Article abstract: Godard, along with his colleagues in the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) of postwar French film, expanded the possibilities of cinematic expression so that traditional narrative patterns could no longer be regarded as limits and was instrumental in locating film at the center of postmodern aesthetics, establishing the cinema as the equal of any form of artistic expression.
Jean-Luc Godard was born in Paris in 1930. His father, Paul Godard, was a prosperous doctor, and his mother, Odile Monod, was the daughter of a family that had been established in the banking profession in Switzerland for generations. The family moved to Switzerland in 1940 to escape the war and lived in Nyon until 1945. After the war, they returned to Paris, where Godard continued his education at the prestigious Lycée Buffon, a school specializing in the physical and biological sciences. His parents were divorced in 1946, and Godard moved into a hotel room a few blocks from the center of Montparnasse, one of the artists’ quarters of the city. He describes himself as a casual filmgoer until 1948, but in that year he discovered Travail et Culture, a Left Bank film club run by the distinguished film theorist André Bazin, and attended lectures at the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin, where he met Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut, soon to be fellow members of the New Wave. He was enrolled in the Sorbonne in 1950 and worked toward a degree in ethnology, attending lectures by Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of semiology, and received a certificate in 1952. Between 1949 and 1951, Godard recalls that “I saw every film I could see,” and, although he was planning to become a journalist, drawn to writing partly by the prestige that the word carried in the existential ethos of Paris in the 1950’s, he was already committed to film as a means of exploring and expressing his creative impulses.
In 1954, he returned to Switzerland to work briefly as a construction laborer and made his first film in 35 millimeter, a twenty-minute documentary on the building of the Grande-Dixence Dam, where he was employed. He had been writing essays on film since 1950, when he, Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette founded La Gazette du cinéma (which lasted for five issues) and when Bazin founded Cahiers du cinéma in April, 1951, a journal that quickly became the most influential film magazine in the world; Godard began to publish essays there as well. In 1956, he assisted Rohmer and Rivette on their early productions and began to think of himself as a film artist who could comment on films by making other films. During 1957, he began to write film scripts, discussing his work with producers as well as working as a publicist for Twentieth Century-Fox studios.
Pierre Braunberger, a producer of shorts, commissioned Godard to direct Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick (1957; All the Boys Are Called Patrick), another twenty-minute short. The discursive nature of the narration, the verbal density of its texture, and Godard’s postproduction dubbing of the main character’s voice are all characteristics of Godard’s work, and, although the film was rejected by the Tours Festival for “nonprofessionalism,” Godard dismissed these critics as people “for whom the cinema is comprehended only by its past.”
As the sixth decade of the twentieth century drew to a close, the motion picture industry was relatively moribund and static throughout the Western world. American studio films were increasingly formulaic, and European productions were generally also confined by conventions and expectations. The relative tranquillity of the 1950’s and the caution induced by the Cold War and the fear of nuclear destruction were about to be shattered by the explosion of suppressed energy of the next decade, and Godard’s first feature film, à Bout de souffle (1960; Breathless), both reflected and directed many of that decade’s most characteristic patterns. Its story about a girl studying at the Sorbonne and her relationship with a young gangster who has adopted a style fashioned after American film heroes (particularly Humphrey Bogart) was presented with a dazzling, innovative structure and very creative editing, which projected the rhythms of an emerging generation. The lack of traditional linear connections, the self-referential nature of the narration, the anarchic, almost nihilistic attitude of the street-smart young man, and the feeling of spontaneity that the film expressed had an enormous impact on film-goers and filmmakers. Godard was immediately made the subject of fierce support and enraged condemnation as artists of every variety saw opportunity either created or demolished.
Godard himself was too intent on making films to be especially concerned about the critical furor. His next film, Le Petit Soldat (1961; The Little Soldier), was made “to catch up with the realism I had missed in Breathless.” The film was a meditation on the French colonial situation in Algeria, and Godard was interested in what he called the “moral repercussions” of war. The French government banned the film until 1963, but by then Godard had gone on to direct Une Femme est une femme (1961; A Woman Is a Woman), a comedy that Godard called “my first real film.” He also made Vivre sa vie (1962; My Life to Live), a twelve-part, proto-feminist examination of prostitution, in which Godard attacked the use of people as products in a consumerist society. Becoming steadily more specific about his politics, Godard directed Les Carabiniers (1963; The Riflemen), a consideration of the specific nature of war, which confounded most of the critics, who could not see Godard’s deconstruction of the standard presentation of warfare in films. Adverse critical reaction caused the film to be withdrawn.
One of Godard’s favorite cinematic techniques was the Brechtian concept of alienation, in which the audience is compelled to recognize and regard its own responses to the action on the screen. While Godard purposely interrupted the expected course of the narrative with jump-cuts, asides, quotes, and shifts in time, he realized that he was progressively distancing himself from his characters as well, and his next film, Le Mépris...
(The entire section is 2630 words.)