vague introduced terms ‘La politiques des auteurs’ (the policy of authors), recognising directors as authors of movies and ‘homage’ referencing the works of others.  The terms continue to influence cinema today. Quentin Tarantino dedicated his film Reservoir Dogs to Jean Luc Godard. Godard founded magazine Gazette du Cinema in 1950 with Eric Rohmer (My Night with Maud) and Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating). All went on to write for Cahiers Du Cinema. But it was Cahiers Du Cinema that brought the new directorial voices of writers Jean Luc Godard (Breathless), Francois Truffault (The 400 Blows), Claude Chabrol (The Butcher) and editor Eric Rohmer who also wrote under his real name Maurice Scherer, together.

Godard’s oeuvre is difficult to categorise but in the book The Films of Jean Luc Godard, author David Sterritt, references a critic’s classification of Godard’s oeuvre into “four major phases: the New Wave, the “revolutionary years”, the cycle of video experimentation and a contemplative period”. This article considers the first two phases.

Some of the influences on Godard’s work can be traced back to his bourgeoise upbringing as the son of a physician and a mother from a banking family. His education took him from Switzerland to the Sorbonne where he gained a certificate in Ethnology. In the 1940s, Godard worked as a camera operator, assistant TV editor and a columnist in Paris while it was under German occupation and after liberation in 1944. Godard’s travels through North and South America in 1951 must have led to his knowledge and interest in American popular culture and Americana. Godard’s return to Switzerland after the death of his mother in 1954 led to him taking a job as a labourer on a dam project. Godard used his earnings to purchase a 35mm camera and create a 17-minute short called Operation Breton about the building of the dam. Later Godard wote, directed, edited and acted in short film Une Femme Coquette A Coquettish Woman under the pseudonym of Hans Lucas, his Germanic alias. In 1955, Godard returned to Paris and worked as an actor and participated in collaborations but was determined to break free from the non-realist constraints of traditional French cinema like another member of the Cahiers mob, Francois Truffault. Godard’s friendship with Francois Truffault must not be underestimated and neither should Truffault’s upbringing which was the diametric opposite of Godard. Truffault was born to a poverty stricken unmarried mother and suffered at the hands of a violent stepfather before being institutionalised in a home for dysfunctional children. Truffault went on to join the army, go AWOL and end up in military prison, from which Andrea Bazin would have him released and provide him with a home and a place at Cahiers Du Cinema.

In 1959, changes were afoot and Godard and Truffault would find a way to make their new style of films. The Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC), which was created to regenerate French cinema, awarded funds to established producers and directors. This policy changed after the CNC began to report to the newly formed Ministry for Cultural Affairs headed by André Malraux, an author, philosopher and historian of art. In 1959, the CNC introduced a system of state subsidies for films permitting an acance sur recette (advance on receipt). This provided an interest-free advance against box office revenue. Film makers were awarded on the basis of film synopsis, technical style and guarantee of profits from foreign distribution but selected films continued to be traditional in form. Truffault was awarded 4.5 million francs for a short costing 5 million francs. Truffault used the money for feature, Les Quatre Cent Coups, The 400 Blows. Truffault won the Cannes Grand Prix prize for best director in 1959. Godard was angry Truffault did not win best film and emphasised the need for originality, Godard said: “What would be the ‘concerto for the clarinet’ be without Mozart?”  Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima Mon Amour, which won the Palme d’Or explored memory in an original way. Godard said: “The very first thing that strikes you about this film is that it is totally devoid of cinematic references”.

Truffault was and remains an intellectual tour de force in French cinema and the Nouvelle Vague. But in the canon, Godard’s influence on cinema remains unique as his early work combines cult status with an oeuvre of original work that is groundbreaking, seminal, popular and political while being intensely provocative.

The international Expo 58 was where Godard would first see American film maker and intellectual Orson Welles’ film Touch of Evil He would later cite The Lady of Shanghai as an influence. Touch of Evil would help inspire Godard’s first ultra-low budget feature Breathless, A bout of souffle[An attack of suffocation] in 1960. Godard would go on to say: “All of us will always owe him [Orson Welles] everything”.

