Friday, February 1, 2019

Jean-Luc Godard: the Early Years

Godard married actress Anna Karina in 1961

Godard with actress Anna Karina on the set of A Woman Is a Woman, 1961

Godard and fellow director François Truffaut

Right to left, French directors Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir, Jean Rouch, and Louis Daquin

Jean-Luc Godard is not the only director for whom filming is like breathing, but he’s the one who breathes best.  He is rapid like Rossellini, sly like Sacha Guitry, musical like Orson Welles, simple like Pagnol, wounded like Nicholas Ray, effective like Hitchcock, profound like Bergman, and insolent like nobody else.
―François Truffaut, Text on Jean-Luc Godard: Two or Three Things I Know About Him, 1966, Translatable Images: Truffaut vs. Godard

Jean-Luc Godard - Director - Films as Director:, Other ... - Film Reference  Robin Wood, updated by Rob Edelman         
If influence on the development of world cinema is the criterion, then Jean-Luc Godard is certainly the most important filmmaker of the past thirty years; he is also one of the most problematic.

Godard’s career so far falls roughly into three periods: the early works from About de souffle to Weekend (1959–1968), a period whose end is marked decisively by the latter film’s final caption, “Fin de Cinéma”; the period of intense politicization, during which Godard collaborated (mainly though not exclusively) with Jean-Pierre Gorin and the Dziga Vertov group (1968–1972); and the subsequent work, divided between attempts to renew communication with a wider, more “mainstream” cinema audience and explorations of the potentialities of video (in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville). One might also separate the films from Masculin-Féminin to Weekend as representing a transitional phase from the first to the Dziga Vertov period, although in a sense all Godard’s work is transitional. What marks the middle period off from its neighbours is above all the difference in intended audience: the Dziga Vertov films were never meant to reach the general public. They were instead aimed at already committed Marxist or leftist groups, campus student groups, and so on, to stimulate discussion of revolutionary politics and aesthetics, and, crucially, the relationship between the two.

Godard's importance lies in his development of an authentic modernist cinema in opposition to (though, during the early period, at the same time within ) mainstream cinema; it is with his work that film becomes central to our century's major aesthetic debate, the controversy developed through such figures as Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno as to whether realism or modernism is the more progressive form. As ex- Cahiers du Cinéma critic and New Wave filmmaker, Godard was initially linked with Truffaut and Chabrol in a kind of revolutionary triumvirate; it is easy, in retrospect, to see that Godard was from the start the truly radical figure, the "revolution" of his colleagues operating purely on the aesthetic level and easily assimilable into the mainstream.

A simple way of demonstrating the essential thrust of Godard’s work is to juxtapose his first feature, Breathless, with the excellent American remake. Jim McBride’s film follows the original fairly closely, with the fundamental difference that in it all other elements are subordinated to the narrative and the characters. In Godard’s film, on the contrary, this traditional relationship between signifier and signified shows a continuous tendency to come adrift, so that the process of narration (which mainstream cinema strives everywhere to conceal) becomes foregrounded; A bout de souffle is “about” a story and characters, certainly, but it is also about the cinema, about film techniques, about Jean Seberg, etc.

This foregrounding of the process—and the means—of narration is developed much further in subsequent films, in which Godard systematically breaks down the traditional barrier between fiction/documentary, actor/character, narrative film/experimental film to create freer, “open” forms. Persons appear as themselves in works of fiction, actors address the camera/audience in monologues or as if being interviewed, materiality of film is made explicit (the switches from positive to negative in Une Femme mariée, the turning on and off of the soundtrack in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle, the showing of the clapper-board in La Chinoise). The initial motivation for this seems to have been the assertion of personal freedom: the filmmaker shatters the bonds of traditional realism in order to be able to say and do whatever he wants, creating films spontaneously. (Pierrot le fou —significantly, one of Godard’s most popular films—is the most extreme expression of this impulse.) Gradually, however, a political motivation (connected especially with the influence of Brecht) takes over. There is a marked sociological interest in the early films (especially Vivre sa vie and Une Femme mariée ), but the turning-point is Masculin-féminin with its two male protagonists, one seeking fulfillment through personal relations, the other a political activist. The former’s suicide at the end of the film can be read as marking a decisive choice: from here on, Godard increasingly listens to the voice of revolutionary politics and eventually (in the Dziga Vertov films) adopts it as his own voice.

The films of the Dziga Vertov group (named after the great Russian documentarist who anticipated their work in making films that foreground the means of production and are continuously self-reflexive) were the direct consequence of the events of May 1968. More than ever before the films are directly concerned with their own process, so that the ostensible subjects—the political scene in Czechoslovakia (Pravda) or Italy (Lotte in Italia), the trial of the Chicago Eight (Vladimir and Rosa)—become secondary to the urgent, actual subject: how does one make a revolutionary film? It was at this time that Godard distinguished between making political films (i.e., films on political subjects: Costa-Gavras’s Z is a typical example) and making films politically, the basic assumption being that one cannot put radical content into traditional form without seriously compromising, perhaps negating, it. Hence the attack on realism initiated at the outset of Godard’s career manifests its full political significance: realism is a bourgeois art form, the means whereby the bourgeoisie endlessly reassures itself, validating its own ideology as “true,” “natural,” “real”; its power must be destroyed. Of the films from this period, Vent d'est (the occasion for Peter Wollen’s seminal essay on “Counter-Cinema” in After Image ) most fully realized this aesthetic: the original pretext (the pastiche of a Western) recedes into the background, and the film becomes a discussion about itself—about the relationship between sound and image, the materiality of film, the destruction of bourgeois forms, the necessity for continuous self-criticism and self-awareness.

