Acts of God/Ard

The medium-shaping career of Jean-Luc Godard and subversion in cinema


in Features • Illustrated by Kat Heller


We cinephiles tend to be a persnickety bunch. Of course, there’s always the risk of seeming elitist and snobby whenever one enthuses about a film perhaps less known to the general public than, say, an Avengers flick. The venerable Martin Scorsese probably didn’t expect the ensuing hullabaloo when he casually dissed the franchise as “not cinema.” Sure it’s a little broad as a critique, and slightly snobby, yet you have to admit that he’s not exactly wrong. As any film fan will tell you, countless fascinating and genuinely entertaining films (you know, cinema) exist beyond whatever’s currently ruling the box office. Assuming, of course, that anyone is even still going to the movies. 

Scorsese recently wrote wistfully about being a young moviegoer in the sixties. He almost ruefully remembers what it was like to watch the entire concept of what cinema could be constantly reinvent itself before his very eyes, “coming out of the theater astonished, on a regular basis” by any number of directors who were delivering masterpieces every two weeks. All those hours in the dark taught him, as it will anyone who gives it a try, the life-changing lesson that there is more than one way to see.  

At one point he stops himself and says, simply, “and then, there was Godard.” Why? “You walk into a theater, and you take your seat, and you bring with you fixed ideas of what a movie is, how it’s put together, what it can and can’t do. Godard took all these shared notions, threw them up in the air, and let them land where they would. Godard redefined cinema, not to mention the terms of his very own film, the one that you were watching, on a minute-by-minute basis.”  

The recently deceased Jean-Luc Godard is by no means the only one who exploded the possibilities of what cinema can be. He was able to pull off consistently brilliant experimentation within the medium, which could be both a blessing and a curse. At his best, Godard proved without a doubt that Cinema as Art — that’s capital C, capital A remember — could be engaging on its own terms: inventive, vibrant, literate, and radical. His ability to consistently fuck with your head and make you like it is unparalleled, despite its limitations.    

We’re now even more image-saturated than when Godard got started, when movies were by definition looked down on as an art form. His wisecrack that “photography is truth, and cinema is truth at 24 frames a second” anticipated the perpetual kaleidoscope of the internet, to say nothing of the epistemological ADD of social media, with its endless contextless flickering of images, gifs, photographs, text, rumor, quotations, and paranoia.    

It all begins with Á Bout de Souffle. Either you’re into watching Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg flirting their way through a couple of frenetic days in the streets and backrooms of Paris or you’re not. It’s actually much less snooty of a film than it seems at first blush. A tale of a rather hapless but charming Bogart-obsessed hoodlum on the lam trying to make it with his thoughtful free-spirited American expat love interest has a punchy, hip, comic vibe that’s uniquely its own. Comic in the sense of high-spirited, rather than haha funny. 

The two leads have chemistry, radiating youth and a sort of shabby fabulousness. Existential exuberance is everything; everyone is winging it, on either side of the camera. Having grown up on the expected plot conventions from Hollywood, I don’t mind admitting that Breathless was so unruly in its approach that I didn’t get it until I listened to the commentary track. When the guy explained that Godard liked to show people just hanging out, it suddenly clicked.  

You don’t really watch any of his mid-sixties flicks such as Bande á part or Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elleMasculin Féminin, or Vivre sa vie (the titles just sound better in French) for the plot. You can if you want to, but that’s not really where it’s at. At that point Godard had absorbed all the standard issue conventions of storyline structure, film history, and visual grammar, so he decided to play jazz with what specifically interested him. He learned the rules so he could break them. The joy in discovering his auteurist sensibility flows through every frame of the early work like a cool, fresh wind. Metaphorically, he’s running full speed through the Louvre, right along with his plucky band of outsiders in Bande Á Part.     

 We’re never far away from a new riff: an inside joke or a cultural reference or caustic social criticism or an inspired bit of scene-setting, taking full advantage of the luminous streets of the legendary city of light. I noticed that the famous dance sequence from Bande á part— easily one of the greatest in all of cinema history — kept popping up in people’s online tributes. Pulp Fiction’s Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance-off refers to it. It’s just so damn fun to watch. The actors don’t really know what they’re doing, and you can see the charming humanity and amused awkwardness in their faces while they put themselves through the paces of a dance of their own invention. 

