Jean-Luc Godard

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Jean-Luc Godard

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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.

Early Life

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.”

Life’s Work

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...

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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 (1963; Contempt), was designed to restore what he called his “movie-loving attitude.” Using international stars such as Jack Palance, Brigitte Bardot, and the director Fritz Lang (as himself), the film was ostensibly about “men cut off from the gods, cut off from the world,” but the presence of Bardot in particular detracted from Godard’s attempt to render a Homeric conception in which the filmmaker was like the poet in ancient Greece—a storehouse of the wisdom of his time. Continuing to work so that he did not exclude “one aspect of the cinema in the name of another aspect of the cinema,” Godard followed Contempt with Une Femme mariée (1964; The Married Woman), an examination of bourgeois expectations for a marriage shot in a pop-art, surface-against-surface approach; Bande à part (1964; Band of Outsiders), a romantic recollection of the moods of the American gangster film and a comment/analysis on the conventions of that genre; and Alphaville (1965), a vision of a postmodern world where a detective/hero carries his hard-boiled sensibility into a surrealistic, mechanized landscape in a clash of an out-moded past and an inhuman future.

In Pierrot le fou (1965) and Masculin-féminin (1966), Godard moved closer to his own feelings, revealing some of his deepest personal responses through his characters. He even cast his own wife, Anna Karina, in Pierrot le fou. In Masculin-féminin, Godard attempted to come to terms with his own youth and with the excitement that he had felt in Paris as he learned about life in the city of light, about the art of film itself, and about the mysterious nature of feminine reality. Although the film employs many of Godard’s now familiar devices (words dissected on the screen, interior monologues, interviews amid the narrative action, a randomness of sequences), there are many scenes of lyric intensity in which an emotional and subjective point of view transcends the witty social commentary.

Concluding a decade of exceptional cinematic activity, Godard directed Le Week-end (1967; Weekend), a raucous, explosive tableau of the modern world as a long, winding, insane highway replete with blatant sexual displays, comic violence, and people devoured by their own selfishness; Le Gai Savoir (1968; The Joy of Learning), an examination of philosophic responses to contemporary situations; and One Plus One (released as Sympathy for the Devil in 1968), a quasi-documentary examination of pop culture including the band the Rolling Stones. Then, after a decade of influential and prolific filmmaking, Godard disappeared from view. This disappearance was actually a refusal to continue to make films and distribute them in the familiar manner of the film industry. The political events of 1968 (assassination and murder, Vietnam, the student revolts in Paris) led Godard to form a production group named for the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, in which he collaborated with the theorist Jean-Pierre Gorin on specifically ideological films, using politically oriented celebrities such as Yves Montand and Jane Fonda to try to mix commercial filmmaking and social criticism. In 1972, Godard shifted entirely into the realm of video technology to try to avoid completely the strictures of commercial control over his efforts, moving to Switzerland in order to set up a production facility in which he and Anne-Marie Miéville, his partner, could be fully responsible for their work. While the films and television features Godard made during this time have their admirers, many people believe that much of the work was largely inaccessible to all but the most dedicated film scholars.

A third phase of Godard’s career began in 1979, further confounding the critics who had dismissed him as a has-been. Still living in Switzerland, Godard directed Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) (1979; Every Man for Himself), an effort which Godard called his “second first film.” In a story of three people, two women and a man, the characters’ lives connect, interact, and finally diverge. The film is another critique of modern society, and, while it tends to be episodic, the lives of the people whom the film follows are presented in powerful and sympathetic fashion. Although Godard does not quite connect everything, scene after scene resonates with Godard’s arresting use of the camera to direct the viewer’s attention. This film was followed by others, including Je vous salue, Marie (1985; Hail Mary), a bizarrely ironic recounting of the Nativity story, featuring a modern Virgin Mary appearing completely nude. Godard knew that the official religious publications would attack his work as blasphemous, but what interested him was trying to place the archetypal events in both a modern and unfamiliar context. Much of the film is obscure, but much of it is also witty and pointed, mixing the carnal with the spiritual in an unpredictable manner. That same year, he also directed Detective, a reprise of 1940’s film noir styles in a kind of comic murder mystery. In 1987, Godard produced his first film entirely in English, a very eccentric version of King Lear, featuring Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald, and Godard himself, and at the Cannes Festival in 1990, his typically controversial film Nouvelle Vague premiered. In his fourth decade of filmmaking, he produced For Ever Mozart (1996) and Hélas pour moi (1993; Oh, Woe is Me), among others.