The assumption behind the Dziga Vertov films is clearly that the revolutionary impetus of May 1968 would be sustained, and it has not been easy for Godard to adjust to its collapse. That difficulty is the subject of one of his finest works, Tout va bien (again in collaboration with Gorin), an attempt to return to commercial filmmaking without abandoning the principles (both aesthetic and political) of the preceding years. Beginning by foregrounding Godard’s own problem (how does a radical make a film within the capitalist production system?), the film is strongest in its complex use of Yves Montand and Jane Fonda (simultaneously fictional characters/personalities/star images) and its exploration of the issues to which they are central. These issues include the relationship of intellectuals to the class struggle; the relationship between professional work, personal commitment, and political position; and the problem of sustaining a radical impulse in a non-revolutionary age. Tout va bien is Godard’s most authentically Brechtian film, achieving radical force and analytical clarity without sacrificing pleasure and a degree of emotional involvement.

Godard’s relationship to Brecht has not always been so clear-cut. While the justification for Brecht’s distanciation principles was always the communication of clarity, Godard’s films often leave the spectator in a state of confusion and frustration. He continues to seem by temperament more anarchist than Marxist. One is troubled by the continuity between the criminal drop-outs of the earlier films and the political activists of the later. The insistent intellectualism of the films is often offset by a wilful abeyance of systematic thinking, the abeyance, precisely, of that self-awareness and self-criticism the political works advocate. Even in Tout va bien, what emerges from the political analysis as the film’s own position is an irresponsible and ultimately desperate belief in spontaneity. Desperation, indeed, is never far from the Godardian surface, and seems closely related to the treatment of heterosexual relations: even through the apparent feminist awareness of the recent work runs a strain of unwitting misogyny (most evident, perhaps, in Sauve qui peut). The central task of Godard criticism, in fact, is to sort out the remarkable and salutary nature of the positive achievement from the temperamental limitations that flaw it.

From 1980 on, Godard commenced the second phase of his directorial career. Unfortunately, far too many of his films have become increasingly inaccessible to the audiences who had championed him in his heyday during the 1960s. Sauve qui peut (La Vie) (Every Man for Himself), Godard’s comeback film, portended his future work. It is an awkward account of three characters whose lives become entwined: a man who has left his wife for a woman; the woman, who is in the process of leaving the man for a rural life; and a country girl who has become a prostitute. In fact, several of Godard’s works might best be described as anti-movies. Passion, for example, features characters named Isabelle, Michel, Hanna, Laszlo and Jerzy (played respectively by Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli, Hanna Schygulla, Laszlo Szabo, and Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who are involved in the shooting of a movie titled Passion. The latter appears to be not so much a structured narrative as a series of scenes which are visions of a Renaissance painting. The film serves as a cynical condemnation of the business of moviemaking-for-profit, as the extras are poorly treated and the art of cinema is stained by commercial considerations.

Prenom: Carmen (First Name: Carmen) is Godard’s best latter-career effort, a delightfully subversive though no less pessimistic mirror of the filmmaker’s disenchantment with the cinema. His Carmen is a character straight out of his earlier work: a combination seductress/terrorist/wannabe movie maker. Her uncle, played by Godard, is a once-celebrated but now weary and faded film director named, not surprisingly, Jean-Luc Godard.

It seemed that Godard had simply set out to shock in Hail, Mary, a redo of the birth of Christ set in contemporary France. His Mary is a young student and gas station attendant; even though she has never had sex with Joseph, her taxi-driving boyfriend, she discovers she is pregnant. Along with Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, this became a cause celebre among Catholics and even was censured by the Pope. However, the film is eminently forgettable; far superior is The Book of Mary, a perceptive short about a girl and her constantly quarrelling parents. It accompanied showings of Hail, Mary, and is directed by long-time Godard colleague Anne-Marie Miéville.

Detective, dedicated to auteur heroes John Cassavetes, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Clint Eastwood, is a verbose, muddled film noir. Despite its title, Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), an observance of the lives of a wealthy and influential couple, only makes one yearn for the days of the real “Nouvelle Vague.” The narrative, which focuses on the sexual and political issues that are constants in Godard’s films, is barely discernable; the dialogue—including such lines as “Love doesn’t die, it leaves you,” “One man isn’t enough for a woman—or too much,” “A critic is a soldier who fires at his own regiment,” “Have you ever been stung by a dead bee?”—is superficially profound. King Lear, an excessive, grotesque updating of Shakespeare, is of note for its oddball, once-in-a-lifetime cast: Godard; Woody Allen; Norman and Kate Mailer; stage director Peter Sellars; Burgess Meredith; and Molly Ringwald. The political thriller Allemagne Neuf Zero (Germany Nine Zero), although as confusing as any latter-day Godard film, works as nostalgia because of the presence of Eddie Constantine. He is recast as private eye Lemmy Caution, who last appeared in Alphaville. Here, he encounters various characters in a reunified Germany.

Helas Pour Moi (Oh, Woe Is Me), based on the Greek legend of Alcmene and Amphitryon and a text penned by the Italian poet Leopardi, is a long-winded bore about a God who wants to perceive human feeling; those intrigued by the subject matter would be advised to see Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close. JLG/JLG—Autoportrait de Decembre (JLG/JLG—Self-Portrait in December), filmed in and near Godard’s Swiss home, is a semi-abstract biography of the filmmaker. Its structure is appropriate, given the development of Godard’s cinematic style. Ultimately, it is of interest mostly to those still concerned with Godard’s life and career.

