Director Focus: Jean-Luc Godard

Godard with a camera, sometime in those black-and-white days.
Godard with a camera, sometime in those black-and-white days.

Having been writing reviews on this blog for around six months now, I thought it was time to try a new feature. So here is my ‘Director Focus’ month, where I organise my reviews around the work of a single director. I am, after all, a habitual auteurist as you’ll see from my credits and lists of reviews — though that’s not say I don’t think there’s plenty of room to critique the assumption that directors are the ultimate ‘authors’ of a film. Nevertheless, I wanted to start out with a director who’s been at the forefront of discussions around auteurism, and since the term originated with the French nouvelle vague, so I have chosen Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard was born in Paris on 3 December 1930, of Swiss descent. He spent his early years in Switzerland (where I believe he now lives), but didn’t start getting into films until moving back to Paris for university. Like many of the other filmmakers who would come to prominence in the nouvelle vague, such as François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol, his cinematic education came via Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque Française, and the film programmes screened there. From this it was a natural step into film criticism, in Godard’s case via the newly-founded Cahiers du cinéma magazine.

His move into feature filmmaking was in gestation for much of the late-1950s, and when an initial script with Truffaut came to nothing, he made a number of short films. It wasn’t until 1959, thanks in part to changes in the law which opened up space for more low-budget features, that he and other other directors of the nouvelle vague were able to get their start making feature films. Godard was among them and soon moved forward with his debut, À bout de souffle (Breathless), which he shot that Autumn and was released the following year.

I’ll be reviewing this first film for the Debuts Blogathon (over at Three Rows Back and Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop), which I recommend you follow, and will repost it on this journal in a few days. In the meantime, I will have a review up tomorrow of a precursor to and influence on this debut film, Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958). I intend to then look at other key films throughout Godard’s career, hopefully bringing us up to date, though even at the age of 82, Godard remains active as a filmmaker, having recently made a 3D feature called Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language).

It’s worth mentioning that despite his status as one of the archetypal film ‘auteurs’ (and the photo reproduced at the head of this post), Godard has always been reliant on his collaborators. There’s an amusing section of a documentary included as a bonus on the edition of Breathless I have, in which Donn Pennebaker, a pioneer of Direct Cinema in the US, is interviewed about the time Godard visited New York in the late-1960s to make One A.M. (One American Movie). Pennebaker expressed surprise that Godard didn’t seem to know how to use a camera he was given; Godard’s more comfortable position after all had always been to the side of his cinematographer (in the 1960s, this was most often Raoul Coutard), giving instructions.

Nevertheless, in the course of these reviews, I expect to touch on a number of Godard’s themes and obsessions, that have been developed over the course of his filmic work. These will no doubt include his attitude towards women (who often appear as prostitutes), his relationship to revolutionary politics, his stylisation and flattening of the image, and his use of quotations from film and literature in an increasingly collagist way.

I hope you will stay with me for this Director Focus month.

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