It’s similar to what Godard’s peers at the film magazine Cahiers du Cinema were doing as they gradually became known as the Nouvelle Vague, notably including Godard’s comrade turned frenemy, Francois Truffaut. They went from spending many smoky hours at the cinema and the typewriter to actually going out and filming in the streets, thereby remaking cinema in their new way. It’s another example of how movies can actually benefit from letting the inmates run the asylum once in a while.       

Sometimes, artists gain in perspective when they venture out of their usual mode. If your tendency is to go big, try going small, and vice versa. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, isn’t big on subtle, yet that’s precisely what makes The Godfather so alluring. Steven Spielberg isn’t usually known for creating dread and suspense, but Jaws sure made lots of people afraid of going into the water. Godard’s forte was philosophical debate in gritty Parisian locations, in grainy black and white, guerrilla style. 

So it’s a little unexpected that 1963’s Le Mépris (Contempt), shot in vivid color in a languorous, dazzling Italian setting at Rome’s legendary film studio Cinecitta should be his masterpiece. It’s one of my favorite films. Michel Piccoli’s meek writer is hired to write a blockbuster adaptation of The Odyssey, of all things, and Brigitte Bardot proves once again that she is more than a hottie in the role of his increasingly discontented wife, whose beauty and boredom haven’t gone unnoticed by a sleazy American producer, played by Jack Palance. 

The film is deeply self-aware of everything it does, especially in portraying what actually goes into making a film day by day. Godard opens by flatly rattling off the names of the people who made it, as we observe the careful filming of a single shot, and eventually that omnipotent camera slowly pans down to gaze down right at us with its blank stare. Contempt still has much to say about how cinema both inspires and stunts our imagination. In some ways, the film’s self-consciousness mirrors our own. The quote from Andre Bazin, the theorist of the Nouvelle Vague, which opens the film suggests that “cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires.” Or does it?

Enhanced by Georges Delerue’s ruefully repetitive theme, Contempt explores the clash between classical grandeur and anxious modernity, a crucial theme in 20th Century art. Fritz Lang, a master director who had to go into exile after making great films in Germany that had both foreshadowed and then intrigued the Nazis, appears as the director of the rather hokey-looking film-to-be and acts as a worldly voice of experience, poignantly quoting Brecht and Dante. Emotion and imagination is caught at the intersection between ambition and greed.  

Contempt has deep sympathy for its fractured couple’s plight and suffice to say, sympathy is not usually prominent in Godard’s emotional range. The long sequence where the couple bicker while wandering from room to room in a shabby rented apartment is agonizing to watch in the best possible way. At one point Bardot puts on a black wig that exactly resembles the iconic bob of Anna Karina, Godard’s luminous ex-wife and muse and a movie nerd’s dream girl. Contemporary audiences would have instantly caught the self-deprecating reference to the famous actress who had finally had enough of her manic husband’s shit, and you really couldn’t blame her. For all his cinematic exuberance, the real Godard had an ugly side.  

His characters are often bluntly interrogating each other about the finer points of art, politics, and sex, and it’s no surprise that Godard was doing most of that goading off-camera. Imagine what a nightmare it would be to actually have to live with that level of scrutiny at all times. Godard seemed to have been at a loss whenever the cameras weren’t running. It’s a state of mind which actually ends up hurting the art, because it becomes inescapably colored by one’s own myopic obsessions. When all is said and done, the quality of your actually lived life means more than the quality of your creations.  

Caught up in the (post) modern malaise, Godard seemed to only be able to process his emotions through media. I love Pierrot le fou partially because you can sense there’s real desperation beneath the way it gleefully plays hopscotch with genre and plot. It has a beating heart within all those cinematic bells and whistles. Godard submerged his angst over a crumbling marriage under those all gaudy Pop Art-influenced colors and tones and scenarios — “it’s not blood, it’s red” he liked to say — and the story benefits from all those wild mood swings even if you can tell that the actual Godard probably didn’t.         