Light of day: Raoul Coutard on shooting film for Jean-Luc Godard - BFI  Raoul Coutard from Sight and Sound, Winter 1965-66, also seen here:  Light of day   3-page article by Raoul Coutard from Sight and Sound, Winter 1965 (pdf)

Before Godard, cameramen used to demand an absurdly long time to set up the lights for a shot. The cameraman would insist on a good two hours to organise a straightforward horizontal pan. He could have moved five or six times faster; but he said to himself: The less I demand, the less I exist. In effect, and without him even being aware of it, the cameraman’s performance had become a gigantic act. He turned down certain camera angles, certain movements of the actors, simply for the satisfaction of demonstrating his own existence. Films had become an accretion of elements which really had nothing to do with the cinema. They were the product of a collective circus, in which each technician put on his own star turn.

Godard didn’t say to the cameraman: “You are going to handle the photography this way, that way, at an angle, against the light, etc.” What he said to him in effect was: “I want only one thing from you. You must rediscover how to do things simply.” People have been impressed by Godard and the rest because for them a film is a matter of cinema. Exclusively of cinema.

Now, it’s obvious that from the moment when the cameraman agreed to return to simplicity, and stopped trying to be interesting, the general style of the film image was going to change. Because, with the cameramen all determinedly tricking out their circus turns, the image had become pretty extravagant.

I had got a fair idea about this at the French Society of Photographers, in the Rue de Clichy. Before working in films I was a photographer; and at Rue de Clichy, at that time, the pupils in general followed two styles of photography. There were street scenes, photographs of their wives sitting by windows, off-the-cuff reportage, which the instructors thought were uninterestingly lit. Then there were the photographs where the lighting was artificial and gimmicky, and where one sensed immediately that the subject was no longer a bit of real life, but had been carefully posed amidst a network of lamps. This was the ‘Style Harcourt’; and the instructors at the school, who were much attached to this type of photography, called it, quite seriously and without any intention of being unkind, “cinema lighting.” So it was: one could say that all films were lit like that.

But the photographs that work, the ones that can be looked at for any length of time with some kind of interest or emotion, are not only those of Cartier Bresson, but also the old- fashioned portraits taken by Petit and Nadar. They took these photographs in studios lit by one big window – by the light of day, by that really beautiful all-over light which is daylight. And a film cameraman ought never to let himself forget that the eye of the spectator is naturally tuned to full daylight. Daylight has an inhuman faculty for always being perfect, whatever the time of day. Daylight captures the real living texture of the face or the look of a man. And the man who looks is used to daylight.

*  *  *

The human eye penetrates to the depths of a room, then in a second it turns to a window; and it isn’t disturbed by the transition. But the camera is disturbed – or, rather, the film stock is. To keep the natural beauty of real light on the screen, whatever movements Anna Karina and Belmondo may make around their room in Pierrot le fou – that’s the cameraman’s job. That is what Godard was asking for when he said, in his usual hesitant way, “Monsieur, we are going to be simple.”

Godard himself isn’t exactly simple. I wouldn’t put it quite that way. I never know beforehand just what he wants, and that complicates matters. And what he wants is usually a whole lot of things at once. He wants to shoot without lights; he’s thinking of a shot in a Lang film which he saw six months ago, and of the left half of a shot by Renoir… he’s no longer sure which one, and he can’t really explain any further, but really it wasn’t at all bad.

Then after having told me this, he sends me off the set, me and everyone else, while he thinks about the way he’s going to do it. And when I come back, I find that it’s no longer the same shot. And anyway he would rather like that very white light which lit up the end of a table in a shot (unhappily a very short shot) from a Griffith film, and he has always wondered whether perhaps that very white light didn’t really come from the developing processes used in the Griffith laboratories, which must have been quite different from any other… and so on, and so on. No, Godard isn’t simple.

I remember one of the very few occasions on which we worked in a studio. It was for the long interior sequence, made up of long takes, in Une Femme est une femme. The camera movements were to be so weird and so complicated that Godard had for once resigned himself to studio shooting.

Well, what is the point of a studio? How does it make the work easier? In a studio, for instance, one can lift up the wall at one’s back, to make room for the camera and a lamp or two. I wanted to do just that. Godard told me: “No. We mustn’t move the wall. When a husband watches his wife bringing in the joint she has burned, he can’t move the wall to bawl her out from further away. He stays in his chair and looks from there.”

Another advantage of the studio is that with extremely complicated scenes, of the kind we had in Une Femme est une femme, the set-builder can construct his set in such a fashion that the camera dolly can move more or less anywhere without too many problems for the cameraman. I told Godard: “Change the set, move those two posts further away from each other. I can’t get through.” His answer: “Out of the question. A young couple in a flat near the Porte Saint-Denis don’t live in rooms with acres of space. I’m talking about that sort of young couple. You’ll just have to manage.”

The third justification for a studio, and the essential one: the catwalks up in the roof to which one attaches the lights. We were making Une Femme est une femme in colour, and of course colour film stock at that time was slow, so we had to have at least some light to be able to see anything. So I lit the scene, with the lamps placed on the gantries which overhung the set – the sequence with Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy getting ready for bed. Godard sent me away, thought it over, called me back, told me a thousand or so new things, kept breaking off in the middle of sentences, referred to 20 films I hadn’t seen. I straightened out a few things, and we began. After a few seconds, Godard stopped everything. He said to Anna: “What on earth’s the matter with you? You don’t go to bed like that at home.”

