How Jean-Luc Godard Liberated Cinema: A Video Essay on How the Greatest Rule-Breaker in Film Made His Name

Few can think of the very con­cept of the auteur with­out think­ing of Jean-Luc Godard. That goes for those of us exhil­a­rat­ed by his movies, those of us amused by them, those of us frus­trat­ed by them, and those of us who expe­ri­ence any com­bi­na­tion of those emo­tions and more. Godard­’s ear­ly audi­ences, at the dawn of the French New Wave in the late 1950s and the decade or so there­after, react­ed in all those ways, and some­how time has­n’t drained his work in that peri­od of its pow­er.

“How Jean-Luc Godard Lib­er­at­ed Cin­e­ma,” the video essay from The Dis­card­ed Image above, shows us how a young film­mak­er in mid-cen­tu­ry France, work­ing under severe­ly lim­it­ed envi­ron­ments and in a whole new post­war real­i­ty — cul­tur­al as well as eco­nom­ic — imbued them with that pow­er. Start­ing with a bang, his 1959 fea­ture debut Breath­less, Godard took cin­e­ma, says Dis­card­ed Image cre­ator Julian Palmer, and “tore through its foun­da­tions, rein­vent­ing the form and rein­vent­ing him­self, pic­ture by pic­ture.” This entailed “a hap­haz­ard ethos toward edit­ing” as well as oscil­la­tion between “genre and the every­day, actors and non-pro­fes­sion­als, black and white and col­or.”

Godard “found the mod­ern world, engulfed with com­mer­cial­ism, both appeal­ing in its pop-art aes­thet­ic, but also repel­lent,” and his ear­ly films vivid­ly express both halves of that world­view. All the while he “toys with the con­ven­tions of cin­e­ma,” for exam­ple by sev­er­ing the “umbil­i­cal cord” of the musi­cal score, “mak­ing you aware of how you’re being manip­u­lat­ed by his medi­um,” and lit­ter­ing the frame with text, “often with abstract phras­es, pos­si­bly just to pro­voke a reac­tion” — or, as some Godard enthu­si­asts might put it, def­i­nite­ly just to pro­voke a reac­tion.

The Godard films on which this video essay focus­es — the for­mi­da­ble stretch from Breath­less to 1967’s Week-end, with pic­tures like Vivre sa vieCon­tempt, and Alphav­ille in-between —  also draw deeply from cin­e­ma itself. “Movies sur­round these char­ac­ters’ lives, pro­vid­ing a con­trast to their exis­tence,” says Palmer. “This fan­ta­sy can allow them to momen­tar­i­ly escape their real­i­ty.” But as the 1960s became the 1970s, “like a film com­ing off its pro­jec­tor, Godard him­self was com­ing off track. He was increas­ing­ly dis­gust­ed by con­sumer cul­ture, which was only becom­ing more dom­i­nant.”

There­after, as some crit­ics see it, the del­i­cate bal­ance between Godard­’s pol­i­tics and his aes­thet­ics was over­turned by the for­mer, but his ini­tial “man­ic peri­od of fer­tile cre­ation is still unmatched to this day, and Godard­’s influ­ence is immea­sur­able.” We should not only be thank­ful that Godard still makes films (his lat­est, The Image Book, won the very first “Spe­cial Palme d’Or” at this year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val), but also hope that the next gen­er­a­tion of film­mak­ers con­tin­ues to look to his exam­ple. Godard may have lib­er­at­ed cin­e­ma, but it always and every­where threat­ens to put itself back in chains.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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