Truffault wrote the outline for Godard’s first feature Breathless. Godard would use Truffault’s name to get funding. Godard would also introduce a spontaneous authentic auteur style of film making by writing the dialogue for Breathless while filming on locations.

Breathless is a story about a romantic petty gangster who kills a policeman and falls in love with a middle class American girl but she betrays him to the police. The film stars French Michel played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and American Patricia played by Jean Serberg. Breathless confronts and contrasts post-war male European cynicism, anger and pessimism with the female American romantic optimism of the naive middle class American Patricia Franchini, who is studying journalism in France. The film ends with protagonist Michel being shot in the back after Patricia rejects his love and literally shops him to the cops. Michel tells her, “You make me want to puke” but ignorant Patricia is left to ask, “What does that mean?” 

The dramatic conflict is centred on the plot and characters of the two lovers whose memorable lines and references to popular culture made young audiences sympathise on a personal level. Godard’s use of language in Breathless does not reference realism but the heightened language of modern slang which creates its own rhythm. The style was later to find a home in the American New Wave (ANW) of Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola. The impact of Breathless on film making continues as star Jean-Paul Belmondo, was honoured with a special Cannes evening in 2011.

The film Breathless is regularly cited as a major influence on film makers for a myriad of reasons. The innovative use of plot driven structure, heightened stylised dialogue, non-continuity, mixing low and high art, metaphor and film syntax, all of which reveals an engaging but self-conscious development of a new cinematic style.  Godard uses Breathless to challenge prejudice against American cinema using the medium of film and the stars who starred in them. Breathless character Michel is clearly modelled on Humphrey Bogart stopping to admire a poster of the man he affectionately calls “Bogie”. But Godard did not confine his influences to America in Breathless, he also uses Cinéma vérité (/ˈsɪnɨmə vɛrɨˈteɪ/, truthful cinema), a style of documentary film-making invented by Russian film maker Dziga Vertov. Godard’s ability to create the real within the unreal by using a concealed camera to capture a Paris street scene with actors interacting with a public unaware of being filmed. The aim was to create a non-linear reality within the illusion of the film. Godard single-handedly extends the use of Cinéma vérité to the edit suite by using choppy jump-cut edits that enhance the conflict between the characters. Godard’s Shakespearean inspired method of delivering lines to the actors made it fresh but the risky approach also created the tension as most scenes were one take. Godard methodology for actual film-making including tracking shots using a wheelchair, shooting in public streets with concealed cameras but without permits or lights and of course, the poor man’s accident, off-screen. These Do It Yourself (DIY) techniques, some old, some new, enabled the ultra-low budget film Breathless to be made. Godard’s journey to challenge the traditional grammar of film styles and aesthetics while referencing works in an original way had begun. As TS Eliot once said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Godard unlike others in the Cahiers Du Cinema used film to comment on social and political themes unlike other contemporaries like Truffault who did not believe this was the work of film makers. This led to an artistic and ideological rift between the two film makers was was never resolved in the way of John Lennon ( and Paul Mcartney. Social values and the expression of intellectual thoughts through words would become the driving force behind Godard’s art throughout his career. The intensely political 1960s challenged the status quo which led to a culture of questioning cultural, political and social values.

Godard placed himself at the centre of a French film scene searching for a new way, which was to start with his second feature Le Petit Soldat, The Little Soldier, in 1960, a love spy thriller with a political message. Le Petit Soldat follows Bruno Forestier played by Michel Subor, an agent operative forced to work with the French intelligence after refusing to enlist in the army. Bruno fails to carry out an assassination to kill a target from the National Liberation Front of Algerian, pro-FLN target when he meets and falls for Veronica Deyer played by Anna Karina who works for the pro-FLN. Le Petit Soldat was made during the Algerian struggle for independence but was banned by the CNC for its political comment. The ban was ostensibly blamed on a torture scene. The film was released in January 1963, a year after Algeria achieved independence. In 1968, a young generation would challenge and question the hypocrisy of power and war with the failures to follow the Geneva Convention and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1963, Godard wrote the screenplay for Le Mépris, Contempt. The film stars Brigitte Bardot as Camille Javal, a beautiful wife who falls out of love and hates her scriptwriter husband when he sells out to a Hollywood producer.

