An Introduction to Jean-Luc Godard’s Innovative Filmmaking Through Five Video Essays

Even though Jean-Luc Godard turned 86 this past Sat­ur­day, cin­e­ma schol­ar David Bor­d­well would no doubt still call him “the youngest film­mak­er at work today” — as he did just two years ago, in an essay on Godard­’s most recent pic­ture Good­bye to Lan­guage. Over his more than 65-year-long career, which began in film crit­i­cism and arguably nev­er left it, the man who direct­ed the likes of Breath­less, Alphav­ille, and Week­end in his very first decade of film­mak­ing has kept his work intel­lec­tu­al­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly inno­v­a­tive when most movies seem resigned, and even con­tent, to explore the same tram­pled patch of cin­e­ma’s cre­ative space over and over again.

“Godard has been the lib­er­a­tor of weird­ness,” wrote New York­er film crit­ic and Godard biog­ra­ph­er Richard Brody on the occa­sion of the auteur’s 82nd birth­day. “He was always ahead of the game in terms of movie-mad­ness, rec­og­niz­ing that the habit of think­ing in terms of images and sounds didn’t detach him from emo­tion­al engage­ment with his sub­jects but added a new dimen­sion to it.”

He secured cre­ative free­dom for him­self from the begin­ning when he “cast ama­teurs along­side pro­fes­sion­als, mixed gen­res and tones, called atten­tion to the arti­fices of movies he loved and of gen­res he reju­ve­nat­ed, over­turned con­ven­tion with an anar­chic fury and an ana­lyt­i­cal pas­sion.”

Godard, Brody con­cludes, “hasn’t just rethought movies; he has recon­ceived the cin­e­ma, as a prac­tice and as an expe­ri­ence.” But what does that look like for the audi­ence? These five video essays plunge into Godard­’s work, iso­lat­ing and cel­e­brat­ing ele­ments that have mer­it­ed our close cinephilic atten­tion. At the top of the post, we have a brief aes­thet­ic overview in the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion-spon­sored “Godard in Frag­ments,” where­in video essay­ist kog­o­na­da (cre­ator of pieces pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Wes Ander­son, Alfred Hitch­cock, Stan­ley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and neo­re­al­ism) spends six and a half min­utes mes­mer­iz­ing­ly “high­light­ing the icon­ic director’s sig­na­ture themes and devices,” from cam­eras and hand­guns to wom­en’s faces and bot­toms to the very con­cept of death.

But to under­stand Godard requires first under­stand­ing Breath­less, his 1960 debut fea­ture and, in the words of the Nerd­writer in his video essay on the film, “an extend­ed inves­ti­ga­tion of a French filmic iden­ti­ty in the shad­ow of Hol­ly­wood dom­i­nance — of, indeed, whether an iden­ti­ty informed by anoth­er nation’s cul­ture can exist at all.” Godard and his col­lab­o­ra­tors made the movie a lit­tle more than a decade after the end of World War II, which meant just over a decade after French restric­tions on the screen­ing of Amer­i­can films had van­ished, plung­ing Godard­’s impres­sion­able gen­er­a­tion straight and deep into the sights, sounds, style, and tropes of Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ing.

Breath­less, in all its low-bud­get excite­ment and illus­tra­tion of the notion that the sever­est lim­i­ta­tions cre­ate the most favor­able con­di­tions for art, also func­tions as a piece of film crit­i­cism: it inter­prets and repur­pos­es all that Godard and his col­lab­o­ra­tors had learned, con­scious­ly as well as uncon­scious­ly, from and about Amer­i­can movies, and espe­cial­ly Amer­i­ca’s breath­less (as it were) genre pic­tures. “It wants to par­tic­i­pate in the Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ing it admires, but it knows that such an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is impos­si­ble, so it deals with this by being self-con­scious, by using jump cuts, awk­ward tran­si­tions, by rob­bing the clas­sic moments of their force or mak­ing the hero’s bloody final steps way longer that it could ever pos­si­bly be, forc­ing you out­side the film’s text — or back into it again.”

