Educated at Lycee Buffon and Faculty des lettres in Paris.
The first young Godard adored Americana. In violence to French cinema of the 1950s and the history of art or intellectual cinema, he recognized the virtues of everv director from Griffith to Fuller, with running and contradictory confusion as to whether Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Minnelli, or Anthony Mann was the greatest of directors. It was sufficient that the director he admired at any moment was the greatest; the urge to classify had a weak memory and a helpless index. The vital admiration of the beauty of American action cinema, and of the way it expressed character, emotion, and universal meanings within rigid genres and unwholesome production systems took too little account of the commercial position of the
American director, of genres, and ol the inability of revered directors to understand his praise of them. But in terms of plot, image, and character, Godard’s first films were a magnificent critical explanation of American movies. The tragic pitch of Pierrot le Fou lies partly in the sense of a dying American cinema.
As American cinema shrank into seriousness, and as more young people rediscovered its earlier glory, Godard moved violently to shun such company. He went first into his own invented sociology that allied the exploitation of film directors with a diffuse notion of prostitution throughout society. The idea had been expressed best in Vivre Su Vic and Le Mépris, and recurs with decreasing precision in Une Femme Mariée, Alplmville, and Deux ou Trois Choses. That conception thrust Godard forward into a near-total abandonment ol America for Marxist cinema. But the new political awareness was as shy of reality as his liking for American movies had been insecurely rooted. He could only make his revolutionary films in groups named after Dziga Vertov or Medvedkin. And from Made in USA onward, the political imperative accelerates his incoherence, replaces action with slogan and human meetings with the barren exchange of dialectic. Deux ou Trois Choses is the film in which his generalization of people works best, poised on the edge of a numbing obscurity that is a grotesque proof of the alienation Godard sees in the world. His protests, therefore, are pathological and humorless.
Godard’s greatness rests in his grasping of the idea that films are made of moving images, of moments from films, of images projected in front of audiences. A critic once asked why there was so much blood in Pierrot. That is not blood, answered Godard, but red. Equally, his films are not stories photographed, but a record of actors playing parts. The focus of his films is the distance between camera and actors and between screen and audience. He involves viewers more thoroughly (and more politically) in a film like Bande à Part when he describes the action he is showing than in anv of the direct didactic onslaughts. Les Carabiniers is still his most political film, largely because he is so stimulated by its specific location—the urban wasteland. He knows only cinema: on politics and real life he is childish and pretentious.
It follows that the very thing his films lack is emotion. They deal with moments of cinema and with his jungle of reference, but never with feelings. It is when he photographs Anna Karina, his first wife, that this gap is wistfully admitted. That is what makes Pierrot a real tragedy and moments from earlier films with Karina elegies for an unexperienced feeling. Godard’s anger and intellect sit together guarding his cold, empty heart, maddened by it. He is the first director, the first great director, who does not seem to be a human being.
It was the discovery that he loved Karina more in moving images than in life that may have broken their marriage. And that rupture shocked his chaste heart even further, into vain protestations of caring for the world.
Thus Godard proves that cinema is no more or less than cinema, that art has scant need of reality, that it depends on imagination. He is the inaugurator of a new beauty that is the beginning of modern cinema—uncomposed, but snapped. Movements observed, transformed by being watched.
Godard has not stopped, or reached Fassbinder’s terminus. Nor is his recent work negligible: Nouvelle Vague w as very beautiful; Detective was a rather casual tribute to film noir; King Lear had the backhanded virtue of demonstrating how capriciously a film could be contracted, and executed; Hail, Mary was banned and berated—that, really, is its claim to fame. But admirers could not escape the pinched, cynical, and misogynist aura of Godard. If he had taught us the absurdity, and even the corrupt iniquity, of making more movies—why make them? There are dead ends that precede death, and show us a morbidity that was not previously apparent.
Conseil superieur de la langue franyaise since 1989.
Godard is the first filmmaker to bristle with the effort of digesting all prexious cinema and to make cinema itself his subject. He emerged from the darkness of the Cinémathèque rather than from any plausible biographical background. Thus, it is inadequate to accept the definition he prompted from Samuel Fuller in Pierrot le Fou: "The film is like a battlefield . . . Love . . . Hate . . . Action . . . Violence . . . Death ... In one word Emotion.” Emblems or slogans in Godard are chronic and palindromic. One might amend the definition in two ways: “Cinema is slogans" or “What is emotion? ... It is cinema." Godards collected works are an Encyclopedia Cinematografica, the insistence that all things exist only to the extent that they can be expressed in cinema, Godard more than any other director taunts reality. It is not that life imitates art, but that it is all art, all fictional as much as documentary, and it is cinema once any lens—in camera or eye—notices it. Filmmaking for Godard is neither occupation nor vocation, it is existence itself. His inescapable dialectic is in terms of cinema and his politics have arisen—disastrously—from cinema theorv. It was only as Godard abandoned the politique des auteurs—as a child might throw out a once favorite toy—that he became a politicized author.
Like Welles, he is trapped in the role of Young Turk. Anger (or contempt), his most abiding mood, increases as lie becomes aware of his inability to relinquish it. He was an extraordinary critic, hurling down one dogma after another in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema and Arts. Richard Roud has said that he was "unkind, unfair, unreasonable," but that seems secondary to the schizoid mingling of incoherence and penetration in his writing. Already, he was the noble madman, Pierrot le Fou, in that truly useful insights were offered in writing that was appalling, trite, chaotic, and gratuitously unreadable. It came armed with frightful name-dropping from literature and painting. Hardly a film could be classified without reference to Faulkner, Proust, Auguste Renoir, or Velazquez. In part, this was his need for classification. the unappeasable urge to eross-refer rather than to describe a thing itself. And these references are meaningless. What is it to wonder whether eyes are Renoir grey or Velazquez grey, but to doodle with the coffee-table art expertise no different from the grotesque advertisement language parodied in Pierrot? Godards criticism is so aggressive that one feels only its insecurity. The craving for a Pantheon and the inverted appeal to conspiracy that hopes for others whose tastes will support the same gods is like the atmosphere of Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient. It means that his articles are addressed to himself, rather than to readers. The tone is austere and forbidding, as if to exclude others from cinema in the very act of celebrating it.
Married 1st Anna Karina in 1961 (divorced). Married 2nd Anne Wiazemsky in 1967.