As a charter member of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard was also arguably the most influential French filmmaker of the postwar era. Beginning with his groundbreaking 1959 feature debut A Bout de Souffle, Godard revolutionized the motion picture form, freeing the medium from the shackles of its long-accepted cinematic language by rewriting the rules of narrative, continuity, sound, and camera work. Later in his career, he also challenged the common means of feature production, distribution, and exhibition, all in an effort to subvert the conventions of the Hollywood formula to create a new kind of film.
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Godard was born in Paris on December 3, 1930, the second of four children. After receiving his primary education in Nyon, Switzerland, he studied ethnology at the Sorbonne, but spent the vast majority of his days at the Cine-Club du Quartier Latin, where he first met fellow film fanatics Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. In May 1950, the three men united to publish La Gazette du Cinema, a monthly film journal which ran through November of the same year; here Godard printed his first critical pieces, which appeared both under his own name and under the pseudonym Hans Lucas. With Rivette's 1950 short feature Quadrille, Godard made his acting debut, also appearing in Eric Rohmer's Presentation ou Charlotte et son Steack the following year.
In January 1952, Godard began writing for Cahiers du Cinema, the massively influential film magazine. However, Godard's first tenure at Cahiers proved to be brief: In the autumn of 1952, he left France to return to Switzerland, where he worked on the construction of the Grande-Dixence Dam. With his earnings, Godard was able to finance his first film, the short subject Operation Beton. While in Geneva in 1955, he helmed his sophomore effort, the ten-minute Une Femme Coquette, subsequently appearing in Rivette's Le Coup de Berger. Upon returning to France in the summer of 1956, Godard resumed his work at Cahiers after a four-year break from writing. There he rose to the top ranks of French film criticism while honing his increasingly fresh and freewheeling directorial style over the course of the short comedies Tous les Garcons s'appellent Patrick (1957), Charlotte et son Jules, and Une Histoire d'Eau (both 1958).
In 1959, Godard embarked on his feature debut, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). Released at roughly the same time as Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups and Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, the picture helped establish the emergence of what was dubbed the French New Wave, a revolutionary movement in film heralded primarily by Cahiers alumni. A Bout de Souffle quickly earned global acclaim as the definitive document of its era. Seemingly overnight, Godard was revered as the most important cinematic talent of his generation.
In 1960, he resurfaced with his second feature, an oddball political thriller titled Le Petit Soldat. The first of many films to star his then-wife Anna Karina, it became the subject of controversy over its characters' connection to the Algerian crisis and was banned in France for three years. Shooting for the first time in color and in CinemaScope, he next filmed 1961's comic tale Une Femme Est une Femme, followed a year later by the episodic essay on prostitution Vivre Se Vie. Again, both starred Karina, prompting criticism that Godard was using her as a non-actress, a mere screen presence utilized and manipulated in ways that she herself did not fully comprehend.
The first of Godard's films to receive a critical thrashing was 1963's war drama Les Carabiniers, but Le Mepris, a study of the nature of cinema itself, starring Brigitte Bardot, returned him to reviewers' good graces. An astonishingly prolific and brilliant period followed, led off by 1964's Bande a Part and Une Femme Mariee. Pierrot le Fou and Alphaville, une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution, a singular science fiction effort, appeared in 1965, and a year later no less than three new features -- Masculin Feminin, Made in USA, and Deux ou Trois Choses Que Je Sais d'Elle -- bowed. Godard repeated the trifecta in 1967 with La Chinoise, ou Plutot a la Chinoise, Loin du Viet-Nam, and finally the apocalyptic Weekend, his most formally radical film since A Bout de Souffle.
Beginning in 1968, Godard's so-called "radical" period emerged and took form during an era when the political leanings below the surface of many of his earlier works began to position themselves as the director's dominant focus. The global tumult that defined 1968 further informed his consciousness as he mounted Le Gai Savior, a series of political dialogues. Next was Un Film Comme les Autres, a collection of images juxtaposed with the various conversations between workers and students. One Plus One -- a documentary portrait of the Rolling Stones also known as Sympathy for the Devil -- followed.
In the summer of 1968, Godard also co-founded Dziga Vertov Group, a collective designed to make "political films politically" and in the process revolutionize the motion picture language. The films created by the group were produced and written based upon concepts of class struggle and dialectical materialism. Once a die-hard auteurist, here Godard began working closely with other Dziga Vertov members, shooting in 16 mm on extremely low budgets and forgoing the usual channels of distribution and exhibition. As a result, the collective's work -- 1969's British Sounds (See You at Mao), Vent d'Est, and Amore e Rabbia, and 1970's Vladimir et Rosa and the uncompleted Jusqu'a la Victoire -- went unseen by virtually anyone outside of student and activist circles.
In 1972, Tout Va Bien marked the ending of the Dziga Vertov Group; an attempt to deliver the collective's messages to a more mainstream audience, it actively sought distribution on commercial circuits and was even bankrolled with American financing. After completing 1972's Letter to Jane, Godard relocated from Paris to Grenoble, planning to remodel a video studio and establish alternative methods of production and distribution. There he met Anne-Marie Mieville, forging a long-lasting partnership which began with 1974's Ici et Ailleurs and continued with 1975's Numero Deux and the following year's Comment ça va? In 1976, Godard and Mieville moved to the small Swiss community of Rolle and immersed themselves in video and television work.
Among their first projects in Switzerland was Six Fois Deux (Sur et Sous la Communication), a series of a half-dozen two-part programs commissioned for Swiss television. Another TV series, France Tour/Detour Deux Enfants, followed over the course of 1977 and 1978 before Godard and Mieville returned to France to begin work on 1979's Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie). In 1980, Godard traveled to California to work with Francis Ford Coppola on a biography of mobster Bugsy Siegel which failed to progress beyond the planning stages. Upon returning to Paris, he began work on his "trilogy of the sublime," a collection of films -- 1982's Passion, 1983's Prenom: Carmen, and 1983's highly controversial Hail Mary -- all fascinated with notions of beauty, feminine allure, and nature.
After 1985's neo-noir feature Detective, Godard and Mieville produced 1986's Soft and Hard (A Soft Conversation Between Two Friends on a Hard Subject) for England's Channel Four. A series of projects, including 1986's TV film Grandeur et Decadence d'un Petit Commerce de Cinema, and 1987's Soigne ta Droite and King Lear, appeared in quick succession, but Godard did not again resurface until 1990's Nouvelle Vague. Over the course of the decade he mounted Histoire(s) du Cinema, a ten-part video study of France's film legacy. Forever Mozart, an episodic film about the attempts of a French theater troop to put on a play in Sarajevo, followed in 1996. The following year, Godard completed the third and fourth installments of his Histoire(s) du Cinema series with 3A: La Monnaie De L'Absolu; 4A: Le controle De L'Univers; he also starred in Nous Sommes Tous Encore Ici, an episodic comedy-drama directed by Mieville. No less prolific during the following decade, Godard continued to turn out a film or two a year, even into his late 70s and early 80s. Additional titles included The Old Place (2000), In Praise of Love (2001), Notre Musique (2004) and Vrai faux passeport (2006). In 2009 he and his old cohort Francois Truffaut were the subjects of the excellent documentary Two in the Wave. Godard's 2011 Film Socialisme not only wandered even farther from conventional cinematic narrative than anything else in his prior catalogue, but demonstrated his perverse crypticism in another way: he included English-language subtitles that reflected nothing of the actual dialogue being spoken in the film - making the movie, for some, almost completely incoherent. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi