For almost forty years, we’ve been losing the French New Wave. François Truffaut and Jacques Demy died young, back in the twentieth century; Henri Colpi, Éric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol followed in the early years of the twenty-first. The last decade alone saw the passings of Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, and Agnès Varda. But not until yesterday did la Nouvelle Vague‘s hardiest survivor, and indeed its defining figure, step off this mortal coil at the age of 91. Jean-Luc Godard didn’t launch the movement — that distinction belongs to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, from 1959 — but in 1960 his first feature Breathless made filmgoers the world over understand at once that the old rules no longer applied.
Yet for all his willingness to violate its conventions, Godard possessed a thoroughgoing respect for cinema. This perhaps came from his pre-auteurhood years he spent as a film critic in Paris, writing for the estimable Cahiers du cinéma (an institution to which Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette also contributed). “It made me love everything,” he says of his experience with criticism in the 1963 interview just above.
“It taught me not to be narrow-minded, not to ignore Renoir in favor of Billy Wilder.” A contrarian from the beginning, the young Godard disdained what he saw as the formalized and intellectualized products of the French film industry in favor of viscerally crowd-pleasing pictures made in the U.S.A.
“We Europeans have movies in our head, and Americans have movies in their blood,” says Godard in the 1965 British television interview above. “We have centuries and centuries of culture behind us. We have to think about things. We can’t just do things.” To “just do things” is perhaps the prime artistic desire driving his oeuvre, which spans seven decades and includes more than 40 feature films as well as many projects of less easily categorizable form. But this went with a lifelong immersion in classical European culture, evidenced by a filmography dense with references to its works. The weight of his formation and ambitions took a certain toll early on: “I’m already tired,” he says in a 1960 interview at Cannes, where Breathless was screening. Did the permanent revolutionary of cinema suspect, even then, how far he still had to go?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.