Between 1959 and 1967, Jean-Luc Godard directed no less than fifteen feature films as well as a handful of shorts and contributions to a number of multi-director portmanteau projects that were all the rage in Europe at the time. Just by the numbers alone, this is an impressive accomplishment—outside of exploitation auteurs like Roger Corman, no one, very few people were averaging two films a year for eight consecutive years. However, what was far more impressive about this accomplishment was the quality of the work rather than the quantity—his debut effort, "Breathless" (1959), was a game changer for the art of cinema along the lines of "Birth of a Nation" and "Citizen Kane," and his subsequent works went even further in redefining forever not only what the cinema could accomplish but how it could go about doing so. If Bob Dylan and Thomas Pynchon forever changed what could be accomplished within the parameters of a song or a novel, Godard did the same thing for film and his influence on that art form is still felt as strongly today as ever.
Part of the reason is because Godard himself is still going strong today, creating new and challenging works at an age when most other filmmakers have either retired from the game altogether or are content to crank out films that are pale shadows of their more celebrated efforts. His new film, "Goodbye to Language," was lauded when it premiered at Cannes last year for its innovative use of 3-D visuals and has been receiving critical hosannas since making its American theatrical debut late last year (including being named the best film of 2014 by the National Society of Film Critics). In conjunction with their presentation of "Goodbye for Language" in a three-week run beginning January 16, Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting "Godard: The First Wave," a two-month retrospective running through March 4 that will present all but two of Godard's features from his initial filmmaking breakthrough (with "A Married Woman" and "La Chinoise" being the sole exceptions) along with a number of his short films from this period and a pair of his more notable efforts, many of which will be presented in glorious 35mm. (Those forced to play along at home will be happy to know that all the films save for the new one are available on DVD and Blu-ray, with "Every Man for Himself" getting the full special edition treatment from Criterion at the end of this month.) Here is a brief tour through the films that will be featured during the retrospective and granted, 2015 is not even a week old as these words are being written but it is hard to imagine that there will be very many local cinematic events that could even hope to top it in terms of importance and pure pleasure.
"Breathless," which tells the story of a two-bit French punk (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who becomes a wanted man when he accidentally kills a cop during a traffic stop while on his way to see his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg), is arguably the most well-known and widely seen of Godard's films and remains a source of cult fascination more than a half-century since its debut. However, it is by no means a musty museum piece that can now only be seen from a certain remove as viewers speculate as to how it must have come across to viewers lucky to catch it when it first came out. Watching it today is as immediate and engrossing and radical of a moviegoing experience as it was back in the day. In fact, when you consider the lazy and logy nature of most contemporary films—works that seem to have been created to fill out a balance sheet than to fulfill some kind of artistic drive—it actually seems more daring now than ever before and all the more vital as a result. Much has been written about its technical and narrative innovations—including such then-radical notions as jump-cuts in the editing, shooting without artificial lighting and paying homage to the entire history of the cinema throughout via references and allusions—and indeed, these elements do help make it feel more contemporary than most other films of its age.
However, what really drives it home is the palpable screen chemistry between Belmondo (who was still a few years from international stardom) and Seberg (who a couple years earlier had been plucked from obscurity to star in Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan" (1957) and whose career was thought to be over after its disastrous critical and commercial reception). Although Godard's working methods, such as only giving the actors their scenes on the day they were to be filmed to keep things fresh, kept them from developing their characters via conventional methods, their raw chemistry could not be denied. From the moment the film was released, they were immediately enshrined as one of the most iconic screen couples of all time. And while this may not have been Godard’s intention, the film also demonstrates conclusively that Preminger was right in selecting Seberg as the winner of his talent contest even if he himself had no real idea of how to use her—the quiet ambiguity she brings to her part brings an extra edge to the proceedings that still fascinates today. Seberg would never again get a role as strong as she had here, and the sad twists and turns that would befall her until her 1979 suicide have been documented elsewhere but every time "Breathless" screens and she chirps "New York International Tribune," all of that darkness fades from memory.
