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Dhaka Tribune

The old man and the New Wave: Adieu, Jean-Luc Godard

Update : 17 Sep 2022, 10:28 AM

Jean-Luc Godard was a man of contradictions. 

“The cinema is truth, 24 frames per second,” he famously said. But the man who brought about a paradigm shift in editing styles, deploying the jump cut with reckless abandon also said: “Every edit is a lie.” 

To be fair, the 24-frames line appears in one of his early films, Le petit soldat (completed in his breakout year 1960, but not released until 1963) in the mouth of character Bruno Forestier, so one may argue that it would be a fallacy to equate a piece of dialogue with the views of the film-maker, and normally that would be enough to discredit the line as being a “Godard quote.” 

And yet, in the layered and wink-wink-nudge-nudge world of Godard, nothing is ever just a piece of dialogue: Everything is opinion, everything is intertextuality, everything is intellectualization. He made cinema about the art of cinema itself, and boldly, unapologetically filled his films with dialogue about his own views on film. 

He exercised style for the sake of it, obliterated recognized narrative conventions, and brought about the French New Wave, along with a few of his contemporaries. Plenty of critics hate him for that. In film geek circles, the anti-Godard army is as big as the faction of Godard loyalists. The debate over whether the French New Wave was merely a fad, whether Godard was an empty stylist, at-best an interesting novelty from the 1960s, or if he was one of the all-time-greats, standing shoulder to shoulder with the towering geniuses of world cinema -- Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Andrei Tarkovsky -- is not a debate that is ever likely to be settled. 

Which seems like exactly what Godard would have preferred: Why be revered when you can be hotly debated?  

Cars are made to go, not to stop

Here I swerve, abruptly and perhaps jarringly, to a first-person POV. Godard, I hope, would approve. 

This enfant terrible of the 60s, from a country I have never been to, making films in a language I do not speak, has been taking up an inordinate amount of space in my mind -- and the bug bit early. With his dizzyingly hectic cuts, style heaped upon style, meta commentary and self-referentiality all over, it is tricky to get to the heart of Godard. What makes him so hard to shake, and at the same time so hard to love? Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Here is me, a teenager in the early throes of movie geekdom, worshipping at the Church of Tarantino after watching an edited-for-TV version of Pulp Fiction (1994). I am alone at second-hand bookstore in Canberra, Australia, and I stumble upon an early biography of him -- Quentin Tarantino: Shooting from the Hip by Wensley Clarkson. To me, Tarantino’s opinions are gospel, and as I flip through the pages I see a list at the back of the book -- it is a list of QT’s favourite movies including the directors’ names. Amid the usual suspects (Hawks, Kubrick, Scorsese) there is a cluster of French films: Le Petit soldat, Vivre sa vie, Breathless, Bande a part, Pierrot le fou. 

Tarantino’s own production company was, of course, called Bande a Part. I make a mental note to take a trip to Godardville, but I don’t know how I will get my hands on these films. I drain my pockets and manage to pay for the book, and walk out of the store. Cut.

Here is me, engrossed in documentaries made by Scorsese -- A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (1999) -- where the master talks directly to the camera about the films that influenced him. The Church of Tarantino has taken a backseat for me, and a more mature version of me has moved on from stylized violence and a shallow sense of cool to deeper, more Scorsesean themes -- faith, betrayal, toxic machismo, and how violence is not hip, but a terrible thing. And now here’s Uncle Marty on screen, explaining the brilliant originality of Godard’s Breathless, the freedom and fluidity of the camera, the radical style of editing. Yes, I see it. It’s hard to think of Goodfellas (1990), Scorsese’s camera floating gently through the Copacabana focusing on everything but nothing in particular, or the rapid-fire editing style of Casino (1995) without feeling Godard’s towering influence. Still, I haven’t seen any Godard. Must rectify that. Cut. 

Here is me, older and wiser, my opinions are my own. Though I respect the critical discourse that is out there, not even Scorsese can tell me what to think. I have seen all of Tarkovsky, the bulk of Bergman, a good deal of Fellini, and an unhealthy amount of Hollywood. Godard is still an embarrassing gap in my knowledge, but that is about to change -- illegal downloads are upon us, and access is not an issue. I start to devour -- in proper sequence and in quick succession. Breathless (1960). Cut. A Woman is a Woman (1961). Cut. Vivre sa vie (1962). Cut. Le petit soldat (1963). Cut. The Carabineers (1963). Contempt (1963). Cut. Bande a part (1964). Cut. A Married Woman (1964). Cut. Alphaville (1965). Cut. Pierrou le fou (1965). Cut.

