Jean Luc Godard, the iconoclast, who spearheaded the French New Wave, died at the age of 91 by assisted suicide in Switzerland on 13 September 2022. The maverick French-Swiss filmmaker, who had won an honorary Oscar in 2011 and more recently a special Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival for his last movie Image Book, had started his career as a film critic. He had ventured into filmmaking in 1952 with Operation Beton, a documentary on the construction of Grande Dixene dam, where he had worked as a labourer, and followed it up with a few shorts such as A Coquettish Woman, All Boys Are Called Patrick, and Charlotte and Her Boyfriend. But he burst into the world cinema scene with his seminal work, Breathless in 1960. A landmark movie, it was instrumental in popularising the Nouvelle Vague cinema, setting new rules of moviemaking and paving way for the alternative cinema of today.
Nouvelle Vague or the French New Wave was a movement that revolutionised cinema between the late ’50s and ’60s. It all began with a bunch of articles published in André Bazin’s film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Among the writers, who later put their theories into action by turning directors, were François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and of course, Jean-Luc Godard. These filmmakers would form the nucleus of the movement.
At the heart of the movement, fronted by these critics-turned-directors, was the contempt for the tradition de qualite of the stagnant French cinema and an attempt to give it a dramatic overhaul. And it started with the concept of the auteur. In his article, Une certaine tendance du cinéma français, Truffaut coined the phrase “la politique des auteurs” and stressed the need for a filmmaker to have a distinctive style, which can reflect their personal vision or politics. According to him, a film should have the signature of the director and he should be regarded as the author of the film. This was a clear departure from the prevalent idea that films are properties of the studios/production houses and the filmmaker is just one of its employees.
The New Wave movies were usually realistic tales of chaotic, leather jacket-wearing youngsters wandering through the streets of Paris with cigarettes casually hanging from their lips, often on their noisy bikes or second-hand cars. The experimental storytelling made these movies, which reflected the pulse of the city — especially the Zeitgeist of the post-World War II nouvelle vague generation — look fresh, honest, and urgent, if at times a tad amateurish and unpolished. These movies were mostly shot on location with hand-held cameras and used non-professional actors. Developed largely as a response to the post-World War II financial slump, this was low-budget movie making, stripped off the glamour and flab of mainstream commercial cinema.
Influenced by the Italian Neorealism of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica and the Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ cinema of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and John Ford, the French New Wave acted as a catalyst to modern cinema as we know it today. The aesthetics and the ethos of the French New Wave — the documentary-style filmmaking using portable equipment coupled with fragmented endings, long takes, face close-ups and discontinuous editing, especially the use of jump cuts to forward the narrative, and the focus on youth culture, existential realism, and social commentary — served as a building block for other international cinema movements like the Dogme 95 (between 1995 to 2005) propagated by Danish filmmakers like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Cinema Novo (between the 1960s and 1970s) popularised by Brazilian filmmaker, Glauber Rocha and Carlos Diegues, and the New Hollywood (between mid-1960s and early 1980s) wave cinema of Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Penn, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and even Woody Allen. According to Scorsese, the French New Wave “has influenced all filmmakers who have worked since, whether they saw the films or not. It submerged the cinema like a tidal wave.” Its impact can be seen even in contemporary indie filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino.
For his feature debut, Godard took up an idea abandoned by Truffaut. He shot on the streets of Paris in minimal artificial lighting with a script that he almost rustled up while shooting.
Jean-Paul Belmondo is Michel, a petty thief who wanders around on the streets of Paris with Humphrey Bogartish swag. Jean Seberg is his American girlfriend Patricia. Godard’s shaky hand-held camera follows the couple as their story takes a tragic turn.
The film, which has the DNA of a low-budget, American B-movie, broke the established Hollywood-style storytelling and with its breaking of the fourth wall, improvised script and music, disjointed narrative, and mood swings, served as a manifesto for the New Wave. This fast-paced film is marked by jump cuts, an editing technique (first used by Georges Méliès) that would eventually become synonymous with the auteur. In his words, “It was a film that took everything that cinema had done — girls, gangsters, cars — exploded all this and put an end, once and for all, to the old style.”
A heady cocktail of American crime thriller and French New Wave aesthetic, the movie became a cultural phenomenon upon its release and won Godard the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was the first and most decisive step by Godard to revolutionise and reinvent cinema.
His only lavishly-mounted commercial venture that demands a big-screen experience, stars Brigitte Bardot and German filmmaker, Fritz Lang, and is based on Alberto Moravia’s Italian novel Il disprezzo (A Ghost at Noon). The melancholic film that is essentially about fatalism explores the breakdown of a marriage along with the turmoil of an artiste being weighed ng’s (who plays himself) disdain for cinemascope while Godard in a separate scene goes down by the pressures of commercial filmmaking.
It is a movie about cinema, where we have a film within a film, and is often self-referential. In the movie, we see La use the format to almost fetishise Bardot’s body. Set in 1950s America, Godard takes multiple jibes at the box-office-driven cinema of Hollywood which hardly has any place for artistic freedom and artiste’s integrity. Interestingly, this classic Godard, proved to be the biggest box-office success of his career.
Band of Outsiders (1965)
Loosely based on Dolores Hitchens’s noir pulp, Fools Gold, this heist movie sees three rebellious youngsters, who are also hopeless romantics and live in their own make-belief worlds, rob a villa in Paris. For them, life is almost like a movie, and the heist is an extension of that. Poetic yet poignant, and steeped in literary and pop-culture references, Godard described this charming film as ‘Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka. It has Kafkaesque characters inhabiting a wonderland between fantasy and reality. It is one of the most accessible films of Godard’s oeuvre and has him double up as the voice-over narrator. It has some of the most legendary scenes of all time including the famous sprint-through-the-Louvre scene as well as the café dance scene that Quentin Tarantino uses as an inspiration in Pulp Fiction (the American filmmaker’s production company A Band Apart is also influenced by the title of this movie).
This film is drastically different from the films of Godard. Here, he incorporates neo-noir to create a dystopian world. Set in a futuristic city on a different planet ruled by a tyrannical supercomputer named Alpha 60, it is a place where love and self-expression are outlawed. The unusual science fiction film that had no special effects was filmed entirely in and around the concrete jungle of Paris, mostly during the night. The film won the Golden Bear at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival.
It is a film made in the ’60s, set in the future that is eerily similar to today’s times. It is a film that rages against the rise of machines. Also, we have the dictionary, inspired by George Orwell’s concept of Newspeak, which is continuously updated with words that are banned for evoking emotions deemed dangerous.
Masculin Féminin (1966)
One of the greatest representations of political movies from the ’60s, it is a collage of 15 unrelated scenes of varying lengths that references pop-culture icons while exploring the lives and social politics of “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola”, the young and the restless, of the then contemporary France. This heady punch of music, sex, fashion, politics, activism, consumerism, disillusionment, and pretentiousness, pulsates with Godardian humour and wit. But more than anything else, it reflects his personal politics that equates the Americanisation of youth with their dehumanisation. Modern viewers might discern a slightly misogynistic streak in the battle of the sexes where the boys talk politics and the girls flip through fashion magazines.
Fun fact: The movie has a parody of Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, which made the Swedish filmmaker denounce this film as “a classic case of Godard: mind-numbingly boring” added fuel to their feud.
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