It has been said that D. W. Griffith gave the cinema its alphabet, that Sergei Eisenstein gave the cinema its intellect, and that Charles Chaplin gave it its humanity. Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to include Jean-Luc Godard in this exalted pantheon, but it is not unreasonable to say that Godard, by subverting all of its conventions, gave the cinema its freedom. Even now that his work is relatively familiar, there is a bold, imaginative quality to a Godard film that is remarkably refreshing even when the director’s idiosyncrasies make the film frustrating in some ways.

Specifically, Godard mixes various cinematic modes to arrive at new possibilities that work because he knows film history so well. His use of sight and sound is like a sensory assault that prevents the viewer from watching with a mind on automatic pilot. Escape is impossible, engagement unavoidable. Godard takes as his primary challenge the problem of how to communicate what is “real” when nothing is real except the projected celluloid on the screen at any moment. His examination of shifting realities has led him (and his audience) to a new understanding of the nature of perception itself, time and space ordered and reordered by the artist and the observer. One of his primary fields of experimentation is in the area of editing, in which Godard rejects the classical theory of montage and substitutes his own style. It is the excitement of discovery that makes Godard’s work so compelling, the singularity of his vision that makes it so provocative, and the demands that he makes on the audience that prevent it from ever being ordinary cinema.


Brown, Royal S., ed. Focus on Godard. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. An anthology containing essays, reviews, and an interview with Godard covering his Dziga Vertov period. There is a careful textual analysis of his early films by Marie-Claire Ropars.

Collet, Jean. Jean-Luc Godard: An Investigation into His Films and Philosophy. Translated by Ciba Vaughan. New York: Crown, 1970. Several revealing interviews with the director as well as perceptive commentary on the social conditions surrounding Godard’s work.

Gaggi, Silvio. Modern/Postmodern: A Study in Twentieth Century Arts and Ideas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. Comparisons between works in the theater, film, painting, and literature to demonstrate relationships among different forms of contemporary art and philosophy. Places Godard in a larger aesthetic and philosophical context.

Gianetti, Louis. Godard and Others: Essays on Film Form. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975. An especially lucid essay on Masculin-féminin and many other incisive comments on Godard’s work in relation to other films.

Godard, Jean-Luc. Godard on Godard. Edited and translated by Tom Milne. 2d ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1989. Godard’s comments and reactions concerning a very wide range of films and filmmakers. An excellent companion to the director’s films, capturing the flavor of Godard’s wit and insight. Milne’s translations are adequate, although John Kreidl believes that they are weak in the area of film theory.

Kreidl, John. Jean-Luc Godard. Boston: Twayne, 1980. An intense, engrossing full-length study of Godard’s films and ideas through the first two decades of his career. Written in a style that attempts to approximate the structure of Godard’s films, the book is a bit eccentric but very intelligent. Thorough notes and references, an accurate filmography, and a very useful annotated bibliography.

MacCabe, Colin. Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. An intellectual and personal defense of the period when Godard removed himself from conventional film-distributing patterns. Detailed and analytical, with many illustrations, sketches, and photographs. Designed for the serious student but not inaccessible. Interviews with Godard follow each chapter.

Monaco, James. The New Wave. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. A lengthy discussion of Godard’s work in relation to the other filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. Competent and thorough.

Mussman, Toby. Jean-Luc Godard. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968. A critical anthology containing some very interesting interviews by Godard near the beginning of his career, critical essays on the first films, and some commentary by other filmmakers.

Roud, Richard. Godard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. A clearly written analysis of Godard’s career from its inception through the conclusion of the first phase. Roud concentrates on form and shows the connective threads in the films of the 1960’s.

Simon, John. Movies into Film. New York: Dial Press, 1971. Simon’s essay on La Chinoise (1967) is a representative example of the kind of criticism that unsympathetic commentators applied to Godard’s work. It is a testament to the power of the work that it has evoked such wide-ranging responses.


Critical Essays