Godard's next two films, "Le Petit Soldat" (1960) and "A Woman is a Woman" (1961), could not be more distinct from either "Breathless" or from each other. The former would find Godard embracing politics in his work for the first time in telling the story, set in Geneva during the time of the Algerian War, of a right-leaning journalist (Michel Subor) working as a spy who falls for a beautiful young woman (Anna Karina) who, ironically, may working for the enemy. (As this was still a touchy subject at the time, the film was banned in France for three years and is one of his more obscure works from this period.) The latter would find Godard embracing the Hollywood films that he so often venerated during his years working as a film critic by making a full-color, widescreen romantic musical-comedy about a stripper (Karina, again) who wants to have a baby. When her husband (Jean-Claude Brialy) seems less than enthused with the idea, she looks to his best friend (Belmondo) for assistance. "Le Petit Soldat" is interesting enough thanks to its rough and jagged cinematic style but is not exactly entertaining by most conventional means. "A Woman is a Woman," on the other hand, is arguably the lightest and frothiest work of his entire career and while may seem a little too much like a trifle in comparison with his more acclaimed works, its cheeriness, not to mention the lovely Michel Legrand score, makes it one of his most instantly likable.
The one common element between those two films was, of course, the presence of Anna Karina, who would become Godard's leading lady both on the screen as well as in real life, and their next collaboration, "Vivre Sa Vie" (1962), would prove to be momentous for both their careers. If Godard's previous films were the works of a movie-mad kid getting to play with his toys, this was the work of a mature artist fully in control of his considerable abilities. Told in a series of 12 stark vignettes, the film follows a shopgirl (Karina) who leaves her husband and child and becomes a prostitute under the belief that she can sell her body and still retain control of her soul. Using a fragmented narrative style as radical as the one employed by "Breathless" that nevertheless feels at one with the material, Godard recounts her story with heartbreaking clarity and precision until its still-devastating finale—this may be the most direct and heartfelt work of his entire career. That certainly extends to his work with Karina—his affection for her, both in real and reel life, burns through with every frame and the result is one of the great screen performances of all time. With a filmography like Godard's, relegating one specific title as "the best" is a tricky proposition for any number of reasons and most same people should probably avoid it. That said, I feel perfectly comfortable in stating that "Vivre Sa Vie" is not just his finest work in my opinion but it also holds a place in my own personal list of the 10 best films ever made.
After "Les Carabiniers" (1963), a dark anti-war comedy about a couple of dopey farm boys who enlist in the military to seek fortune and glory only to discover some hard truths about the realities of combat, Godard found himself involved in his most curious venture with "Contempt" (1963), an adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel "Il Disprezzo" that found him working with a relatively large budget, in Cinemascope and with a cast that included such familiar faces (among other body parts) as Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot, one of the top sex symbols of the day. By combining such diverse elements, producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine were presumably hoping for something flashy and easily exploitable, but, rather than bury his talents, Godard let them flower and the result was a one-of-a-kind work that allowed him to explore both the disintegration of the relationship between a screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful wife (guess who) and the equally tenuous relationship between art and business that crops up when the screenwriter is hired by a crass American producer (Palance) to write an adaptation of "The Odyssey."
Alternating between the hilarious and the heartbreaking (the centerpiece sequence between Piccoli and Bardot runs for over 30 minutes and is an absolutely devastating portrait of dying love), this is arguably Godard's most accessible film, and one of his best. Of course, Ponti and Levine hated it and insisted that the only way that they would release it would be if Godard went back and shot a nude scene with Bardot that they could use as box-office insurance. The result was the film's knockout opening scene, a sequence that, like the rest of the film, offers up the expected ingredients in unexpected and eye-opening ways. (Bardot, by the way, is excellent in the film and offers evidence that there was a strong actress beneath the sex bomb exterior.) Considered a flop at the time, it is now regarded as a classic and as a must-see for any serious student of the cinema.
