Jean-Luc Godard, whose radical filmmaking style transformed the industry, was 91 years old. Here’s a look back at some of his most groundbreaking work.
“Modern cinema begins here,” wrote Roger Ebert, the critic of Godard’s debut feature A bout de souffle (1960). “Not since 1942’s Citizen Kane has a debut film been so influential.”
An homage to American crime dramas, it eschews the traditions of French cinema for an unpolished, experimental style with hand-held cameras, quick cuts and live-produced dialogue.
The plot is nothing new – about a gangster who shoots a cop and the girlfriend who eventually cheats on him – but the attitude and pacing are refreshing.
It produced stars like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, while its immoral, disgruntled characters influenced the likes of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Quentin Tarantino.
Godard was followed by Le Petit Soldat (1961), a thriller about the use of torture on both sides in the Algerian war.
Banned by the French censors for two and a half years, it was the director’s first public political statement, leading him to coin the phrase: “Cinema is the truth at 24 frames per second.”
It was also the first film in which Godard directed his muse and future wife, Anna Karina.
Karina also appeared in Vivre sa vie (1962) as the young Parisian Nana, who aspires to be an actress but eventually becomes a prostitute.
The story unfolds over 12 chapters, detailing small but important events in Nana’s life, with the camera often hovering over Karina’s face in close-up.
Godard said the film was his attempt to “capture the mind in action, the inside of a person as seen from the outside”. It became one of his biggest critical and commercial successes.
Karina reappeared in 1964’s “Band of Outsiders” (Bande à part), a radical makeover of the gangster movie in which two disturbed young men (Sammy Frey and Claude Brassel) encourage a woman they’re obsessed with to help them with a heist. … In her own home.
The film includes two iconic scenes – a race against time through the Louvre art gallery and a stylized line dance in a Parisian cafe – that are referenced in the infamous Uma Thurman/John Travolta trope of lowbrow fiction.
Godard’s 1963 film Le Mépris (Contempt) was his only foray into proper, big-budget filmmaking and starred France’s most famous actress, Brigitte Bardot.
Adapted from Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel, it tells the story of a failed playwright (Michel Piccoli) who is hired by a corrupt American filmmaker (Jack Palance) to adapt The Odyssey for the screen.
The writer is forced to make the script more commercial, which goes against the vision of director Fritz Lang (playing himself) – and the compromises he is forced to make in his deteriorating relationship with his wife (Bardo).
Scorn is often seen as a commentary on conspiracies in the film industry, and Godard certainly faced disturbing compromises during production. At the producer’s insistence, Bardot appears in the opening scenes in bed with her husband, who is outraged that Godard did not include any nudity in his film.
In return, he deliberately made the scene non-erotic, shooting Bardot through a series of color filters while emphasizing the fragility of her character’s marriage.
Defiance may have been Godard’s most expensive film at the time – but he wasn’t opposed to dressing up the sets and moving props himself.
He also helped bury Karina and Belmondo on the beach of Porquerolles Island while filming Pierrot Le Fou in 1965.
Another thriller about an unfortunate married man who flees Paris with his ex-girlfriend, Marianne, who in turn is hunted by an Algerian assassin.
Godard’s tenth film in six years, it was also his last film to please audiences in the 1960s, as he began to move toward more radical films.
Also released in 1965 was the science fiction film Alphaville Noir, starring Eddie Constantine as a secret agent (code name 003) in an anti-utopian city where love and self-expression are outlawed.
His mission is to eliminate Professor Von Braun, the mastermind of Alphaville, and destroy Alpha 60, the dictatorial supercomputer that controls its citizens.
Although the film is set on an alternate planet in the distant future, Godard eschews special effects and elaborate sets and simply shoots the darker corners of Paris in lieu of the streets of Alphaville.
Released in 1967, “Weekend” is a scathing condemnation of modern French society, a road movie about the end of civilization, and a message from Godard to complete commercial filmmaking.
In the style of a black comedy, it tells the story of a bourgeois couple who begin collecting inheritances from their dying relatives while the country crashes and burns around them.
It features one of the most famous sequences in film history – an eight-minute traffic jam tracking shot in which the camera travels nearly three-quarters of a mile, which shows that society has become trapped by its estate.