Week-End, a sustained nervous breakdown released in 1967, is to me Godard’s aesthetic Rubicon. The title cards let you know what you’re in for: “A film lost in the cosmos/A film found in a dumpster.” A bored rich Parisian couple, in between random murders and murmuring about creepy sex fantasies, take off for a jaunt in the country only to discover a surreal barrage of encounters with characters both fictional and non. Some of them seem to have some kind of a point and others don’t, even as crude attempts at visual poetry. By the end, we’ve been pedantically lectured at by random glowering strangers and seen our antiheroes meet a grisly end. Godard inserts “of cinema” within the traditional “The End” card and we suspect we should take him at his word. 

Obviously Week-End is being annoying on purpose. The increasingly irritatingly prolonged shot of a car jam caused it to be the only film that has ever made me actually throw my remote control down and storm out of my own living room. Had it been anyone other than Godard, who had already won me over with his earlier work, jabbing that middle finger into my eye I wouldn’t have even bothered to finish the damn thing at all. And I’ve seen it three times now.  

For a long time after that, he pretty much took up hating the bourgeoise full-time. Godard’s radical social critiques were always an essential part of his style and while sometimes intriguing, his pervading disdain for the way we live now often had a rather nasty edge. Truffaut, who made movies about people who were recognizable as people rather than as caricatures or excuses for quotation, was probably the greater humanist. The theme of sex work often reappears in Godard’s films, and sometimes it is edgily compelling, and other times it seems like a lazy and somewhat misogynistic plot device. If you’re truly outraged over how The People are being exploited, it helps if you actually like them. 

I think Godard’s arguing that capitalism turns us into perpetually hustling dehumanized commodities, and he sees how we have to squirm under the thumb of the invisible hand of the market, which is totally fair as far as I’m concerned. The problem comes in whenever Godard’s wit and verve lose out to his misanthropy, and his films become obnoxious or, even worse, boring. Rubbing the audience’s face in their crass exploitation doesn’t exactly make them want to take to the barricades. A spoonful of sugar helps the subversion go down. After watching Film Socialisme, I was reminded of the immortal words of Nelson from The Simpsons after the gang cut class to go see Naked Lunch: “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.”      

Then there’s One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil), made in the heady year of 1968. Godard had an amazing opportunity to film the Rolling Stones in the studio as they slowly work out the titular song, undoubtedly one of their greatest. We are flies on the wall for the creative process of a magnificent band at the height of its powers. And then Godard decides to constantly interject with pointless and interminable scenes filled with vaguely politicized gibberish. Enough, you want to shout, let’s get back to Mick and Keef making Russian literature diabolically sexy and letting the seductions of Belezubub crackle through the airwaves — now that’s subversion for you.

After giving about a dozen or so of his films another look, the best of his latest of his films is 1972’s Tout va bien, though 1985’s Je vou salue, Mary is a contender. A mulleted Jane Fonda is a frustrated American journalist in Paris who is married to Yves Montaud, a one-time film director who now glumly makes commercials. There is a wildcat strike at a dollhouse-like factory. We get the usual acerbic look at the battle of the sexes, minor characters explaining themselves directly into the camera, and the film’s world is wrapped so tightly that there’s a riot in a supermarket. Most importantly, the personal and political is fused in a way that manages to tell a recognizable story with characters who have engagingly human complications, regrets, and failures.  

How I wish that the world could be radically changed through art, as Godard seemed to demand. There are persuasive arguments that all politics flows downhill from culture, but I tend to think their relationship is actually more reciprocal than that. Art can certainly open your mind by first blowing it, hopefully causing you to imagine new worlds, conjure lost ones, and/or criticize the current one, and to remind us that there is indeed more in heaven and earth than is handed down by the mainstream. All of which is — or can be — radical in the deepest sense of cutting to the root and can definitely help to drive social progress over time. But it can’t provide the blueprint for revolution. 

After all, Chaplin’s bruising parody in The Great Dictator didn’t give Hitler pause, Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible didn’t worry Stalin, and Bunuel didn’t overthrow the Catholic Church. Richard Brody’s exhaustively thorough account of Godard’s work and life is perceptively entitled Everything Is Cinema. It’s pretty on the nose, given how easily we film everything these days and how much carefully curated self-presentation we then offer on social media. Godard anticipated how we self-consciously perform our lives, robustly played with the established ways of doing so, and ended up changing cinema forever. Maybe he didn’t spark the kind of revolution that he wanted. So what? He certainly did alter the visual language in an increasingly visual era, in his own way and on his own terms, prying open the aperture of the mind and filling it with light. •