Having thoroughly disliked the experience of working on a big-budget film, Godard went back to his low-budget roots and made a series of entertaining and increasingly provocative films that used classic cinematic genres as a launching pad for stories that mixed the complications of human relationships with homages/commentaries on the classic Hollywood narratives. "Band of Outsiders" (1964) tells the story of a couple of friends (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) who both fall for the same classmate (Karina) and, after such now-famous hijinks as a run through the Louvre and dancing the "Madison," the three launch a half-assed plan, largely inspired by old gangster movies, to rob a house belonging to her aunt. "Alphaville" (1965) was a science-fiction tale in which American secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) travels to another planet to the titular city, a place where love and emotion and even certain words have been eliminated, in order to find a missing fellow agent and convince the venerated Professor von Braun to return to Earth with him, falling in love along the way with the professor's daughter (Karina). "Pierrot Le Fou" (1965) was his take on the lovers-on-the-run subgenre in which a bored middle-class husband and father (Belmondo) runs off with his family's sexy babysitter (Karina) to the Riviera and gets mixed up with a number of shady characters in events that lead up to a literally explosive finale. Loosely based on a Donald E. Westlake novel (which Godard did not acquire the rights to, leading to a lawsuit that kept the film out of circulation in America for nearly 40 years), "Made in USA" (1966) is a strange mixture of mystery and social satire with Karina (in what would be her final performance for Godard) as a private eye on the trail of an of old lover who may or may not have been murdered by political forces.
With its anti-capitalist leanings and such touches as giving a couple of minor criminal characters the names Nixon and McNamara, "Made in USA" (1966) found Godard beginning to shift his focus from cultural politics to the increasingly turbulent times going on in the real world. (As Karina puts it at one point, "We were in a political movie. Walt Disney with blood." He would continue to move in that direction with his next few projects: "Masculine Feminine" (1966), a story about and for "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" took on sex, politics and popular culture through the prism of the increasingly shaky romance between a pseudo-radical (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and a pop singer (Chantal Goya); "2 or 3 Things I Know About Her" (1967), which largely broke from conventional storytelling to observe the daily existence of an ordinary suburban housewife (Marina Vlady) who helps make ends meet by secretly working as a prostitute. In his contribution to the omnibus documentary "Far from Vietnam" (1967), a project in which a number of leading French filmmakers made a short protesting the war, Godard sat behind his camera and announced that since he was unable to actually go to Vietnam for himself, his form of protest would be to mention it in his subsequent films.
As Godard became more interested in radical politics, his interest in formal narrative procedure waned considerably and with "Weekend" (1967), he made what he conceived to be his final statement in regards to conventional cinema. In this still-startling black comedy, a deeply unpleasant bourgeois couple (Jean Yanne and Mirielle Darc)—each of whom is planning to do away with the other in order to go off with their lover—set off on a road trip to her dying father's country home in order to secure her inheritance and help speed up the process if necessary. Along the way, they encounter a number of bloody car accidents and traffic jams (including one seen in an extended tracking shot lasting over nine minutes before getting to its grisly conclusion) and have their own car destroyed before they eventually fall in with a group of radical hippies whose ethos has expanded enough in order to embrace cannibalism as a way of life. While most agitprop of the time has not aged particularly well, Godard's cinematic Molotov cocktail, made of equal parts cynical humor, revolutionary spirit, outrage and despair, still packs a wallop for viewers today. In bringing an end to the first phase of his career (he even ends the film with title cards famously reading "End of Film. End of Cinema"), it remains a deck clearer for the ages.
