Guide to Directors of the French New Wave: Jean-Luc Godard

The French New Wave brought the director to  the forefront. For the members of the New Wave, Truffaut, Godard and company, the director was the true star of the show. The true artist among these stars holds the most prestige possible, at least as far as film geeks are concerned. This person, who crafts a film with the same dominance he crafts his signature, is bestowed the honorific title of auteur.

So, let’s shine a light on these men, the directors who led the revolution of cinema in France –

Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard in Jacques Rivette film

Conventional was not a word that Swiss born Jean-Luc Godard had in his vast cinematic lexicon. He was born in privilege and conducted himself as such . His films were not meant to be taken as entertainment. They had very little in the way of traditional structure.  They were instruments of the war Godard was waging against film ‘s complacency in  its civic responsibilities. Anarchy was what was needed. Godard understood it and was most at home in his self-made anarchy.

From the very beginning,  Godard’s worlds were always seemingly in a state of upheaval. His characters were was disorganized, on the brink of extinction if their last chance at salvation didn’t pan out. Even his most organized and commercial films, like his feature debut Breathless.  It fills the scenes of Breathless as much as lead actress Jean Seberg’s frail beauty. Both Seberg and France’s answer to Humphrey Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo, both bowed under the weight. This intrigued audiences as well as that the French filmmakers were more than willing to play these scenes out in the bedroom.  As his career in films continued, Jean-Luc Godard became more willing as well.

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For the first time viewer, Godard’s films can be troubling, impossible to  understand or just plain pretentious. Reading up on Godard can be equally vexing.  Dissertations of his film work take on the dense, esoteric prose of Godard’s films.  You get a sense of the politics of the characters  but the films are structured so that you soon realize they are just empty vessels for Godard’s mental gymnastics.

Jean-Luc Godard
First Name: Carmen directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Godard was not a traditional storyteller that Francois Truffaut was. Though history may have lumped them together, they were quiet simply vastly different filmmakers. New York Times journalist Richard Brody noted in his masterful article on  the New Wave:

 (…)Godard also defined the New Wave in terms of its intellectual devotion to the history of cinema, but he characterized the group’s critical orientation as “regret, nostalgia for the cinema that no longer exists. At the moment that we can do cinema, we can no longer do the cinema that gave us the desire to do it.” The studio system in Hollywood was collapsing, and so, he thought, was the power of the classic cinema to achieve psychological realism through a great machine of artifice. Godard saw the Hitchcocko-Hawksian cinematic canon not as a series of models to imitate but as a source of inspiration, a bottomless well of citations—and a lost paradise.

Meanwhile, Truffaut was putting his artistically conservative thought into action in a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock that he planned to package as a book. But, instead of devoting a few months to the project, as he had planned, he spent four years on it

Their backgrounds were the core of their troubles.  It strained Truffaut and Godard’s friendship from the very beginning. Godard was the spoiled rich kid and Truffaut was an orphan who spent time in reform school. Their love of film both drew them together and tore them apart. Whereas Truffaut seemed to search for a personal legitimacy  via the cinema, Godard became  more radical as time went on.  Images became his  weapons of victory.

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However, Godard’s grasp of story coherency would total abandon him. It is in this state the once intriguing filmmaker has doomed himself.

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