He put himself in Anna’s place. Then he said: “We’re absolutely mad. We’re trying to film Anna going to bed in her room and there’s no ceiling. Anna has never slept in a room that hasn’t got a ceiling.” A ceiling, of course, is expensive. The producer asked Godard: “Will we see much of your ceiling in the film? Can’t you possibly do without it?” “We won’t see it,” Godard said, “but if there isn’t a ceiling Anna can’t do the scene. We must have a ceiling.”

So we had a ceiling. I had no more gantries, to light the room from; we couldn’t move the walls about; the set was fixed; we couldn’t have any lights. In fact, all the advantages of the studio had vanished, and in the end what we found ourselves left with was a real room, with all its problems. That is the last time that we went to the trouble and expense of a studio; because in the long run, in a real room, with someone like Godard, one has more of a free hand.

*  *  *

Godard is even more incisive when deciding matters of film stock and laboratory techniques. Here I am going to be technical: I haven’t any choice. The stock and the laboratory are 80 per cent of the film image – its finesse and subtlety, its effect or lack of effect, its punch and emotion. These, however, are points of which the public is never aware.

People often tell me that Lola was brilliantly shot. “Was it due to your own mood?” they ask. “Or to Demy? Or the light of Nantes? Or the look of Anouk Aimée?” It was partly all of these things, but first and foremost, and above everything else, the images of Lola came from the film stock – Gevaert 36, which the factory has now stopped making. So I have never been able to recapture those unsaturated blacks, those extraordinary whites, that grainy texture of real and unreal which in my opinion accounted for at least 70 per cent of the lyricism of Lola.

Godard knows this. And when it’s a question of film stock, he is no longer hesitant. That first time, on A Bout de souffle, he said to me: “No more confectionery: we’re going to shoot in real light. You’ve been a photographer. Which stock do you prefer?” I told him I liked to work with Ilford H.P.S. Godard then had me take photographs on this stock. He compared them with others, and we made a number of tests. Finally he said: “That’s exactly what I want.”

We got on to the Ilford works in England, and they told us that they were very sorry, but their H.P.S. wasn’t made for motion picture cameras, only for still photographs: we would have to give up. But Godard doesn’t give up. For still camera spools Ilford made the stock in reels of 17½ metres. The perforations weren’t the same as for cinema cameras. Godard decided to stick together as many 17½ metre reels as he would need to make up a reel of motion picture film, and to use the camera whose sprocket holes corresponded most closely with those of the Leica – luckily, the Cameflex. The professionals were horrified.

But that wasn’t the end of it. One photo-developer got particularly good results with H.P.S. stock, and that was Phenidone. With Godard and the chemist Dubois of the G.T.C. Laboratories, we ran several series of tests. We ended up by doubling the speed of the emulsion, which gave us a very good result. Godard asked the laboratory to use a Phenidone bath in developing the film. But the laboratory wouldn’t play. The machines of the G.T.C. and L.T.C. laboratories handle 3,000 metres of film stock an hour, with everything going through the same developing process, and with the equipment geared to standard Kodak practice. A laboratory could not effectively take one machine out of the circuit to process film stock for M. Jean-Luc Godard, who at the very most would probably want no more than some 1,000 metres a day.

On A Bout de souffle, however, we had a stroke of luck. Tucked away in a corner, the G.T.C. laboratories had a little supplementary machine, more or less out of service, which they used for running tests. They allowed us to borrow this little machine so that we could develop our stuck-together lengths of llford film in a solution of our own making, and at whatever rate we chose. There’s one thing that ought to be understood: the fantastic success of A Bout de souffle, and the turning point that this film marked in cinema history, was clearly due mainly to Godard’s imagination, and especially (what to my mind is the film’s major quality) to its sense of living in the moment. But it also had to do with the fact that Godard stuck together these 17½ metre lengths of llford stock in the teeth of everyone’s advice, and miraculously obtained the use of this machine at the G.T.C. laboratories.

After that, we were able to use this machine once more, on Le Petit Soldat. When we reappeared, however, like the flowers in the spring, to ask for it for Les Carabiniers, it wasn’t there any more.

But Les Carabiniers was something else again. Godard said: “I have my scenario in my head. I know how to film the war, but to develop it I need a special developing bath. Why is there something so unsatisfactory about war films?” (There followed the stammered description of 45 shots or bits of shots, this shot and that one, which, when, where, etc…) “They are unsatisfactory because the greys are too soft. For Les Carabiniers I want the film processed in such a way that I get true whites and true blacks, and I want at the most three or four greys, sprinkled here and there. [Here Coutard added Godard’s untranslatable pun: “vous allez me faire un vrai bain de guerre, et un vrai temps de développement de guerre.”] Otherwise, we will be wasting our time and we won’t be filming war.” This time, Godard had somehow or other persuaded the laboratory to change its usual methods for him so long as our work lasted. We had permission to use a special processing method and a special developing schedule. And Godard got his four strong greys. But that was an exception.

Pierrot le fou meant colour. A cameraman’s worries over colour are growing steadily less, as the stocks become more flexible every year. But all the same: it’s when he is working with colour film that the cameraman is most aware of the fact that no film stock is as sensitive as the human eye. The problem comes from the fact that any number of techniques and working practices were developed for work with early colour stock, such as Technicolor, which was not very flexible. And people have got stuck there.