For many observers, Godard's story ends there but while his films would become more difficult to see in America, he continued to work steadily on a number of projects that largely eschewed formal narrative entirely for works that showed more interest in radical politics and daring experiments with the most basic elements of cinema, namely how people hear and see film. (Many of these films showed him doing pioneering work in the new medium of video.) After a decade or so of such experimental work, he embarked on a new phase of filmmaking in 1980 when he returned to the world of narrative filmmaking, albeit on his terms and in ways that allowed him to continue his groundbreaking work with sound and image, with "Every Man for Himself," in which he took a plot about a triangle of sort developing between a film editor (Nathalie Baye) in dire need of a change in her life, her filmmaker lover (Jacques Dutronc) who is fearful of making a commitment and a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) who quietly bears all the abuse heaped upon her while contriving to finally take charge of her own life. With its bold advances in style, including the numerous points in which the film itself slows down until it moves practically frame by frame and deliberately jarring sound design, the film presents viewers with something that is not so much a story as it is a meditation on a story and while it may alienate some even to this day, it is nevertheless fascinating to watch the rebirth of an artist ready to set off on his own unique path once again.
That journey continues to this day and while his output since then would not prove to be the equal of his first phase, there would be a lot of fascinating films along the way. One of the most infamous of this period would be "Hail Mary" (1985) his enormously controversial modern-day retelling of the birth of Christ in which Mary (Myriem Roussel) is a basketball-loving student, Joseph (Thierry Rode) is a cab driver and Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) arrives via jet plane to announce that the virginal Mary will give birth to the son of God. At the time it was made, the film inspired protests around the world from outraged Catholics who assumed that Godard was somehow casting aspersions on one of the most important tenets of their faith. Most of these protesters clearly had not seen the film because if they had, they would realize that rather than mock the story, he was using the modern-day narrative as a way of exploring it in a thoughtful manner designed to explore what might go through the mind of an ordinary young woman placed in such an extraordinary situation. Now that the hubbub has died down (I don't expect any protests at the screenings, though a part of me wishes that there would be, if only for old times’ sake), hopefully this will become more apparent to viewers and the film can finally be considered one of the most provocative and moving examinations of faith to appear on a movie screen in the last thirty-odd years or so.
Finally, there is "Goodbye to Language" and even as someone who has been enthralled with much of Godard's latter-day efforts, I was quite simply blown away by what he had to offer this time around. From a narrative standpoint, it is the usual stew of Godardian concerns about love, death, war, cinema and the gradual loss of communication and self in a world overrun by technological advances that only serve to isolate people further, all of which is projected by a loosely conceived story involving a pair of adulterous lovers, her murderous husband and a happy dog. Actually it may be two separate couples or two different version of the original couple—it is that kind of movie. (There are even brief appearances by Lord Byron and Mary Shelley to help fill things out.) That is all interesting but what transforms the film from the merely interesting to the flat-out stunning is his stunning use of 3-D photography. On the surface, the idea of a 3-D Godard film sounds like a joke, but the effects that he achieves here put virtually every other use of the process that I have ever seen to shame, both on a technical level and in the way that he uses the added dimension to genuinely bring something of value and interest to the story. In the most eye-popping moment, Godard and cinematographer Fabrice Aragno have figured out a way to superimpose image in such a way so that there is literally a separate image for each eye to observe. I may not be explaining it too well but trust me, you will know it when you see it and when you see it, you will never forget it.
There are many things to love about "Goodbye to Language"—the gorgeous visuals, the head-spinning commentary that invokes everything from philosophy to classic literature to clips from "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," the fact that it is, for all of its metaphysical concerns, just plain fun to watch—but the best thing about it is the way that it demonstrates conclusively that Godard is as vital and relevant today as he was back in his original heyday. He is 84 now, an age when most filmmakers have either retired to the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit or, if they are still working, are mostly pushing out films that are merely shadows of their best work. Instead of those options, Godard has been and continues to push the boundaries of the art form of cinema in wholly unexpected and profoundly radical ways that may one day prove to be as influential as his earlier efforts. In other words, Jean-Luc Godard may well be, from an artistic standpoint, one of the youngest filmmakers at work today and bless him for it. More than ever, we need people like him to open our eyes to the possibilities of film, and when he does eventually leave the scene, it will be a dark day indeed, though there will be the compensation of one of the great bodies of work in the history of the medium.