Farewell to Godard, the revolutionary French filmmaker – POLITICO

Douglas Morrey is Associate Professor of French at the University of Warwick. He is the author of the books “Jean-Luc Godard” and “La The legacy of the New Wave in French cinema.”

One of the ancestors of modern cinema, writer and director Jean-Luc Godard, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, transformed the way culture is appreciated and understood in France, and beyond. Best known for his association with the French New Wave movement, through the crackling energy and abrupt shifts in tone of his films, Godard changed the notion of what a director could or should be.

Thanks to his polemical and acerbic criticism and the fierce individualism of his career, directors are now systematically considered in France as having the ability, even the duty, to comment on social and political developments with as much authority as writers, philosophers or politicians.

More than that, it is largely thanks to the inspirational model of Godard and a handful of others that Paris is today the largest city to cultivate an interest in cinema. And it is the richness of this culture and this industry that will perhaps be the most precious and lasting legacy of the New Wave in general, and of Godard in particular.

Without Godard, without films like “A bout de souffle” (1960), “Contempt” (1963) or “Pierrot le fou” (1965), the French New Wave would have been only the cinematographic expression of the profound demographic changes and cultural events marking the start of the Fifth Republic in France in 1958. Instead, it became much more.

Watching with contempt behind his tinted glasses, this was Godard’s contribution – first, in the vitriol and arrogant exaggeration of his critical writings; then, in the narratives thrown together, the disorienting montages and the free-wheeling atmosphere of his films – it made it a revolutionary movement, and almost certainly the most significant, coherent and radical in the history of cinema. A movement that has inspired countless other aesthetic insurgencies around the world, spreading beyond France to Britain, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, Hollywood and Taiwan.

“Punk” before punk, the New Wave showed that anyone could be an artist. All you had to do was gather a few friends, borrow a camera, steal some film, take to the streets and film your own life. The adventure of making the film itself was the whole point, the whole story needed. Yet this only marked the beginning of Godard’s impact on the cultural landscape.

Although he was not an overtly political filmmaker in his early days – although he openly addressed France’s role in the Algerian war in “Le Petit Soldat” (filmed in 1960, but banned and did not released before 1963) – Godard was initially more interested in the eternal exploration of existential questions of life and death, men and women, language and meaning, while documenting in his films the ethnographic mutation from Paris.

But like many intellectuals in the 1960s, he became increasingly politicized as the decade progressed, repeatedly expressing his outrage at the Vietnam War and the gleeful consumerism of French society, both in screen than outside. And with the crisis of May 1968, during which he became vocal and widely criticized the lack of involvement of his contemporaries, he was encouraged to abandon commercial cinema altogether as a bourgeois lost cause.

Also rejecting the suspicious individualism of his auteur signature, he spent four years making films with the radical collective Dziga Vertov Group, veering increasingly to the left, creating didactic Maoist tracts that may seem daunting to moviegoers. today, but who have lost none of their just fury in the face of social and economic injustice.

More than any other filmmaker, Godard’s trajectory in the 1970s directly reflects the fortunes of radical political thought and action in the years after 1968 – seeking a united revolutionary front on class struggles across the globe. , but eventually sinking into disillusionment, infighting, and retreat. of the poisoned metropolis.

The casual observer, especially outside of France, could be forgiven for thinking that Godard never returned to mainstream cinema after 1968, as none of his later films were hugely successful. But the tireless director never stopped working.

In particular, he reinvented himself as a film historian, with the monumental four-and-a-half-hour video collage “Histoire(s) du cinema” (1998), which recounts the history of cinema with his own words and images, through an often mind-blowing personal memory of the director’s filmmaker. Here, Godard developed a controversial argument about his medium’s alleged moral bankruptcy and failure to reveal the uncomfortable truth about injustice and atrocity in the world.

In particular, he repeatedly argued that Holocaust documentary film footage could and should be used for educational purposes, entering into a polemical debate with director Claude Lanzmann, for whom the Nazi extermination of the Jews marked the unsurpassable limit of what can ethically be seen or shown.

Nor did Godard only make films for the cinema. He experimented with television documentary in the 1970s; sabotaged improbable trade commissions from France Telecom and electronics distributor Darty in the 1980s; and as an enthusiastic digital video pioneer, his most recent films, “Film Socialism” (2010) and “Goodbye to Language” (2014), featured material shot on cellphones.

Over the past few decades, the political focus of Godard’s work may have waxed and waned, but it has always remained disruptive, polarizing, and outspoken. And it’s hard to think of another filmmaker, anywhere in the world, who has demonstrated such an unwavering and enduring commitment to artistic integrity, renewal and fearlessness, his iconic figure forever etched in the annals of French culture and our collective understanding of the moving image.


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