Godard would abandon metaphor and structure for loosely based plots allowing for a discursive style of film making. This allowed Godard to develop his use of film as a vehicle for social and political dialogue and extend his style to adopt a more self-conscious Brecthtian style. This would challenge the very basis of illusion and reality within cinema itself. The seeds of change are first seen in Une femme mariée, A Married Woman in 1964. The film’s lack of plot structure represents the alienation brought about by bourgeois society. Godard consolidates his new style in Masculin, fémininwhich stars Jean-Pierre Léaud as Paul and Madeleine Zimmer as Chantel Goya. Masculine Feminine uses a couple’s developing relationship to allow a discussion of feelings about love, war, freedom of expression, sex, contraception, and politics. The film’s Cinema Verite style pays homage to Dziga Vertov. In 1962, Godard says: “I think of myself as a critic…I think of myself as an essayist” [Cahiers Du Cinema]. The film represents Godard’s battle against capitalism and alternatives as borne out by film references to Bob Dylan and James Bond as well as the intertitle stipulating “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola”. Masculine Feminine has a story but becomes a series of essays unlike the character driven plot of Breathless.

In 1965, Godard returns to the narrative and metaphor fold with the highly acclaimed detective-fiction finds science-fiction to meet film-noir in the film Alphaville. Godard adapts the screenplay from a novel by Peter Cheyney. The full title of the film was Alphaville, une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution. The film stars Lemmy Caution played by Eddie Constantine who falls in love with Anna Karina, Natacha, the daughter of the scientist who invents totalitarian computer Alpha 60.  The film follows a French reporter who arrives in a futuristic utopia only to discover a dystopian totalitarian reality complete with public executions at an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The imperialistic computer Alpha 60, which seeks to dehumanize and conquer, personifies a state with power over life, love and emotions using logic as its weapon. Godard uses the didactic philosophy of the computer Alpha 60 as a metaphor using the totalitarian logic of technology. The film uses German Expressionism style noir in a narrative detective fiction style plot. Lemmy Caution is a  character from French adventure films. The framing and style of the definitive film poster clearly draws parallels with Russian avant-garde constructivism.

Godard lets the audience see the contradictions and the angst between the philosopher, the film maker, the innovator and the highly sensitive and politically charged emotions of  the man himself in his films.

The film Weekend which was released in 1967, revolves around a couple Roland played by Jean Yanne and Corinne played by Mireille Darc. Both are hell bent on doing anything including murdering each other and family to inherit material wealth. The film’s complex nature would refuse to take the audience pysche on a journey but directly challenge capitalism and its alternatives. Godard begins to replace the power of images and metaphor with words and language. The irony of Weekend is the film takes place in a car but the world does not appear to be moving forward but crashing, dying or waiting to realise material means at any cost. The film discusses slavery, serfdom and forced wage earning and the birth of man’s exploitation of man and ends with violence finding violence as even the hippie guerillas engage in murderous cannibalism. Weekend has dialogue but time is broken and actors come in and out of the world of the film. Weekend’s significance cannot be underestimated. The film was released a year before the revolutionary strikes of May 1968 and Cannes Film Festival itself, being shut down.

At the height of revolutionary fervour in 1968, Godard sought to realise the socialist utopia imagined by 1920s film maker Russian Dziga Vertov. He set up a group with Jean Pierre Gorin, a professor who worked with the Nouvelle Vague. Godard and Gorin collaborated on Tout va bien, Everything is Alright, which was made in 1972. The film stars include Yves Montand as Jacques and Jane Fonda as Suzanne. The film is introduced as needing two stars to gain funding for the film but the film is a self-referential set theatre piece where characters talk to the camera about the failure to realise the hopes of the 1968 revolution.

In 1983, Godard’s film Prénom Carmen, First Name Carmen written by Anne-Marie Miéville won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The story revolves around a girl Maruschka Detmers, a member of a terrorist group member who falls for a security guard but soon falls out of love with him for not having any intellectual prowess interspersed with a string quartet practising Beethoven.

