Jean-Luc Godard: timeless revolutionary

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Image description: A poster for one of Godard’s films on the walls of an underground station

Even at the age of 89, Jean-Luc Godard hasn’t stopped being revolutionary. Whilst many directors would have quietly retreated to some mansion far away from the world of film-making, Godard continues to make films which challenge the watcher even if they aren’t always easy to watch.

A trip down the Godard memory-lane yields films whose satirical depictions of society have a startling relevance today. However, that’s part of the issue with Godard; once he moved away from his early New Wave films and into the obscure worlds of Maoist philosophy, he became less and less comprehensible to his fans.

Once Godard moved away from his early New Wave films and into the obscure worlds of Maoist philosophy, he became less and less comprehensible to his fans.

One of his recent films, Film Socialisme (2010) is a prime example of this; composed of three parts and almost entirely devoid of plot, the film seeks to expose the degeneracy of Western Society. Heavy stuff. American film critic, Roger Ebert described it as “an affront. It is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies.”

Even Godard’s earliest films, such as À bout de souffle (Breathless) and Le Mépris (Contempt) might seem whimsical now. Yet, À bout de souffle was one of the first films of the French New Wave, a movement which revolutionised cinema. Speaking in 1964, Godard described the impact of the film as “We barged into the cinema like cavemen into the Versailles of Louis XV.” Meanwhile, Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) which starred then-wife and muse, Anna Karina, was one of the most influential as it examines the exploitative nature of relationships.

“We barged into the cinema like cavemen into the Versailles of Louis XV.”

As Godard stopped riding the New Wave which he’d helped create, he moved into the obscure world of Maoist philosophy with La Chinoise, which marked a transition in his career. Filmed in a documentary style, La Chinoiseexamines Maoist philosophy by following a group of students in 1967 (a year before the May ‘68 student riots) who have set up a Maoist cell in the heart of bourgeois Paris. He then moved onto Week End, one of his best works, at the end of which, he proclaimed that cinema was dead.

For Godard, rules have only ever existed to be broken and society to be satirised. Whether he was popular or not doesn’t seem to have mattered to him and even in Le Mépris, which was the closest he ever came to Hollywood, he satirises Hollywood’s use of nudity to sell films with the opening scene depicting Bardot lying nude on a bed. After asking her husband, Paul (Michel Piccoli) whether he likes all of her physical features, she proclaims that he, therefore, loves her completely, forgetting that he hasn’t said a word about loving her mind.

For Godard, rules have only ever existed to be broken and society to be satirised

Since the making of Week End, Godard has been obsessed with proclaiming the “end of cinema” as he sees the beauty of the art being sold out to Hollywood commercialism which is obsessed with creating the next big blockbuster rather than creating art. Though his recent films which diagnose the terminal illness of western society might be difficult watches, Godard feels that he’s under no obligation to change, delighting in the perplexity of his audiences.

Image credit: Marcvjnicolas via wikipedia commons

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