The film ends with two title cards: “The End of the Story,” followed by “The End of the Film,” highlighting Godard’s disillusionment with the comfortable predictability of the mainstream. The following year, he helped shut down the Cannes Film Festival in sympathy with the Paris student riots.
In 1968, Godard traveled to England with the intention of making a film about abortion. When that project fell through, he told the producer that he would only stay in London if he could work with the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.
Having failed to interest John Lennon in playing Leon Trotsky, he set up cameras at London’s Olympic Studios to film the Rolling Stones recording of their classic album “Beggar’s Banquet”.
There, he captured the goosebumps moment when they wrote “Sympathy for the Devil”. But the resulting film, One Plus One, is less a documentary about music than it is a treatise on revolution, creation and destruction.
Footage from the recording studio is intercut with scenes of Godard’s second wife, Anne Wyzemski, spray-painting the words “Frode Democracy” and “Cinematic Marxism” on a car, while another sequence shows children punching white revolutionaries in the face in a pornographic bookstore. .
Godard’s original cut did not include the full performance of Sympathy for the Devil. When it was inserted against his will, he was so angry that he punched the producer at a screening at the National Film Theatre in London.
In the 1970s, Godard teamed up with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin to create a collective they named the Dziga Vertov Group, after the Soviet documentary filmmaker they admired.
The films produced during this period – including The Wind from the East, Struggle in Italy and Vladimir and Rosa – were overtly Marxist and had trouble finding an audience.
After spending time in the wilderness, the director began again in 1979 to produce a successful narrative feature film that he called “the second first film.
The clumsy plot focuses on three adult characters and their problems with work and love – Jacques Dutronc plays a character named Godard, a bitter, depraved and sexist television director.
The film, which premiered at Cannes in 1980 (pictured above), was described by the New York Times as “stunning,” “beautiful” and “brilliant.
Godard is best known for his “Sublime Trilogy” in the 1980s, which included three films exploring femininity, nature and religion: Passion, The Name: Carmen and Hail Mary.
The latter, starring Miriam Roussel (above), is a modern retelling of the birth of Christ, in which an angel visits the gas station owner’s daughter and tells her she will give birth to the Son of God.
The religious themes and scenes of full frontal nudity disturbed many Christians, who protested against the screening outside.
While screening “Hail Mary” at Cannes in 1985, Godard was attacked by Belgian anarchist Noel Godin, who threw a shaving cream pie in his face.
Godard responded, “That’s what happens when silent movies meet talking ones.”
It was only a modest success as protesters picketed the film’s screening in France. The film was also banned in Brazil and Argentina.
The director made several films in the 1990s and instead focused on his eight-part essay Histoire(s) du Cinéma – a film that began to take shape in the late 1970s.
Variously described as an “epic”, a “watershed work” and a “kind of intellectual striptease”, it is intensely personal, intellectually tenacious and surprisingly wide-ranging.
“It took Jean-Luc Godard 30 years to create his History. It may take just as long to absorb it,” writes critic Dave Cole.
Godard returned to cinema in the 2000s to meditate on war (Our Music, 2004) and the portrayal of love on the big screen (In Praise of Love, 2001).
Promoted as his last work, 2010’s cinematic socialism (above) showcased many of his old arguments about the nation-state, justice and history in a familiarly fractured story.
“This film is an insult,” writes an angry Roger Ebert. “It’s incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and inattentive to the way people watch movies.”
2014’s “Goodbye to Language” fared even better, being named the second best film of the year by the influential Sight & Sound magazine.
Godard’s first (and only) foray into 3D, its fractured narrative tells the story of two lovers (and their dog, played by Godard’s own pet, Roxy) and their increasing inability to communicate.
As their attempts falter, so do the subtitles, the soundtrack and even the 3D imagery, which are painfully separated to illustrate the characters’ disconnect.
The film won the prestigious Jury Prize at Cannes.
Godard has received many other awards, including an honorary Oscar in 2011, whose inscription reads, “For passion. For confrontation. For a new kind of cinema.”
His last film was 2018’s The Image Book, which won a one-time Palme d’Or, and he also holds the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Golden Bear in Berlin.
In his native country, he won the honorary César trophy twice, in 1987 and 1988 – the latter presented by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood.
But he declined the French National Order of Merit on the grounds that “I don’t like taking orders, I don’t have any merit”