Unspeakable sadness or reflective indifference to the passing of Jean-Luc Godard, a man I did not know. As he spoke after Truffaut’s passing “François is dead. Maybe I’m alive. There’s no difference, really, is there?” His cinema, continually redefining itself, was constant at least in its fracturing of time and space. So while Godard has passed, at the spry age of 91, only a few years removed from his most recent radical reinvention of cinema, we can take some solace that his films remain. And if any being of cinema successfully sublimated himself into the celluloid, then video tape, then digital files of his (many, impenetrable, beautiful) films, it would be him. I think he’d hate the idea of cinematic immortality, but contradiction is his base property.
When I first saw Breathless I was furious. How could a filmmaker win such love and acclaim for such an amateurish film? Why learn to frame a shot, or expose correctly, or set up a protagonist, or edit according to the 360 degree line, when this ex-journalist can shoot any old way and be called a genius? It was only on further exploration, seeing A Woman is a Woman and Contempt that I realized he was not failing to create cinema but democratizing it. Separating cinema from its expensive presentation and revealing that it still lives and breathes without sets or dollies or lights.
In writing about the recently deceased one usually seeks to applaud or condemn, but let’s be more practical: here is a recommendation for the uninitiated. If Godard has eluded you as a viewer, may I recommend the epic romance film he made about his time with Anna Karina. It is not a single film but (as many acquainted with recent American cinema may be very comfortable with) a universe of sorts. Through several films, all with different stories and characters and styles, we can follow a romance between Godard and his one-time wife that saturates each film as both text and subtext. Start with the honeymoon, A Woman is a Woman. Their difficulties (though real-life triumph) in My Life to Live. Their heartbreak in Contempt, where Bridget Bardot is transformed briefly by wig into Karina. Their separation in Pierrot Le Fou. And finally witness their love’s epitaph in Made in USA. Watching them all together as a series reveals depths and direction which may prove elusive to new viewers otherwise.
Michael Atkinson writes, “It will remain a Godardian world, no matter what comes, but who will know it?” Many will claim that Godard’s revolution is still spinning, that he changed the cinema forever. What they mean is that now commercial movies will often have handheld cameras, with an occasional documentary-style jump cut. Lessons from Breathless (and, always, only from Breathless) absorbed by commercial filmmaking to spice up otherwise conventional narratives. The movies plod onward, uninterested in being anything but a dream factory and slowly but ever more clearly transforming into a delivery system for bildungsroman with increasingly fascist tendencies. How many of us filmmakers, and especially we of the independent type who are free of constraint and in possession of final cut, have taken up Godard’s mantle? Now that he has finally left us, it can only be more difficult than ever.