Jean-Luc Godard Essay - Critical Essays

Godard, Jean-Luc


Jean-Luc Godard 1930–

French director, screenwriter, actor, and critic.

Godard is one of the most important figures to emerge from the nouvelle vague (new wave): the auteurist school of film proposed by a group of critics intent upon being the complete creators of their films. Godard's style is regarded as abstract, dealing with the very nature and phenomenon of cinema. His desire to examine every aspect of the cinema has made him both controversial and misunderstood as well as lauded. Although not universally popular, he is unarguably one of the greatest influences on cinema since the 1960s.

Raised in Switzerland, Godard attended the Sorbonne, where his interest in cinema was nurtured. He first became involved with the cinema at the age of twenty, acting in films made by Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. During the fifties Godard wrote film criticism for such journals as La gazette du cinéma, which he founded with Rivette and Rohmer, and Les cahiers du cinéma. He made his first short film in 1954 and continued making short, experimental films until 1959, when he directed his first feature-length film, A bout de souffle (Breathless).

Like the films that were to follow, A bout de souffle was low-budget, rapidly shot, and heavily improvised. It received critical acclaim and proved to be strongly reminiscent of the film noir genre, featuring aimless characters and a fascination with the gangster mode. Its freeform style forced the audience to follow the film's erratic leaps from point to point. In this and other early films, Godard's primary themes were already apparent, among them the idea that the sacrifice of personal dignity for materialistic purposes is prostitution. Godard's early films showed expansive knowledge and appreciation of American movies. His love of cinema and his complete understanding of cinematic art underlies his work. Although Godard is not technically innovative, he is highly regarded for his expert manipulation of the elements and theories of cinema.

Beginning with La Chinoise, Godard's films became more political. Yet, throughout, they are highly personal in style and theme. Most of Godard's work of the late 1960s was the result of his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin in the Groupe Dziga Vertov. Along with Gorin, Godard worked on several projects, many of which were left unfinished. During their filming of Tout va bien, Godard was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle crash. Gorin undertook most of the filmmaking; as a result Tout va bien is not a definitive Godard work. From 1968 to 1980 Godard directed videotape films, experimental in nature and not widely distributed.

Of Every Man for Himself, his first commercial film since 1968, Godard says: "For the first time in twenty years, I have a feeling that rules have to be discovered; one should neither obey nor revolt automatically. It's better to discover what can be yours in the system and accept or change it. But work it and discover the unknown. Cinema is still an adventure for me." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)

Arlene Croce

Breathless shows what the modern French version of [la nouvelle vague] really looks like, and the result is one of the most genuinely novel films of the lot. As parody, it is as subtly intellectual as [Robert Aldrich's] Kiss Me Deadly was exaggeratedly visceral; as improvisation, it is as unified and witty as [John Huston's] Beat the Devil was chaotic and arch; and as an example of new-wave camp, it is a beaut….

The principle of novelty, in Breathless, lies in its acceptance of an exhausted genre—the Hollywood grade-B crime film—as a simulacrum of reality. Its plot is little more than that of the quickie digest: Footloose Killer on the Run Tangles with Double-dealing Broad as Cops Close In—Big Paris Manhunt. These mediocre clichés are played out in the deadpan style of an actualité, producing a dual impression of great moral wit and intense neurotic despair. The term "romantic nihilism" which critics have applied to many of the new-wave films and to Breathless in particular is apt enough. But the trouble with it is that it tends to make a generalizing cultural analysis of what are essentially cinematic fun and games….

Breathless accomplishes much that is necessary for our present. Classic parallels are uncovered in the commonplace and are witty beyond any since Cocteau's own historic rummagings on behalf of another generation. (p. 54)

Breathless is a mannerist fantasy, cinematic jazz. Watching it, one can hardly avoid the feeling that Godard's intention, above all, was to produce slices of cinema—shots, figments, iconography—what the...

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Raymond Durgnat

No wonder Jean-Luc Godard called it A Bout de Souffle (Breathless)—the characters stop running only to start talking and their talking is a logorrhoea of caprice, probing and self-defence. Superficially it is a study of a lost generation; but generations are never lost without good reason, and the film is not an account of motives and causes (if it were it would be a criminological case-history) but a study in sensibility. Its nearest equivalent in English literature is Henry James to whose elephantine precision, hesitations and self-consciousness in the pursuit of obscure yet vaguely huge soul-states it approximates by the flippant paradox, the pun and the non sequitur. If Henry James in search of clarifications seems to pant like a bloodhound pursuing its own tail, the hero of A Bout de Souffle has abandoned the vicious circles of self-analysis for the shrug, the droop or jut of a fag, and the facetious grimace….