Here I’ll only mention the problem of make-up. Make-up is essential in a colour film, for a reason which is easy enough to understand. As the film stock is unstable, the laboratories need something to use as a fixed point from which to work in re-establishing the true colours; and what they work from are the actors’ faces. (They also base their colour justification firstly on a range of greys which one films right after shooting the scene and then after that on the faces of the actors.)

All make-up men, however, have been trained in the American techniques which date back to the early days of Technicolor. They make up the actors very red, a practice which apparently was necessary for Technicolor. When the laboratory wants to correct this red, it will probably add some blue; and with someone like Godard, who has a passion for filming against white walls, everything goes to pieces if the walls turn blue.

This red make-up is a pointless habit. Amateur photographers know that they can get excellent results if they photograph their wives and children in Kodachrome without putting any make-up on them at all. On Une Femme est une femme Godard asked for a neutral make-up, very light and clear. If there were moments when we had to add a bit of colour to correct one or two lighting effects, we decided to have a clear grey over it. We tried it out; and it worked. It’s the same thing, however, as with the laboratories: make-up men have their habits, their normal working methods, and it is a crusade to get a more naturalistic kind of make-up out of them. Godard needed to say to them as well: “Gentlemen, keep it simple.”

Jean-Luc Godard’s early films were distinct from each other in tone and form – romantic comedies, outlaw-chic, dystopian visions – connected only by the ‘shifting centre’ of his cinematic world, his wife and muse, Anna Karina

Jean-Luc Godard had a problem with endings. His early films often finish with a throwaway closure, a death, not quite real, distantly presented. His films are all middle, yet a sense of ending imbues them. For Godard, even love itself is something that is always winding down and his lover, his wife, the muse of the best of his early movies, Anna Karina, embodies this problem. Watching Bande à Part (1964) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), I really didn’t want these films ever to finish; the deep pleasure of being in the company of Karina, and Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey and Jean-Paul Belmondo, is so beguiling that you want the fun to last a little longer. These are films in which people simply kill time, delightfully. There’s an energy there, a yearning restlessness of youth; people dance, or are running, even, as in Breathless (1960), as the life ebbs from them. The films play to a musical sense of rhythm, carried by a beat, a melody connecting the images. Here improvisation is liberty; plot is control. Karina acts as the living symbol of someone caught between her own spontaneity and others’ constraint. She’s living her life, but nonetheless stands as the victim of the directorial process, bartered by pimps, controlled, bullied and photographed.

Karina ran away from home at the age of 17, hitchhiking from Denmark to France. In Paris, she lived on the streets until she was spotted in the cafe Les Deux Magots by a woman from an ad agency, and was launched on a career as a model. Godard first caught sight of her advertising soap, apparently naked in a bath. When he cast her in a leading role in Le Petit Soldat (released in 1963, but made in 1960), as a “minor” she still required her estranged mother’s signature on the contract. During the making of the film Karina and Godard began an affair, and in 1961 a passionate, desperate marriage that ended in 1965. Between 1960 and 1966, prompted by affection and despair, Godard made seven films with Karina, as well as Le Mépris (1963) in which Brigitte Bardot effectively impersonates her. Together they form one of the glories of 20th-century cinema, a testament to love and art.

Each film is distinct in tone and form, moving from the romantic comedy of Une Femme Est une Femme (1961) to the dystopian Alphaville (1965), from the skewed documentary impulse in Vivre sa vie (1962) to the melancholy comedy of Bande à part. Karina does not inhabit a continuing cinematic image in the way that Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe do in their films. Belmondo is more or less constantly Belmondo, but Karina can be anything or anyone, and yet remains herself, a person and not a persona.

Her first movie with Godard, Le Petit Soldat, is a tale of the Algerian war, an echo of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes set in a Geneva filled with spies and double agents. It’s a film of surveillance and interrogation. In a remarkable scene, the rightwing secret agent, the hero of the film, photographs a withdrawn Karina, directing her, trying to provoke her into opening up before him. Yet for all we are invited to stare at her, she remains elusive, reserved. Later, in an extended sequence, Algerian terrorists torture the hero to extract information from him and we are compelled to share his sufferings. It’s a distressing illustration of the film’s main theme: what goes on in another person’s head? This query would become Godard’s preoccupation with regard to Karina, the elusive beloved, the shifting centre of each movie. Photographing Karina, intruding on her privacy, the spy gives us Godard’s famous line: “Photography shows the truth. Cinema shows the truth at a rate of 24 frames per second.” But where, these films want to know, is the truth present in another’s face?

In Une Femme Est une Femme Karina plays a stripper, and could have become objectified, merely looked at; in practice, she’s too much herself for that. When she strips, half the punters are too preoccupied to bother looking at her. In Vivre Sa Vie, Godard plays again with our desire to watch his star, to trace the sorrows of her changing face. The film begins with Karina splitting up with her partner, the whole scene shot from behind. “What’s that look for?” she says, but with their backs to us it’s a look we can’t ourselves see. Her husband, a teacher, quotes a child’s essay to her: “A bird is an animal with an interior and an exterior; remove the exterior you see the interior; remove the interior, you see the soul.” From then on, Godard constructs a portrait of Karina, putting a life, his love for her, on screen, trying to find that soul by way of the exterior. The character she plays, Nana, is after all an anagram of Anna.

