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Jean-Luc Godard Retrospective

French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard has passed away at age 91. Godard was one of the most important filmmakers of his generation and his early work especially was influential on filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino.

Godard’s interest in film was originally academic. In post-World War II Europe, cinema was taken very seriously as an art form and in the 1950s Godard was a film critic who wrote for the influential publication Cahiers du Cinema. He networked with other critics and filmmakers of the time namely François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Éric Rohmer. These filmmakers were the key figures in the French New Wave movement. Although it’s considered avant-garde filmmaking, the French New Wave was highly influenced by Hollywood and especially by the work of mainstream directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. The New Wave filmmakers rejected French establishment filmmaking which they saw as ossified and too cerebral. They were interested in breaking up the form and telling stories that were contemporary and dealt with life as people lived it. Godard made his feature film debut with 1960’s Breathless and its success led to a string of films including A Woman is a Woman and Contempt and Vivre Sa Vie. Film critics are split as to Goddard’s best work. An article at The Hollywood Reporter identifies My Life to Live, Contempt, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Self-Portrait in December, and Le petit soldat as among Godard’s greatest accomplishments.

In the wake of Godard’s death, Sarah Shachat and Jim Hemphill authored an article at IndieWire identifying the filmmaking techniques that Godard and his fellow French New Wave filmmakers introduced. The most legendary of these techniques was the use of jump cuts in which a portion of the film is removed from a single shot, resulting in a jump in the action. Godard and the New Wave filmmakers also pioneered handheld camera work. There had been handheld camerawork previously but Godard and his contemporaries used it artistically and purposefully. Shachat and Hemphill also identify long takes. Editing in mainstream filmmaking of the 1940s and 50s was done in a uniform and predictable way. Godard would hold on an image in a way that forced the audience to analyze it closely. His films also included intertextual references. By the 1960s cinema had become western culture’s dominant art form with Hollywood films and movie stars familiar to people at all levels of society across the world. Godard and other French New Wave filmmakers recognized that we live in a cinema culture and their movies reflected that with references to other movies and to famous actors. Godard also experimented with different film formats. Shachat and Hemphill point to Godard’s 1970s and 80s films in which he combined film and video. In fact, Godard directed 2001’s Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love) which combined traditional celluloid with digital filmmaking, putting Godard as one of the major directors pushing cinema into the digital age.

Godard was also a political figure. He was outspoken in interviews and supported political causes. In 1968, Godard joined demonstrations at the Cannes Films Festival which was occupied and shut down in solidarity with protesting students and workers. But Godard’s politics also appeared in his work. Godard’s became evermore experimental which brought him to the cultural margins where he toiled throughout the 1970, 80s, and 90s making small films that were not so widely seen.

Godard’s continued experimentation culminated with 1988’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma, an eight-part video series that examined moviemaking and how it related to culture and history in the twentieth century. He continued to work throughout the rest of his life mostly recently releasing the documentary The Image Book in 2018.

Upon the news of Godard’s death, tributes came in from around the film community by filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara and Kelly Reichardt and Luca Guadagnino and Paul Schrader and Edgar Wright and Claire Denis. French President Emmanuel Macron released a statement that said, “Jean-Luc Godard appeared as if by magic in the world of French cinema – and became a master of it. As the most revolutionary filmmaker of the New Wave, he invented a truly modern and intensely free art. We have lost a national treasure and the eye of a genius.”