Icon of French New Wave Godard takes final bow

He died by assisted suicide at his home in the district of Rolle, Switzerland, said Patrick Jeanneret, Godard’s longtime legal adviser, in a telephone interview.
Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022)
Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022)

By DAVE KEHR AND JONATHAN KANDELL

GENEVA: Jean-Luc Godard, the daringly innovative director and provocateur whose unconventional camera work, disjointed narrative style and penchant for radical politics changed the course of filmmaking in the 1960s, leaving a lasting influence on it, died on Tuesday aged 91.

He died by assisted suicide at his home in the district of Rolle, Switzerland, said Patrick Jeanneret, Godard’s longtime legal adviser, in a telephone interview. Godard had been suffering from “multiple disabling pathologies” Jeanneret said. “He could not live like you and me, so he decided with a great lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, ‘Now, it’s enough,” Jeanneret added, stressing that the practice is both legal and tightly regulated in Switzerland.

Godard, who had discussed assisted suicide in interviews, always wanted to die with dignity and “that was exactly what he did,” Jeanneret said.

A master of epigrams as well as of movies, Godard once observed, “A film consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.”

In practice he seldom scrambled the timeline of his films, preferring instead to leap forward through his narratives by means of the elliptical “jump cut,” which he did much to make into a widely accepted tool.

But he never tired of taking apart established forms and reassembling them in ways that were invariably fresh, frequently witty, sometimes abstruse but consistently stimulating.

As a young critic in the 1950s, Godard was one of several iconoclastic writers who helped turn a new publication called Cahiers du Cinéma into a critical force that swept away the old guard of the European art cinema and replaced it with new heroes largely drawn from the ranks of the American commercial cinema — directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

When his first feature-length film as a director, “Breathless” (“À Bout de Souffle”), was released in 1960, Godard joined several of his Cahiers colleagues in a movement that the French press soon labeled La Nouvelle Vague — the New Wave. For Godard, as well as for New Wave friends and associates, the “tradition of quality” represented by the established French cinema was an aesthetic dead end. To them it was strangled by literary influences and empty displays of craftsmanship that had to be vanquished to make room for a new cinema, one that sprang from the personality and predilections of the director.

Godard: A filmmaker and provocateur who radically rethought motion pictures

Although “Breathless” was not the first New Wave film (both Chabrol’s 1958 “Beau Serge” and Truffaut’s 1959 “400 Blows” preceded it), it became representative of the movement.

Godard unapologetically juxtaposed plot devices and characters inherited from genre films and emotional material dredged up, in almost diary-like form, from the filmmaker’s personal life.

The film tells the story of a small-time Parisian crook (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as he commits muggings to collect enough money to run off to Rome with an American student (Jean Seberg), who seems indifferent to his romancing despite being pregnant by him.

“Breathless” is an artistic hybrid that seemed to capture the discontinuities and conflicts of modern life, half in the artificial public world created by the media and half in the deepest recesses of personal consciousness.

In Godard’s later, more radical phase, he came to suggest that there was no real distinction between the two realms. “After ‘Breathless,’ anything artistic appeared possible in the cinema,” Richard Brody wrote in “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.” “The film moved at the speed of the mind and seemed, unlike anything that preceded it, a live recording of one person thinking in real time.

A still from “Breathless”
A still from “Breathless”

“It was also a great success, a watershed phenomenon,” he added. “More than any other event of its times, ‘Breathless’ inspired other directors to make films in a new way and sparked young people’s desire to make films. It instantly launched cinema as the primary art form of a new generation.”

A short, slight, often scruffy man with heavy-rimmed black glasses and an ever-present cigarette or cigar, Godard rarely gave interviews, and, when he did, he typically deflected probing questions about his life and art. A journalist’s query in 1980 about his decision to move out of Paris in 1974 to Grenoble, in the French Alps, and then to Switzerland elicited several contradictory explanations — including an assertion by Godard that on a sudden whim one day, he had “just jumped into the car and took the highway.”

It was a description of a famous scene in “Breathless” in which Jean-Paul Belmondo impulsively steals an automobile in Paris and drives off into the countryside without a plan. “The problem of talking to people is that I have always confused cinema with life,” Godard said in that interview. “To me life is just part of films.”

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