The film toys with a long-standing slur that connects the actor to the prostitute. Playing a frustrated actress, Karina allows us to entertain the thought that Rimbaud’s ungrammatical paradox (during the film she quotes it), “I is an other”, may be, for the actor, a literal truth. She is caught between a set of contradictions: that she is a uniquely valuable person, and still she may be just a pretty face, no more than the sum of the reactions she provokes. Her lover wants to go to the Louvre; paintings bore Nana, but he attempts to persuade her, saying “art and beauty are life”. Yet he reads her a story by Poe in which a man’s painting of his beloved robs her of life, art supplanting the real woman it attempts to memorialise. At the movie’s end, in another of Godard’s apparently offhand conclusions, she’s trapped between men, shot by both sides. It’s both melodrama and a political point, the woman’s symbolic fate.

In one of the greatest moments in this great film, Nana dances. It’s a solitary surrender to movement in a film that laments and records her isolation. There’s a wonderful, uninhibited silliness to it; we enjoy, from outside, that freshness in Karina, the camera prowling the room with her, following the impulse of the loping bass guitar. And then, for a moment, we’re inside her point of view, playing the room until the pimps catch sight of her, and we’re onlookers once again.

In an astonishing transformation, Karina followed the alienated poise of Nana with the gauche, gamine Odile in Bande à Part. Here she frowns, ineptly flirts, large-eyed and troubled. There’s a dance sequence too, the Madison performed in the cafe by Odile and her two boyfriends. This time Karina dances with others, but still remains alone; the three of them mirror each other, and remain separate, Godard’s voiceover reminding us of their concealed, private thoughts. Remembered as a movie about companionship, it exposes the separation and disjunction, the coercion and rivalry that shadow the trio’s inconsequential idyll of togetherness. For most of the film they remain on formal “vous” terms. As everywhere in these early films, Godard invests the movie with an irony that nonetheless evokes the poetry that it resists. While it is drenched with melancholy, it nonetheless exudes a fragile joy; you finish it feeling that bit more reconciled to life.

Bande à Part also lays bare one essential fact of cinema; in the absence of plot, the time must pass somehow, and so the trio help it pass, dancing, holding a minute’s silence, breaking the speed record for getting through the Louvre, playing cops and robbers. Pierrot le Fou is even more invested in this thought: it’s a movie that struggles with (and overcomes) the fact that films and life are boring. It flirts with the duty to entertain, its characters and the audience both wanting distraction, all the more necessary in view of the absence of connected plot. Saturated with outlaw-chic, Belmondo and Karina move between a Jules Verne idyll and a hardboiled thriller, taking up or dropping the frame provided by genre. It’s a very funny and very desperate film; it closes with murder and suicide, because it has to close somehow.

At the end of Godard’s time with Karina comes Made in USA (1966), firmly at the start of a new phase in his career. Experimental, Maoist, committed, these later 60s films are no doubt intellectually stimulating, but, to this viewer at least, they’re a misery to watch. The joy has departed; Karina and Godard were already divorced, and it shows. In a sense, Alphaville provides a more fitting coda to the films they made together. It’s a strange precursor of Blade Runner, a noiresque science-fiction film, similarly preoccupied with a flight from feeling. Here perhaps more than anywhere else, Godard frames Karina as an actor with the power to move us. Inhabiting a society where feeling is alien and coldness is all people learn, she nonetheless moves towards gentleness. The film shows her discovery onscreen of the human qualities of compassion, of love; in the coldness of film, she makes a space for human warmth. It’s a small miracle, and a miracle repeated in nearly all her movies with Godard, a frail embrace of tenderness that we never want to end.

Film: 50 years of Jean‑Luc Godard's Breathless | Film | The Guardian  Philip French extensive essay from The Observer, June 5, 2010, also seen here:  Breathless Continues to Shock and Surprise 50 Years On

Two trailers bookend my half-a-century of writing professionally about the cinema and bracket the career of the man who is arguably the most influential moviemaker of my lifetime. Fifty years ago this month I dropped into an Oslo cinema while waiting for a midnight train and saw an unforgettable trailer for a French picture. It cut abruptly between a handsome, broken-nosed actor I’d never come across before, giant posters of Humphrey Bogart, and the familiar features of Jean Seberg, whom I knew to be an idol of French cinéastes as the protegee of Otto Preminger. Shot in high contrast monochrome, rapidly edited, interspersed with puzzling statements in white-on-black and black-on-white lettering, it was like no other trailer I’d seen, and I was captivated. Not until my return to London did I discover that the broken-nosed actor was Jean-Paul Belmondo and the film was the debut feature of the Cahiers du Cinéma critic Jean-Luc Godard. It had opened in Paris six weeks before to considerable acclaim and had been made with the help of two fellow critics-turned-directors, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, whose first films I’d seen. When A Bout de souffle (aka Breathless) opened in London a year later, it did live up to my expectations.

Eighty years old this November, Godard has just compiled another trailer for his latest (according to him, his last) picture, Film Socialisme. As provocative and original as ever, the two-minute trailer can be viewed online. It is in fact the whole film, speeded up for an audience too impatient to concentrate for two hours. The movie, premiered at Cannes last month, has subtitles that are deliberately unintelligible to anyone who doesn't understand the various languages in which it’s made. In an interview with that other onetime revolutionary firebrand of the 1960s, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Godard said simply: “Don’t translate, learn languages.” For nearly 40 years I’ve been convinced that whenever a Godard movie is shown at Cannes, everybody in the world interested in seeing it is present at the Palais du Festival, elbowing other critics aside as they struggle to get into the early-morning press show. Nowadays, I only see a new film by the aloof, hectoring, didactic Godard when wild horses turn up at my front gate to drag me to a London press screening.

