[Diving into a new cinematic topic can be daunting. This series provides some suggestions on where to begin exploring a director’s body of work, a genre, style or theme. The three suggested films serve as a brief introduction; they’re not complete or authoritative, but will in some way be representative of the topic and hopeful inspire you to watch more, outlined in recommended further viewing.]
At the age of 83, Jean-Luc Godard, a true titan of film, is releasing his newest work, Goodbye to Language, this year. Far from a victory lap, Goodbye to Language is instead a daring experiment on the aesthetic possibilities of 3D. The release of the film is a great excuse to (re)discover the full breadth of Godard’s incredibly provocative, intellectual, confrontational, dazzling and confounding work—the work not just of a great director, but of one of the essential artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting reviews, articles and even a video essay exploring the philosophy, politics and art of Godard’s extraordinary work here. But where to begin with a career spanning numerous decades and experiments in numerous cinematic media? Try starting here.
Appreciating Godard can take a daunting amount of context. He made films to reflect his times, taking the temperature of the culture around him—almost always near boiling—and finding ways to place himself in dialogue with this world. Consequently, Godard’s films can be a thick stew of references, riffing on Marxist and Maoist politics, philosophy, consumer products, classical music, pop-art, high literature, and of course, films of all kinds. But the same tendencies that make Godard’s films difficult can also make them extremely pleasurable with the right mindset. They’re not codes to be broken, but passionate and artistically daring expressions of, well, most everything.
Godard has also made somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 works—features, shorts, TV experiments, and digital doodles—over his 50 year career. Indeed, there’s not just one Godard, but several. From his stunningly prolific New Wave films of the 1960s, to the cinematic essays and political screeds of the 1970s, to his video work of the 1980s, to his recent innovations in the aesthetics of the digital image, there is much to discover. No three films could to justice to Godard’s entire career, but these essential works could serve as signposts to this overwhelming oeuvre. And hopefully a good primer to Goodbye to Language.
Primer: Je vous salue, Sarajevo
This two-minute short, though more dour in tone than normal, encapsulates much of the power Godard extracts from his investigation of images. The director’s own musing narration sounds over images of small portions of a single still photograph. He’s thinking about the relationship between life, death and art, and the act of his thinking is in creating this stunning film. Filmmaking, for Godard, is just that: not simply an art, but a technique of thought, a method for viewing the world in startling new ways.
1) Breathless (1960)
In many ways, Godard’s debut film changed the history of cinema. A seminal piece marking a transition from classical to modern film, Breathless feels vibrant, playful, incendiary and boundlessly innovative to this day. It’s a recursive riff on Hollywood genre pictures, with Jean-Paul Belmondo playing a man playacting as a criminal, emulating the likes of Humphrey Bogart, always playing cool. It’s all pose and gesture, a copy of a copy, but Godard turns it into a daring, free-jazz manifesto on the possibility of film. When a scene seemed to play too long, he’d slash seconds at random, creating the film’s legendary jump cuts, both disarming and exciting. Elsewhere, Godard pauses the action for a sexy, funny and tender afternoon tryst between his two leads, where meandering dialogue touches on everything except the plot. Breathless kickstarted more innovation to come within the French New Wave, but nowhere did its impact feel this fresh and raw.
2) 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)
Godard made a mind-boggling 11 features between Breathless in 1960 and 1967’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, many of them masterpieces. Increasingly, these films began shedding the storytelling conventions of Hollywood in favor of discursive and referential narratives about revolutionary art and politics. Godard came to realize he wasn’t simply creating fictions, but crafting cinematic essays. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her fully embraces this notion, combining fictional sketches about the life of a prostitute with documentary footage and Godard’s narration about alienation and consumerism in contemporary French culture. What unites these disparate threads, however, is atypically grand cinematic craft. The images are brightly colored and stunningly composed to utilize the full potential of their anamorphic widescreen canvas. Godard often feels improvisational and manic, but this film proves that his skills also extend to a mastery of the formal elements of cinema.
3) In Praise of Love (2001)
Nearly 40 years after 2 or 3 Things, Godard’s In Praise of Love also showcases a blending of formal ideas. What begins in a mournful, melancholic and nostalgic mask of exquisite black and white cinematography ends with an unexpected burst of color and digital noise, pushing the then-nascent medium into unknown aesthetic realms. Playing with color timing, contrast and saturation, Godard breaks down the digital image, and finds in its inherent flaws a beautiful and artistic tactility that other digital proponents miss. In Praise of Love demonstrates that Godard has been at the forefront of nearly every technical change in image-making, but it also shows an unexpectedly emotional depth. Viewers often find Godard intellectual, not emotional, but his formal experimentation has always been motivated by his sensitivity to the world around him. Perhaps in his old age Godard has simply found a way to infuse his indefatigable curiosity with the gentleness and wistfulness of experience.
Recommended Further Viewing:
Vivre sa vie, Contempt, Pierrot le fou, Week-end, Histoire(s) du cinema, Film socialisme (my review)