Five years lat­er came Alphav­ille, anoth­er simul­ta­ne­ous trib­ute to and assault on genre from Godard and com­pa­ny. In it, accord­ing to Patri­cia Pis­ters’ “Despair Has No Wings: a Trib­ute to Godard­’s Alphav­ille,” he “plays with film noir ele­ments to tell a sci­ence-fic­tion sto­ry that unfolds many oth­er lay­ers,” drop­ping the extant pulp-fic­tion detec­tive Lem­my Cau­tion into a new, “strange” con­text. “Pop­u­lar audi­ences were shocked by this worn-out and alien­at­ing ver­sion of their hero,” turned by Godard into a “cos­mo­nau­tic secret agent who trav­els in his Ford Galax­ie” into a futur­is­tic, author­i­tar­i­an Paris of rul­ing super­com­put­ers, seem­ing­ly mechan­i­cal cit­i­zens, “use­less vend­ing machines,” and stark, impos­ing mod­ern archi­tec­ture.

But Godard­’s use of archi­tec­ture start­ed before Alphav­ille and con­tin­ued after it, argues Richard Mar­tin in the British Film Insti­tute video essay “Jean-Luc Godard as Archi­tect.” He uses the term in a broad sense to mean “some­one inter­est­ed in build­ing, cap­tur­ing, and arrang­ing, spaces,” an inter­est man­i­fest in Breath­less’ “almost joy­ful” Paris of “peo­ple run­ning through the Lou­vre, juke­box­es, cafés, din­ers, and bars,” Pier­rot le Fou and Week­end’s pre­sen­ta­tion of “the car crash as a kind of archi­tec­tur­al sce­nario,” and Con­tempt’s jour­ney from the grand­ly “dilap­i­dat­ed lots of the Cinecit­tà film stu­dios on the out­skirts of Rome” to its thir­ty-minute cen­ter­piece in one of that city’s new mod­ern apart­ments to Capri’s Casa Mala­parte, “one of the most thrilling pieces of archi­tec­ture not just in Godard­’s career, but in the whole his­to­ry of cin­e­ma.”

Maybe it makes sense that some­one who first got behind the cam­era to make a con­struc­tion doc­u­men­tary (watch online here) would con­tin­ue to pur­sue an inter­est in the orga­ni­za­tion of space. But as Godard­’s atti­tudes, ideas, tastes, and even pol­i­tics have changed, the oth­er qual­i­ties of his movies have changed along with them. Hav­ing worked in black-and-white, col­or — its use exam­ined in the super­cut “Bleu, Blanc, Rouge” below — and with Good­bye to Lan­guage even in 3D, Godard has long shown a will­ing­ness to enter new visu­al ter­ri­to­ries as well.

Not only will his work past, present, and future con­tin­ue to give video essays a wealth of mate­r­i­al to work with, he him­self, accord­ing to Richard Brody, made the form pos­si­ble, hav­ing under­stood since the 1970s that “home video would be the basis for a new­ly ana­lyt­i­cal under­stand­ing of film his­to­ry, because it would allow for the easy copy­ing of clips and their manip­u­la­tion via video edit­ing with such tech­niques as slow motion, freeze-frame, and super­im­po­si­tions of oth­er images and text.” Thus “every video essay that turns up online owes him a debt of grat­i­tude,” as do many of the oth­er inno­v­a­tive types of visu­al media to which Godard has shown the way.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Jean-Luc Godard Takes Cannes’ Rejec­tion of Breath­less in Stride in 1960 Inter­view

The Entire­ty of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath­less Art­ful­ly Com­pressed Into a 3 Minute Film

Watch Meetin’ WA: Jean-Luc Godard Films Woody Allen in 1986 Short Film

Jean-Luc Godard’s Debut, Opéra­tion béton (1955) — a Con­struc­tion Doc­u­men­tary

Jean-Luc Godard’s After-Shave Com­mer­cial for Schick (1971)

A Young Jean-Luc Godard Picks the 10 Best Amer­i­can Films Ever Made (1963)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Muda Kun says:

    On Alphav­ille

    Is the Cri­te­ri­on cut the canon­i­cal one?

    This might be odd but I remem­ber watch­ing ALPHAVILLE many times in my youth on a cheesy Sat­ur­day after­noon “hor­ror film” movie show, com­plete with faux-vam­pire host and some of my favourite ultra-low-bud­get scenes do not occur in the Cri­te­ri­on ver­sion. What hap­pened to all the extra park­ing garage big com­put­er scenes?

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.