How, then, to explain what Godard meant to us back in the 60s? Why did I put on the dustjacket of my first book a photograph of myself scowling in a leather jacket and dark glasses, a cigarette in the corner of my mouth, because I thought it made me look like Godard? Why was I thrilled when Truffaut, as the director in his La Nuit américaine, eagerly tears open a parcel of books on the cinema, one of which is a symposium on Godard containing my 1965 essay on Une Femme mariée? Why did we sit around discussing the ideas and innovations of Godard the way young filmgoers today talk about box-office grosses, special effects and continuity errors?

Since the mid-50s we'd been looking for the new in the arts, society and politics, and our latest hopes were being invested in our cinema's working-class realism, which came out of fiction and the theatre, and in the nouveau roman and nouvelle vague from across the Channel. The latter term was coined in L'Express in 1957 by Françoise Giroud to describe the whole postwar generation and was applied to the cinema the following year by Pierre Billard in Cinéma 58. Talk of the new wave dominated Cannes in 1959, when films as different from each other as Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour and Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups were perceived as characteristic examples of the new movement. Of the three, only Truffaut was a critic, and along with Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma. Their polemical writings were devoted to overthrowing the cinematic old guard they called “Le cinéma du papa” (Dad’s cinema) and promoting the politique des auteurs. They saw directors (or at least a select group of them) as auteurs, a term soon introduced into worldwide usage. These omniscient figures, whose ranks they sought to join, were seen as imposing their personalities, at times almost mystically, on every film they made, wielding what the moviemaker and theorist Alexandre Astruc called “le camera stylo” or cinematic pen.

Between 1958 and 1963 an astonishing 170 French filmmakers directed their first features, happily marching under the new wave banner, which was as vague as it was in vogue. But few were truly radical and innovative. The chief exception was Godard, the 30-year-old Franco-Swiss intellectual, as passionate about Hegel as he was about Hitchcock, an artist bent on transforming the nature of cinema and with it the world. “Godard is not merely an iconoclast,” that prophet of modernism Susan Sontag declared in 1968, “he is a deliberate ‘destroyer’ of cinema.”

Breathless was the real thing. It was what wed been waiting for, and it has taken its place alongside 20th-century works that have become familiar landmarks yet not lost their ability to shock and surprise: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joyce’s Ulysses, Dali and Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou, Picasso’s Guernica, Welles’s Citizen Kane, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. They are what Ezra Pound was talking about when he said that “great literature is news that remains news.”

Claude Chabrol, who served as supervising producer on Breathless, famously warned that great subjects rarely make great films. And Godard, the master of the gnomic epigram and perceptive paradox, once said: “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” This was the basis of the brief scenario that Truffaut, a fellow admirer of film noir and série noire pulp fiction, provided for Breathless. Its antihero, the swaggering, misogynistic petty criminal Michel (Belmondo), steals a car in the south of France and kills a policeman on the road to Paris, where he takes up with an old girlfriend, the well-heeled American, Patricia (Seberg). They talk of life and literature (in particular Faulkner’s The Wild Palms) in a seedy hotel, make love and visit the movies while he tries to get money owed him by criminal associates. The police close in, Patricia betrays him. Hardboiled B-feature stuff. But the style is everything, a calculated destruction and remaking of traditional film grammar, and Godard formulated his much-quoted idea that “a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”

The film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, the celebrated B-movie studio on Hollywood’s Poverty Row, the camera is handheld, the editing is abrupt and inconsistent, Raoul Coutard’s masterly monochrome photography is harsh, hard-edged, reliant on natural light. The much-admired director of existential gangster pictures, Jean-Pierre Melville, makes an appearance as himself, the first of such cameos in a Godard picture. The work of other directors is evoked or alluded to, among them Budd Boetticher (Westbound), Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns), Otto Preminger (Whirlpool), Robert Aldrich (Ten Seconds to Hell), and Bogart is a looming presence. We are constantly distanced in the manner of Brecht’s alienation effect, told that what we are watching is a film, but also that movies, like our lives, are halls of mirrors.

Godard’s methods of work on Breathless were purposefully chaotic. He admitted that he deliberately created confusion to achieve “a greater possibility of invention.” Shooting in the busy streets of Paris, he avoided crowd control, and at one point a policeman leapt from a passing bus to assist an apparently dying Belmondo.

Over the next eight years Godard made a dozen feature films and contributed to several portmanteau pictures that defined and refined his art, and they’ve influenced several generations of cineastes from Nagisa Oshima through Wim Wenders to Quentin Tarantino. Yet the playfulness, the apparent sheer love of the movies, eventually gave way to a deep ambivalence, as his doubts about Hollywood changed to loathing and his sceptical attitude towards the States became unabashed anti-Americanism. “Do you love the cinema?” he was asked around the time of Breathless. He replied: “I have contempt for it. It is nothing. It does not exist. Thus I love it. I love it yet at the same time I have contempt for it.”

Most of his 1960s films are masterpieces or near-masterpieces. Several ran into trouble with the censors. Some didn't get released in Britain until years after they were made. Godard managed to attract major stars both then and later. He was constantly at the centre of controversy, debate and even scandal, ever ready with a quote for the press or a quotable line in a film. He mocked the film business in Le Mépris, subverted the musical in Une Femme est une femme, questioned the very basis of marriage in Une Femme mariée, showed present-day Paris as a horrific, depersonalised city of the future in his bleak sci-fi film Alphaville. But none of the later films had an impact comparable with Breathless, and as the decade progressed, his characters turned from nihilistic outsiders to slogan-mouthing revolutionaries. His farewell to anything resembling the mainstream came in 1967 with Weekend, which ended with the title “Fin du cinema.” He then worked within a leftwing collective on low-budget pictures, most of them on video, before moving with his collaborator and third wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, to Switzerland, which has been his base ever since.