What distinguishes A Bout de Souffle from a mere demonstration of falsity (which would be too easy to be interesting) is that the inauthenticity is conscious, total and follows a sinewy discipline of its own. It is lived, not just brooded over….

Michel is not serious about life and death, but he is very serious about moral commitment….

This distinction, far from justifying his action, doesn't even palliate it; no amount of argument can make him seem, for...

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Tom Milne

I consider Vivre sa Vie [My Life to Live] to be not only Godard's most mature and most personal film, but also something of a masterpiece. The full range of the cinematic vocabulary which he spread out in his earlier films with the vivid and random excitement of a child learning to talk is here applied with a rigorous economy and exactness which show his complete and imaginative mastery of the medium, together with a new element of repose….

[Like A Bout de Souffle, Vivre sa Vie has a thriller-novelette basis.] But where it is possible to appreciate A Bout de Souffle unexactingly on a "B" film plane, as an excitingly told tale, I doubt whether anyone could, or would, sit through Vivre sa Vie on this level. Although the value and originality of A Bout de Souffle lies in its thick texture and its flashes below the surface, its real meat is the exterior story of a young man determined to fulfil the exhortation "live dangerously to the end." In Vivre sa Vie, on the other hand, this exterior is simply a shell to be peeled away; and the shell is necessary only in so far as it encloses what (for want of a better word) one might call the soul.

Hence the Brechtian structure of the film, which is divided into twelve distinct chapters, each preceded by a title summarising the characters and main action to follow. By this means attention is drawn away from the dramatic progress of Nana's story, and concentrated on her reaction to each event as it occurs. Godard has thus abandoned the fast and furious pace which is an integral feature of A Bout de Souffle and the "B" feature genre (and, incidentally, of Une Femme est une Femme), and in Vivre sa Vie the camera, often completely static, is allowed all the time it wants to capture a brief, revelatory moment; in fact, the camera is used, precisely and exactly, to isolate and examine each of these moments as it occurs….

The motif of the film is stated in the first chapter, in Paul's story of the...

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Isabel Quigly

Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat, which has been banned for three years as too topical, too controversial and in general too embarrassing for export, turns out to be an intense, unlikeable work, highly interesting, hugely depressing, and strangely 'clinging,' one of those films whose images hang about afterwards, hauntingly nasty and antiseptic, secretly full of meaning and of dire, alarming point. It is a film about politics in action that refuses to make political statements, and while one longs, can hardly fail, to take sides, to hate or approve before any action, even, Godard will not allow it. 'A plague on both your houses' is as far as he will go, and the result is not so much balanced as remote...

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Michael Kustow

[Godard loves] defiantly simple definitions. Let me try one: a Godard film is one in which several people play a game which ends in a death. Yes, but that's not enough: let's try something even simpler. The cinema is made of pictures on a strip of moving celluloid through which light passes. The existences of Godard's characters are unstable; just as precarious is the enterprise of making such a film. Godard makes us feel his awareness of the constant fragility of his fiction, the illusoriness of his medium.

His films have been compared with Pop Art, and they share its planned obsolescence…. Godard's films are as mutable as his characters' grasp on their own existence. To accuse him of flippancy,...

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Tom Milne

Godard has always been two or three years ahead of his time. All the same, one wasn't quite prepared for the way everything else (from [Antonioni's] The Red Desert downwards) began to look rather old-fashioned and strained as soon as Une Femme Mariée [The Married Woman] appeared on the scene. Comparisons are impossible, of course: The Red Desert is in its own way just as remarkable a film. It is simply that Godard has realised—and found a technique for dealing with his realisation—that modern life is so complex, and human relationships so intangibly tangled, that fully rounded and polished artistic statements with all the ends tucked neatly out of sight are no longer possible….


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Richard Roud

Comic strips seem to represent many things for Godard: first, a source book for the contemporary collective subconscious; secondly, a dramatic framework derived from modern myth—in much the same way as Joyce used the Ulysses myth; thirdly, a reaction against the subtleties of the psychological novel; finally the attraction of comic strip narrative with its sudden shifting of scene, its freedom of narration, its economy.

The plot of Alphaville is pure comic strip…. (p. 164)

Just like a [Roy] Lichtenstein painting ("Oh, Brad, (gulp) it should have been that way"), the dialogue often echoes the balloons: "Let this serve as a warning to all those who try to …" etc....

