Scotsman obituaries: Jean-Luc Godard, influential film-maker at forefront of French New Wave

Jean-Luc Godard, film writer and director. Born: 3 December 1930 in Paris. Died: 13 September 2022 in Rolle, Switzerland, aged 91.

Back in the early 1960s there was not much that was cooler than French New Wave Cinema, or rather Nouvelle Vague. It was romantic, existential, ironic and iconic, peopled by beautiful, young Gallic stars. And right at the forefront of the movement was Jean-Luc Godard.

He was a critic turned film-maker and his film A Bout De Souffle pretty much defined Nouvelle Vague, with Jean-Paul Belmondo as the doomed, amoral criminal on the run and Jean Seberg as the elfin American girlfriend with cropped hair and a striped Breton sweater.

The film revisited the film noir so beloved of French critics – Belmondo’s character specifically modelled himself on Bogart. It was shot in black and white, in a documentary style with hand-held camera. Production was chaotic with the script being continuously rewritten. Some dialogue was improvised. Innovative jump cuts were dictated both by style and by concerns over running time.

Jean-Luc Godard – ‘The cinema is truth 24 frames per second’

The end result was surprisingly handsome and at least seemed laid back. And it was hugely influential on cinema, on fashion and on attitudes. It was remade in Hollywood as Breathless in the 1980s with Richard Gere in the Belmondo role – Hollywood remaking a French film that recast an entire American genre.

Godard and his peers loved film noir and persuaded British and American audiences that the genre possessed a depth and artistic merit they may have previously missed. And yet at the same time Godard reduced the movie-making process to a simple formula – “All you need to make a movie,” he said, “is a girl and a gun.” He was great at soundbites before soundbites were even a thing.

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Godard loved to set an agenda. “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” he said on another occasion. A fierce bespectacled intellectual, he also had a fierce temper and regularly wound up in physical fights.

Sometimes he made comments simply to be controversial or provoke a reaction and it was not always obvious when he was being serious and when he was joking. He called cinema a “fraud”, but also said, most famously, “The cinema is truth 24 frames per second.”

Godard was born in Paris in 1930 into a life of money, culture and privilege. His father was a doctor, with his own private clinic, and his maternal grandfather founded Banque Paribas.

He grew up largely in Switzerland, returned to Paris to study Anthropology at the Sorbonne, but spent much of his time watching, discussing and writing about films for various publications, including Cahiers du Cinema. One of his first articles was a very influential article analysing and praising Hitchcock.

As a person Godard displayed some of the amoral tendencies of his characters. He stole valuable books from his grandfather and was disowned by his family. He even stole from Cahiers du Cinema. He went back to Switzerland and a job in television, but could not break the habit of just helping himself to other people’s money and belongings and spent time in a psychiatric hospital.

He worked as a labourer on the construction of a dam and made his first short documentary film about it, entitled Operation Beton. He had a stint in the publicity department of 20th Century Fox’s Paris offices and continued to make shorts throughout the 1950s before getting the chance to make a full-length feature with A Bout De Souffle, which he both wrote and directed.

Made on a very limited budget, it was a critical and commercial success, winning the Silver Bear award for best director at the Berlin Film Festival. It subsequently featured regularly in polls and lists of the greatest films of all time.

His next film was Le Petit Soldat. It starred Anna Karina, a model with virtually no acting experience. By the end of that shoot they were a couple. They made several films together. In the romantic musical comedy Une Femme Est Une Femme Godard cast Karina alongside Belmondo.

Godard was highly prolific during the 1960s, a period in which he also made Le Mepris (Contempt), with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance – who said it was the worst experience he had ever had, Bande a Part, which Godard described as “Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka”, the science-fiction film noir Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou, which again starred Belmondo and Karina.

Godard and Karina married when she was pregnant, but she lost the baby, and their relationship was always volatile. She attempted suicide more than once and their union lasted only a few years.

Godard subsequently married Anne Wiazemsky, an aspiring actress who met him after writing to him at Cahiers du Cinema to say how much she loved his work. He cast her in several of his films, including La Chinoise and Weekend. That marriage also ended in divorce.

With social upheaval sweeping France, Godard was instrumental in the cancellation of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, claiming that nothing in the programme was relevant to current issues. He declared that in future he would be making explicitly “political films”, which, judged on audience numbers, were actually a lot less relevant than his previous work.

He lent towards Maosim and worked on very low budgets, though Tout Va Bien starred Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. He criticised Kodak’s raw film stock as “racist” after being commissioned to make a film by the Mozambican government, because the physical film did not fully capture the variety and complexity of darker skins.

Godard later returned to more mainstream film-making, but none of his films could ever have quite the same impact as A Bout de Souffle. He remained a big name at festivals, but the public had moved on.

In 2011 he was awarded an honorary Oscar “For passion. For confrontation. For a new kind of cinema.”

He had “multiple incapacitating illnesses” and chose to end his life with assisted dying in Switzerland, according to his lawyer. He is survived by his long-term partner Anne-Marie Mieville, a multi-media artist who was his collaborator on later works. He had no children.

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