After this lion’s banquet, I am left stiff and exhausted. What is that uneasy feeling in my chest -- is it cineaste indigestion? I start to fear that I have been bingeing on empty cinematic calories. My daydreams are infected with New Wave-style jump cuts and shaky, handheld shots. In a paper-thin image of radical freedom, here’s Jean-Paul Belmondo, insouciantly walking down the streets of Paris with a cigarette dangling from his lips. But I have never been to Paris, and I don’t smoke. And here’s Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, lying on a white carpet on her belly, and -- for absolutely no reason -- missing all of her clothes. Is there a story here? Can cinema be only an experiment in what cinema can be? How far can you go until your narrative collapses under the weight of your style? I begin to agree with Bergman’s assessment that all that Godard genuinely has to say would fit onto the back of a matchbook.

Just like that, I start to find myself craving the comfort of the classic three-act structure: A beginning, a middle, and an unambiguous end.

Cut. Fade to black.

The tidal wave

The work of Godard may for many, just like it was for this writer, be the cause for irresolvable internal contradiction. Regardless of what one feels, however, it is impossible to ignore Godard’s effect, influence, and place in film history. When he passed away last Tuesday, on September 13, 2022, the world lost a giant. Like a tidal wave, this poster boy for the French New Wave sometimes inspired awe, sometimes dread, but never apathy.

Though he was an icon of the Left, he came from wealth and privilege. Jean-Luc Godard was born in 1930 in Paris; his father was a successful doctor, his maternal grandfather a prominent Swiss banker. A passion for reading was instilled into him at an early age, and young Jean-Luc dreamt of becoming a novelist. 

In his late teens, though, he lost himself to the movies, spending his days at film archives and screening rooms. While in Paris and obsessed with cinema, he met the various other figures whose names would become, along with Godard, forever associated with the subversive artistic movement known as the French New Wave: Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette. 

This group of young film-makers turned against the conventional grammar of cinema, favouring bold experimentation in terms of editing, cinematography, narration, and overall visual style. Films became more political, more philosophical. Most importantly perhaps, they embodied a spirit of youthful rebellion and the winds of change.

This is why Godard, more than anything else, must be seen as a young director. Godard as an old man, Godard as a 91-year-old doyen of the arts, Godard as an establishment figure -- these hats don’t quite fit. Though he kept on working throughout his life, well into his late 80s -- the last of his films coming out in 2018 -- it is fair to say his post-1970 work has been largely ignored by the critical community. 

Godard completists may have checked in on his newer films, but audiences stopped expecting masterpieces from him long ago. When film scholars write about Godard, even 62 years after its release, again and again they return to Breathless, a debut film made by a callow 30-year-old on a next-to-nothing budget; a film where Godard made up the rules as he went along. 

It may very well be that more ink has been spilled over Breathless than the rest of his enormous output combined. At any rate, his 1960s films -- that is, from Breathless up until Pierrot le fou -- are the must-see films to understand Godard’s significance. The New Wave, after all, was a thing of its time and place, and you can’t expect a new wave from an old man, however experimental he may have tried to be in his later years.

French director Michel Hazanavicius -- known mostly for the Best Picture Oscar-winning The Artist (2011) -- in 2017 made the film Godard, Mon Amour. It is part biopic, part love-letter, part stylistic homage/parody, and focuses on Godard’s relationship with the actress Anne Wiazemsky, who he was married to from 1967 to 1979. 

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, we see Godard in his middle years, at a public event, being viciously attacked by young students (“Godard is a consumer product!”). The master, instead of hitting back, turns into a shadow of his formerly courageous self, and instead of replying to the students, quietly takes the abuse. Later when they are out of the wolf’s den, Anna scolds him for his passive response: “You let them say whatever they want! I don’t understand!”

Godard, played with impeccable tragicomic timing by Louis Garrel, reflects for a while and then answers: “He [the student] speaks from the heart, so he’s right. Even if he’s wrong, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like old people. And when the old guy is me … I don’t like myself.”

Perhaps Godard really felt that way, or perhaps these are the views of the ventriloquist Hazanavicius, placed in the mouth of the auteur of the French New Wave. It doesn’t matter so much, because whether the scene took place or not, it is hard to deny its emotional truth. Even after becoming an old man, even after his death after a long life of nearly 92 years, Jean-Luc Godard is associated with stylistic irreverence. This is a quality of the young. 

“When the old guy is me, I don’t like myself.” Who knows what thoughts went through the iconoclast’s mind when he opted to die of assisted suicide. What did the nonagenarian, looking back, feel about his early work? Sure, films like Breathless and Contempt inspired a thousand geeks, and made countless youngster pick up cameras to try to shoot the next indie masterpiece; their place in history is secure. 

But how did Godard feel about them? Did he outgrow his own New Wave sentiments as he matured as an artist and as a person? Did he remain forever nostalgic for the youthful energies of the 1960s which he would never again be able to recapture? Did he like himself in his old age? 

Godard’s legal advisor claims the film-maker had been suffering from “multiple invalidating illnesses” for quite some time, so perhaps he had no time at all for such reflections, focusing instead on immediate pain relief. In that case, it is a comfort to know that the great director is finally free from his agony.

His films, and his incalculable influence, will live on.

Abak Hussain is a writer and an incorrigible film geek.

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