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John Bragin

The essence of Jean-Luc Godard's La Femme Mariée is the transmutation of the dramatic into the graphic. The comings and goings of the characters, and the development of the story, are presented in the matter-of-fact way which is characteristic of Godard, and whose episodic nature reached its height in his film Vivre Sa Vie. The graphic elements in Godard's films are by no means new, they can be found in all of his work. What is new is the consistent movement into the graphic from the dramatic which is used as the basis of expression in this film, and which was only found in kernels in his other works…. Two of the film's title cards read successively: IN BLACK, AND WHITE, and it is between two...

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John Thomas

Let me insist from the outset that Alphaville is a film about flickering lights, circular staircases, labyrinthine hallways, and Zippo lighters. That it's also a film about alienation, the dehumanization of man and all that other stuff serious movies are required to be about is undeniable; but in Godard's world this second set of themes carries no greater weight than the first, and neither can be said to constitute the "meaning" of the film….

It's necessary to say all this because Alphaville is so clearly the ultimate Message Movie that one may fail to see that it is, equally, the ultimate Meaningless Movie. Godard creates his future society with its rigid logic out of a series of...

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John Simon

In the phrase "the new sensibility"—it may or may not have been coined by Susan Sontag—the operative word is, of course, new, not sensibility. (p. 272)

[The] concept of "the new sensibility" … is supposed to account for the revolution in the arts …; and for a realm of film-making whose summit is Godard and bottom the "underground movies" or "New American Cinema," as, in its newly sensible way, it likes to call itself. These and many more the Pandora's box of contemporary pseudo-art has unleashed upon us: every kind of plague in fact, excepting only hope.

Who was the Pandora who actually opened the lid? As far as film is concerned, I would locate the moment of...

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Andrew Sarris

The increasing fragmentation of Godardian cinema seems to indicate a depletion of emotional energy. It is not so much that Godard is repeating his effects as that he is ritualizing them into frozen cerebral patterns. The rapport of fiction with reality so dear to Godard's film-making aesthetic has degenerated from exploration to exploitation. Whereas he once explored the continent of Karina's countenance, he is now content (in Made in U.S.A.) to exploit the mannerisms she has picked up along the way. Godard's spectacle is still dazzling to behold, but the images are devoid of feeling. The superficiality of his political rhetoric becomes offensive at that precise moment when his own personal suffering fades from...

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Pauline Kael

Only the title of Jean-Luc Godard's new film is casual and innocent; Weekend is the most powerful mystical movie since [Bergman's] The Seventh Seal and [Ichikawa's] Fires on the Plain and passages of Kurosawa. We are hardly aware of the magnitude of the author-director's conception until after we are caught up in the comedy of horror, which keeps going further and becoming more nearly inescapable…. The danger for satirists (and perhaps especially for visionary satirists) is that they don't always trust their art. They don't know how brilliantly they're making their points; they become mad with impatience and disgust, and throw off their art as if it were a hindrance to direct communication, and...

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Pauline Kael

Masculine Feminine is that rare movie achievement: a work of grace and beauty in a contemporary setting. Godard has liberated his feeling for modern youth from the American gangster-movie framework which limited his expressiveness and his relevance to the non-movie centered world. He has taken up the strands of what was most original in his best films—the life of the uncomprehending heroine, the blank-eyed career-happy little opportunist-betrayer from Breathless, and the hully-gully, the dance of sexual isolation, from Band of Outsiders [Bande à part]. Using neither crime nor the romance of crime but a simple romance for a kind of interwoven story line, Godard has, at last, created the form he...

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Stanley Kauffmann

The story [of Pierrot le Fou] would be trite—a mod Elvira Madigan—if it asked for any attention as such. It would also be incredible. That [a] mousy little baby-sitter is also involved with killers and is undisturbed by a corpse in the next room on the night that she and her lover first go to bed—all this would be ludicrous if we were meant to take the narrative seriously. But in a frantic way Godard is deliberately fracturing story logic, using narrative only as a scaffolding for acrobatics, cinematic and metaphysical. The question is whether those acrobatics are consistently amusing and/or enlightening. I think not. (p. 139)

For me, the film is a function of three boredoms. (I...

