Jean-Luc Godard, who died at the age of 91, was one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema.
The Franco-Swiss filmmaker became one of the leading figures of the French New Wave movement in the late 1950s and went on to direct dozens of films in a career that spanned more than half a century. Here are nine things to know.
1. He changed film with a girl and a gun
Godard once wrote that all you need to make a film is a “girl and a gun. His 1960 debut Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) proves this point.
The girl, Patricia, is involved with a petty criminal, Michel, who is on the run for shooting a policeman. She betrayed him and the police shot him in the street.
Breathless is like a crime drama, but like much of his work, the plot is simply a framework for Godard to explore culture, experiment with images and examine cinema itself.
It made an immediate impact, winning acclaim and huge profits for its meager budget.
Nearly 60 years later, it is recognized as a classic, and its energy remains astounding.
2. He cut up convention
One of the most radical elements of Breathless is the prominent use of an editing technique known as jump-cutting.
The filmmaking before and after Godard’s debut tended in large part toward fluid editing that gave the illusion of continuous time.
In Breathless, by contrast, Godard would cut in the middle of a shot, making time appear to jump forward.
It stings, just as Godard must have wanted it to. At least it holds the viewer’s attention, but it has also been interpreted as reflecting Michel’s boredom or Godard’s attempt to force the viewer to reflect on the nature of the film.
Throughout his career, Godard would play with the grammar of filmmaking.
3. He rewrote the script
There were other innovations. Breathless was shot on location, using handheld cameras, with Godard writing the script on the day and giving the actors their lines as they shot.
It was another break with the tradition of expensive studio-led films that relied on tight scripts, large crews and storyboards.
The technique Godard used gave Breathe great spontaneity and a documentary-like feel.
He would use it in many of his films, infuriating his stars, who would show up on set, but not yet know what their lines were going to be.
Godard and his New Wave contemporaries believed that truly great films were imprinted with the director’s vision – and what better way to control a film if you’re actually making it up as you go along.
4. He was a huge cinephile
Godard may be an icon buster, but it comes from a place of deep knowledge and love for cinema.
Before becoming a director, he was an avid cinephile, sometimes watching the same film multiple times a day in the clubs he and other New Wave figures attended.
Like other figures of the era, he was first and foremost a critic, developing the idea that he thought cinema should be something he could implement in practice.
His films are filled with references to other works, and even as he tries to move the medium forward, he can’t help but look back.
5. He kept innovating
While “Breathless” alone ensures his place in film history, his career was prolific, with IMDB listing more than 100 works, including shorts, documentaries, dramas and more than 40 feature films.
The 1960s saw some of his most famous and acclaimed work, from his so-called “neo-realist musicals” and 1961’s Une femme est une femme to 1965’s anti-utopian science fiction novel Alphaville to 1967’s dark comedy Weekend, Emily Brontë was set alight.
After the weekend, he embraced political radicalism, producing a series of Marxist-themed films that culminated in 1972’s Tout Va Bien (All’s Well That Ends Well).
In the decades that followed, he retold the virgin birth, provoked complaints from then-Pope John Paul II (Hail Mary), tried unsuccessfully to recruit Richard Nixon as an actor (King Lear), and released an epic personal film history (Histoire ) (s) film). In 2014, in his 80s, he released an experimental 3D film starring his dog Roxy (Goodbye to Language).
6. He made the audience work
There was no way to get away from it – Godard’s films went from challenging to almost incomprehensible.
He was commercially successful, but despite criticism, his later works had limited distribution.
In addition to his love of cinema, Godard was a voracious reader, with a potentially dazzling array of references, only 70 minutes long, to, for example, Goodbye to Language, to the abstract painter Nicolas de Staël, the modernist American writer William Faulkner, and the mathematician Laurent Schwarz.
One of Godard’s most important influences, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, is also at play.
Brecht wanted his audiences to remain critically engaged with his work and therefore employed many methods to unsettle them and remind them that they were watching something artificial.
Several of Godard’s films used Brecht devices, such as 1967’s “China Wind,” which included sensationalist subtitles and actors breaking the fourth wall, and Godard even left the clapperboard in at the beginning of the scene.
7. He put himself in his art
In many of his works, the protagonist can be seen as a proxy for Godard himself.
In 1963’s Le Mépris (Contempt), Michel Piccoli plays a French playwright whose task is to recreate a film adaptation of Ulysses.
The film explores the tensions between commercialism and creativity and portrays a marriage in the process of disintegration, based on Godard’s relationship with Anna Karina, the star of several of his films.
The characters in his films were often spokespeople for himself, but in later years he made himself a feature of the films.
In 1995, he produced his autobiography JLG/JLG – Self-Portrait in December, and his prose films feature his own voice, most recently in 2018’s The Image Book.
The American critic Roger Ebert’s 1969 review of Godard described him as “delving into his own universe,” which nicely explains why Godard’s films are both so unique and so frustrating.
8. He could be a ‘shit’
Not without reason, Godard had a reputation for difficulties both personally and professionally.
His two stormy marriages, first to Anna Karina and then to Anne Wyzemski, spilled over into his films.
Producer Iain Quarier was furious about the recut of his 1968 Rolling Stones documentary “Sympathy for the Devil,” and Godard punched him in the face at the London release.
There was an extraordinary quarrel with his friend François Truffaut, another great New Wave director.
In 1973, Godard wrote to Truffaut to attack his latest film, Day by Day, and demanded a financial response. Truffaut wrote an angry reply accusing Godard of acting “like shit” and citing Godard’s misdeeds over the years. Not surprisingly, Truffaut refused to pay for Godard’s film. Their relationship never recovered.
But the collaboration was also an important part of his career.
His early films would not have been the same without Karina or Wierzemski, or Godard’s stand-in, Jean-Paul Belmondo.
He developed close working relationships with left-wing thinker Jean-Pierre Gorin and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who said, “He may be a shit …… but he’s a genius.”
Since the 1970s, his most important partner has been his life partner, the Swiss filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville.
9. But he was also an inspiration
The film industry around the world has seen its own new wave. The American New Wave gave us the likes of Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown and Jaws.
Godard’s own work – whether personal, experimental, political or all three – has had a huge impact.
American director Quentin Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart, a reference to Godard’s 1963 film Bande à part (The Band of Outsiders). Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci paid homage to it in his film The Dreamers.
Godard’s influence can be seen in the ambiguous documentaries and novels of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, or in the thematically and formally provocative work of Denmark’s Lars von Till.