Jean-Luc Godard Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)