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John Weightman

[Le Gai Savoir] is such a silly and pretentious film that one cannot help wondering what Jean-Luc Godard is now up to. The hand-outs say that it was begun as a documentary on education, commissioned by French television, but that it has so far been banned in France. I cannot understand why; the censors must be even more obtuse than one supposes if they fear that such a tedious work might arouse dangerous passions, apart from acute irritation with M. Godard himself. Perhaps, after all, they rejected it simply because it is bad. It is even a tour de force of badness. In purporting to deal with education, Godard manages to be more boring and irrelevant than the most boring Sorbonne professor. God knows, I...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[Two or Three Things I Know about Her] is more interesting than many other Godard films because, for one reason, it seems to have sustained the director's own interest. There is no feeling, as in Pierrot le Fou, that this very bright man has embarked on something to which he is committed long after his darting mind has really left it and that he has been forced to invent irreverences and interpolations to keep himself interested. For another reason, the film is devoid of the worst aspects of Youth Worship that sometimes taint his work; it is about people, some of whom are young. But the chief merit is that it develops its themes within itself, for the most part, not by imposition. The interplay between...

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Penelope Gilliatt

Godard's voice carries. He has finished two new films, "See You at Mao" and "Pravda," each about an hour long, in a style going toward the most didactic and thorny destinations, yet he can't for the life of him suppress the force and grace of that singular delivery of his. Even these raw first works of a new stage that is now tough going seem likely in the end to reach the ears of people out of sympathy with his radical politics, not because of the yelling powers of polemics but because of the carrying powers of a poet's voice. Godard can make a silly film or an endearing one, but he can't make an ineloquent one. His path now goes away from narrative completely, and it isn't exactly a paved highway. (pp. 83-4)


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Leo Hamalian

[Since] visual interruptions are slipped in much as the auditory interruptions are [in Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One)], Godard may be suggesting that our inner, unconscious awareness is dominated by what we see and hear on the edges of our perception, almost subliminally or at least not with our full attention. What if our culture (depicted in the "outside" scenes) subjects us to pornography, propaganda, violence, and the cynical commercialism of television? The pornography, hinting at perversion, is associated with fascism in the film and the fascism with violence: as the customers in the porno shop leave, they first ritualistically slap the faces of two boys who sit helpless and hurt in a corner. The...

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Joan Mellen

Wind from the East, one of the latest of Godard's revolutionary epics, fails miserably: first, aesthetically, because Godard cannot find a myth or a situation by which to bring to life its Maoist ideology, a problem he has failed to solve in many of his films. It is conceptually weak and inane as well, failing to make any coherent statement about revolutionary purpose, although the basis of Godard's technique in this film is the accumulation of statements. (p. 65)

Because he relinquishes the aesthetic potential of his medium with its capacity to move at will from one segment of time and place to another, Godard cannot convey the sense of historical struggle. But his choice of an unrelieved...

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Richard Schickel

Godard's vision of [the young Maoists in La Chinoise (The Chinese Girl)] is persuasively realistic. And chilling.

And comic. What always saves Godard's work for me is his superb sense of irony. His sympathetic fascination with the outsiders who always people his films rarely deteriorates into sentimentality. Quite the contrary—they are absurd creatures. In La Chinoise, for instance, adolescent inattention and ineptitude keep undercutting everyone's revolutionary fervor, as do the sexual crosscurrents which keep swirling about. And when these humorless idealists move from talk to action, things fall still further apart. They carefully plan an assassination and, of course, gun down the...

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Peter Harcourt

[The distinction of À Bout de souffle] lay in its ability to embody in the texture of the film itself the uncertainties and fragmentariness that form the basic ingredients of its view of life and the view of life of many Godard films to follow. À Bout de souffle abounds in non-sequiturs which become part of this meaninglessness. It also abounds in jump-cuts and restless tracking shots that deprive us of any sense of a logical transition from scene to scene as they deprive us as well of the sense of ever being still. Also in the movie as part of its gangster-film atmosphere, there is the feeling of persecution, a sense of the net closing in. The mechanics of the city seem to work against the...

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Jerome H. Delamater

Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou is an intricate and complex film, rich in visual and verbal allusion to painting, literature, and other films. It moves with its two leading characters, Ferdinand and Marianne …, in a somewhat picaresque journey through a life of trying to escape from society, hypocrisy, and commercialism to a life of crime and violence, ultimately arriving at death, perhaps the only true liberation. Godard's style, an introverted and self-consciously cinematic one, is so closely linked with his narrative and his thematic elements that the two are almost inseparable. Pierrot le Fou is a profound film that contrasts the humane and the inhumane in revelations of the best that man can...