Godard shift towards philosophical perspectives which treat film according to the Hegelian perspective can provide an insight into his trajectory. Philosopher George Wilhelm Hegel (G.W.F. Hegel) demarcated history into changes of thought. According to Hegel, this begins with what he called a ‘thesis’ of simple harmony personified by Greece which he saw as a model society with a ruling state set versus the ‘antithesis’ of individual consciousness realised by humans as a result of Socrates who Hegel thought should have been sentenced to death for corrupting and subverting Athenian society. Hegel believes ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’ result in a historical ‘synthesis’, a  ‘dialectical change’ where conflict and change are necessary to achieve the goal. The original idea of the dialectic was espoused by Socrates who showed rather than told that persistent questioning resulted in exposing the contradictions of beliefs or perceptions. Hegel’s selective use of history and facts is criticised for inconsistency. Hegel saw himself as a successor to philosopher Immanuel Kant, who saw opposites such as freedom v oppression and love v hate as being two pairs of ideas which he called antinomies understood by personal experiences not externalised through a structured relationship with the state. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer also agreed with Kant that the totality of human reality relates to the phenomenal which is derived from the mind and sensory experience and the noumenal which is things as they actually are but outside of human experience, ‘the thing-in-itself’. However, Schopenhauer believed the ‘thing-in-itself’ can be known through representation which is usually art, the highest order of which, is music. These important distinctions can help to understand Godard’s work. It may even show audiences are less inclined to disagree with Godard but the tyranny of subjecting his ideas to the constraints of political and social Hegelian structures

Godard’s decision to reject what he refers to as the Hollywood model consolidates the thesis. An interview in The Guardian reveals Godard’s view. He says: “If you go and see Titanic, you only give the film 10% of your personality. Good films get smaller audiences, but more of the viewer.”

Godard appears to believe Titanic is a corruption of the form. However, I urge Godard to review this view and reclaim the structure of a classic Hollywood film as it is derived from a classical form that was first recorded by Aristotle and resurrected in musical form by Mozart and Hadyn, his tutor, before him. The sonata would not have been possible without reference to the classical form identified by Aristotle whose study of playwright Sophocles reveals the power of communicating through the representation. This is what enabled Sophocles to be voted as the most successful playwright of his time. The theory was first espoused by Schopenhauer. A Hollywood film simply embodies the sonata into a drama and like music, it draws, elicits and demands that the audience declare its emotions while following a story where they experience inventive and surprising plots driving towards a set goal. As a discerning audience member, I am not a passive observer but constantly analysing or rejecting the goal and emotions displayed by the characters if they fall short of some truth. Some European critics insist on describing empathy and emotions as sentimental and mawkish. But to deny the need and power of empathy and emotions in film also rejects what makes us human once we are alone watching a film.  It is precisely this skill of engendering emotions which enables artists, musicians and particularly poets to transcend the art form and find the meaning behind the meaning. Godard himself will no doubt acknowledge that the audience reaction to films which buck the system like Fight Club reveals a latent if not open desire for change even in America.

I am actually going to suggest that there can be too much innovation if it is not focused because it may not be there long enough to have an impact like the disposable world of capitalist commodification and too little innovation means tradition where nothing ever changes and therein lies the contradiction. Godard himself does not need to compare himself to Hollywood for he is an innovator of the form. Godard’s rejection of emotion centred cinema is because he does not appear to believe higher human values presently exist in society. Godard is giving his cinema goers a truth that the escapism of cinema refuses to acknowledge and this is the paradox of illusion and reality, a place where truth lies. An interview in 1997 with the LA Times, confirms this view. Godard says: “Pictures no longer bring anything new to the audience, because they have it 100 times a day on TV … the only thing left is to show more truth about people’s lives, but they don’t want truth about that.” 

Godard’s oeuvre can be defined as a linear experiment with constant innovation for an art form through the eyes of a man led by his social values and a desire to break boundaries in cinematic artistic expression.

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One thought on “The Eye of Godard’s ‘I’©

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