BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 15 SEP 22

Goodbye to Jean-Luc Godard (1930 – 2022)

Remembering the late French filmmaker, whose fervent politics and visionary camerawork changed cinema forever

BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 15 SEP 22

The films of Jean-Luc Godard – the legendary French director who died on 13 September aged 91 – often begin with an enigmatic flash of colour and some multilingual wordplay before a beautiful young face emerges on screen in some painterly setting, an apartment or factory, amid signs of love and revolt. Still images – the beginning, middle or end of what might be a film essay – intersperse the narrative, or what passes for narrative. In La Chinoise (The Chinese, 1967), for example, intercut between scenes of lackadaisical student protesters in thrall to Chairman Mao, appear new and found images: a frame from a superhero comic; a photograph of Soviet soldiers marching along a grand thoroughfare; the name ‘Marx’; a plunger stuck to an advertisement for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Descartes (1946), which leaves visible only cartes – French for ‘map’.

Jean-Luc Godard smoking
Jean-Luc Godard, 2020. Courtesy: Almine Rech Gallery, Brussels/London/Paris/New York/Shanghai; photograph: Hedi Slimane 

Witnessing such visual and political pyrotechnics tends to have an astonishing effect, especially when you’re young – for me, at least– though his influence tends to last well into your adulthood. My first – and still favourite – Godard film is from slightly later in his catalogue: Tout va Bien (Just Great, 1972), starring Jane Fonda. It was my first ‘serious’ film, screened by my only high-school friend with a Netflix DVD subscription, who thought I would ‘finally’ be politically awakened (we were just 16 years old) by the combination of politics and stardom. The film portrays the class struggle of post-’68 France as Brechtian theatre, with Fonda playing the role of a young correspondent entangled in an industrial strike. That same year, Godard made the essay film Letter to Jane, which critiqued a single press image taken during Fonda’s controversial (and necessary) anti-war tour of North Vietnam that so rankled the US press.

It is hard to believe Godard is gone; Godard felt forever. His films – from their visions of young French activists to their close analysis of political causes in countries such as Vietnam and Palestine – simultaneously elevated him into the stratosphere of great artists, rendering his last name synonymous with French New Wave cinema, and subsumed him within the crowds of workers and activists fighting for freedom from the oppression of hegemonic powers. Indeed, it is hard not to comment on his passing without hyperbole, since Godard was a truly astonishing master of his craft, whether in the black and white romance of Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964) or the searing critique of Week-end (1967) or Le Mépris (Contempt, 1967). And he was one of the few artists whose success was not accompanied by a drift into the complacent centrism favoured by mainstream cinema.

Jane Fonda in Tout va Bien
Tout va Bien, 1972, film still. Courtesy: Gaumont

Much has been written about Godard’s classic works of the 1960s and ‘70s, when he was at his peak. But I especially love his difficult late films, which slowly, inexorably bid farewell to cinema – a medium he had begun to view as fatally compromised by its own conciliatory, forgetful politics. Writing for the London Review of Books in 1998, Peter Wollen observed that, by the 1980s and ’90s, with the bulk of his cinematic achievements seemingly behind him, Godard had become a poète maudit, a cranky raconteur of hard truths: ‘The story [Godard] had to tell was a cruel and melancholy one – how the cinema, despite its moments of glory, ultimately failed us and was doomed to die.’ (After Godard’s death, this wonderful essay circulated widely online – it’s well worth the read.)

Of course, Godard had always used his camera to address the movement and motivations of power – especially vis-à-vis the manufacturing of images – as well as those who stood in its way, from student revolutionaries and guerrilla fighters to lovers and movie stars. In his 70s, while shooting the eight-part project Histoire(s) du cinéma (Histories of cinema, 1998), Godard laid bare film’s decline since the advent of the soundtrack in the 1920s, and its lack of revolutionary potential; the propulsive celluloid force he had hoped would advance left-wing politics in Europe in the 1960s and early ’70s was nearly gone. Steven Spielberg – whose particularly shallow Schindler’s List (1993), which sentimentalized the Holocaust and incensed Godard – as well as the absurd demands of the commercial box office were, he posited, at least partly to blame. As Wollen noted: ‘Godard could tell this particular story with conviction because he knew it was true and because, although he may have been seen often enough as a charlatan and a provocateur and a Pied Piper, he knew that he had never been, like many of his accusers, a collaborator.’

Filme Socialisme (2010)
Filme Socialisme, 2010, film still. Courtesy: Vega

His final major quasi-narrative feature, Filme Socialisme (Socialism, 2010), strove to upset cinematic convention one last time, through his usual misdirection and love of recursive structure. Although it was not well-received by critics, I loved it. When one of its principal locations, the cruise ship Costa Concordia, sunk off the coast of Italy, it became a colossal metaphor for cinema and capitalism that Godard’s film anticipates, but could not quite realize, in its vision of a Europe sundered by predictable economic crisis and spiritual emptiness. His two other late works, Adieu au Langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014) and Le Livre d’image (The Image Book, 2018), are, to quote a 2020 feature for this magazine by the artist John Kelsey, ‘bitter, spiny and cantankerously difficult works’. ‘They are also’, Kelsey adds, ‘the most formally adventurous essay-films he has ever produced […] Godard pushes fragmentation to a fractal extreme, as shards of image and sound – sourced from the early days of cinema to the present – are blasted loose from narrative coherence and propelled through a sort of compositional supercollider.’

Having commissioned Kelsey to write the essay in honour of the director’s 90th birthday, I wondered whether Godard would consider designing a cover for frieze. A pipe dream – but why not? Except for a masterclass on ‘Images at the Time of Coronavirus’, given via Instagram Live during lockdown in April 2020, Godard spent his last years largely out of public view at his home in Switzerland. But he was around. A friend of a friend connected us to Godard’s distributor, who could parse enough of my broken French to understand that I was asking the impossible. Someone connected me to someone who knew his neighbour in Switzerland. Apparently, Godard could only be reached through this person, who checked in on him and informed him of the occasional request from people like me. We were running out of time, as magazines always do, and it was all becoming vague. Too many emails were flying between inboxes, inadequate English encountering inadequate French. We asked the neighbour – or someone who knew the neighbour? – but, as though we were living in one of his films, ultimately everything became indeterminate: names, organizations, places, languages, those who genuinely knew Godard, and those, like me, who only admired him. The cover never arrived, but then the pursuit of one was enough.

Main image: La Chinoise, 1967, film still. Courtesy: Arrow Films
Thumbnail: Jean-Luc Godard, 1996, portrait. Courtesy: Getty Images

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. He lives in London, UK.