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In the programme notes to Mahagonny, the notes which Yves Montand refers to in Tout va bien, Brecht defines epic theatre in terms of a radical separation of its elements and distinguishes three such elements in the opera—the music, the text and the setting. In cinema, thanks to the work of Christian Metz, we can distinguish five different elements: the moving picture image, recorded phonetic sound, recorded musical sound, recorded noise and writing. Considered from the position suggested by the notes to Mahagonny, Deux ou trois choses can certainly be considered as an epic film, for its whole progress is a constant separation of its constitutive elements. Perhaps the element which is most...

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James Monaco

The idea of participation is integral to Godard's films: it confronts us on every level. To paraphrase Le Gai Savoir, these are not the films that should be made, but when those films are made they will have to follow some of the lines these films have laid down. The main focus of Godard's energies, ever since he started writing about film in 1952, has been towards an understanding of the phenomenon of film (and by extension other arts)…. (p. 102)

[The phrase "The sign forces us to see an object through its significance"] will be Godard's motto as a filmmaker a decade later: it is typically hermetic, almost mystical; it is as ambiguous as a line of modern poetry, yet it...

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Dennis Giles

Weekend is the last film of Godard's contemplative phase, a film which prepares the break of 1968. With Deux ou trois choses of the previous year, it is a site on which Godard discovers the economic structures which motivate human behavior….

In Weekend, Godard reveals civil society in its most corrupt form from the viewpoint of an entomologist; in Deux ou trois choses he shows the subjective problems of an individual caught in the economic meshes of this "society of needs." Civil society … is characterized by an unreal split between political and economic society. The civil man (Corinne, Roland, Juliette) finds political matters external to his...

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Terry Curtis Fox

While his work still graces repertory houses and college classrooms, it is no longer the predominant oeuvre, the major topic of conversation it once was. The man who, in a typical mixture of ego, self-mockery, and dead accuracy, once signed himself JEAN-LUC CINEMA GODARD has disappeared. (p. 1)

Godard is not a case of a man who, like Hitchcock, was simply a generation ahead of his critics. Godard never imagined our dreams so much as we imagined his. There is a remarkable consistency to the man: He began life as a film critic, and, while at times we imagined him to be simply self-conscious, it is, in the most profound sense, a critic he has remained.

Godard has consistently turned...

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Andrew Sarris

No Godard film since Pierrot le fou has excited me as much as Sauve qui peut (La Vie) [released in the United States as Every Man for Himself]. Though his feeling for narrative has still not progressed from A to B and his disdain for psychological consistency and sociological probability is as outrageously apparent as ever, his zest for cinema is undiminished. Sauve qui peut is perhaps more like a piece of music than a movie. Every image is suffused with such elegant and exquisite insights into what makes the medium interact with its material that the total effect is intoxicating. Godard once wrote that the late Nicholas Ray was cinema. Perhaps the same can be said of Godard today. I...

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Robert Asahina

Though I have some serious reservations about [Every Man for Himself] and the post-modern tradition it exemplifies, it is nonetheless an important work of art, a signal event in film history.

Godard's most impressive achievement is to refashion the formal tools of naturalism. Until now, the approach has been not to call attention to the medium but to focus attention on the development of plot and characters. He expands the mode by employing a whole range of cinematic devices—slow motion, freeze-frames, intertitles—that in the hands of lesser directors typically announce the triumph of empty form over trivial content.

I initially suspected that Every Man for Himself...

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Pauline Kael

"Every Man for Himself" has been widely hailed as a return to [Godard's] great, innovative work of the sixties. It's wonderful to feel the pull of Godard's images again, to feel the rhythmic assurance. There was a special, anarchic sensuousness in the hasty, jerky flow of a Godard film. And there still is. In "Every Man for Himself," he demonstrates his nonchalant mastery; he can still impose his own way of seeing on you. But the movie may also make you feel empty. More than the fat has been burned out of "Every Man for Himself": the juice is gone, too.

The film is about money and people selling themselves—their minds or their bodies…. These characters (and the people around them) have lost hope,...

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J. Hoberman

Numero Deux is a mirthless caricature of domesticity. In addition to some startlingly explicit sex scenes, the film is crammed with garrulous grandparents, battles over the TV set, family members retreating into the world of stereo headphones, curious children, and sullen marital disagreements. While Two or Three Things was sumptuously cinemascopic, the fact that everything here is shown on two small TV monitors contributes to the bleak sense of isolation and claustrophobia. Even the few exteriors appear to have been shot looking down from a window.

But none of this withstanding, Numero Deux is among the most visually compelling films Godard has ever made. He uses his video...

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