Yet if Godard was ever a mainstream director, then he started to paddle rapidly towards the river's parallel tributaries as early as 1963. That was when he made Le Mépris, a million-dollar production financed by American producer Joseph Levine and the Italian tycoon Carlo Ponti. They wanted a combination of art-house chic and upmarket sexploitation that would show off the naked charms of Brigitte Bardot. She was cast as the wife of a French screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) working on an Italian version of The Odyssey directed by Fritz Lang and produced by a snarling Hollywood mogul played by Jack Palance. The producers didn’t like the fractured masterpiece they were given, edited their own versions, and were denounced as “King Kong Levine” and “Mussolini Ponti.” Godard slapped Ponti’s 69-year-old Paris representative in public and got a 500 franc fine.

This was the first of a string of confrontations and demolitions that included helping to close down the Cannes film festival in May 1968 as an act of solidarity with demonstrating students and striking workers. Six months later he punched Iain Quarrier, the British co-producer of his One Plus One (AKA Sympathy for the Devil), in the face and stomach on the stage of the National Film Theatre. Richard Roud, author of the first book in English on Godard and director of the London film festival, had brought Quarrier and Godard together for a public discussion on the film’s re-editing, and the assault was preceded by Godard advising the spectators to demand their money back.

The worst conflict, however, was the split between Godard and his oldest friend and collaborator, François Truffaut, the man whose first act on gaining a certain industrial muscle by winning a prize at Cannes with Les Quatre cents coups was to help his colleague get his feet on the feature film ladder. There was jealousy and principle on Godard’s side, a mixture of guilt and exasperation on Truffaut’s. They traded public insults during the 1970s and their irreconcilable differences were never repaired. When Truffaut died in 1984, Godard praised his criticism but refused to make any favourable comments on his films. Truffaut had come to terms with the film industry, Godard would never consider such a compromise. Not until the publication in 1988 of Truffaut’s collected letters, which contained a 1973 exchange between the two, did most of us understand the depth of the breach between them. Godard’s letter pointed out what he considered the dishonesty of La Nuit américaine, calling Truffaut a liar for not mentioning his affair with its star Jacqueline Bisset. He then demanded as his right that Truffaut should invest 10m francs in his new low-budget movie, Un simple film.

Truffaut’s scathing reply, which occupies six full pages of the book, lists a succession of slights, insults and betrayals, calls Godard a shit several times, and begins with the statement: “Jean-Luc. Just so you won't be obliged to read this unpleasant letter right to the end, I’m starting with the essential point: I will not co-produce your film.” It has to be added, however, that Godard wrote an affectionate introduction for the Truffaut book, a characteristic mixture of eloquence and obscurity, in which he said, looking back on their youth: “The cinema had taught us how to live; but life, like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, was to take its revenge.”

Jean-Luc Godard is not the only director for whom filming is like breathing, but he’s the one who breathes best.  He is rapid like Rossellini, sly like Sacha Guitry, musical like Orson Welles, simple like Pagnol, wounded like Nicholas Ray, effective like Hitchcock, profound like Bergman, and insolent like nobody else.
―Francois Truffaut, Text on Jean-Luc Godard: Two or Three Things I Know About Him, 1966,

Sprawl is the quality/of the man who cut down his Rolls Royce/into a farm utility truck, and sprawl/is what the company lacked when it made its repeated efforts to buy the vehicle back and repair its image . . . Sprawl occurs in art . . . Sprawl gets up the nose of many people/(every kind that comes in kinds) whose future does not include it . . . Sprawl leans on things/It is loose-limbed in its mind/ Reprimanded and dismissed/it listens with a grin and a boot on the rail/of possibility.
―Les Murray, from The Quality of Sprawl, 1986

In  2011, Bernardo Bertolucci was awarded the rare honour of an Honorary Palme D'Or at Cannes. Half a century earlier, he had stood beside Richard Roud, who was director of the London Film Festival at the time, as he tremulously awaited an introduction to Jean-Luc Godard. Bertolucci's awed reaction to meeting Godard for the first time was identical to that of the great French critic Serge Daney: he vomited. I fully understand that response. Others, perhaps perplexed by Godard's elliptical style or irked by his political and philosophical discursiveness, may understand it for different reasons. We walk (gingerly at times) in the footsteps of giants and for many of us Godard, for all his myriad character flaws and contradictions, is the one who stands tallest; the keeper of film's flame; cinema's archivist, educator, inventor, philosopher and historian sans pareil; simply the most daring and exciting, passionate and poetic, ingenious and important artist of the modern age working in any form.

Ever since his first film, Opération Béton (1955) – a 17 minute-long short about the construction of the Grand-Dixence dam, Godard has also been among the most prolific of directors. In 1967, the BFI published Godard, Richard Roud's monogram on the Franco-Swiss visionary. The first English language book on Godard and the first in Sight & Sound's seminal 'Cinema One' series, it traced Godard's development from his first shorts through to his fourteenth feature, La Chinoise, an extraordinary film that prefigured, even to an extent precipitated the events of May 1968. In an appendix on that film, which was still being completed as his book went to press, Roud says: "No book on Godard can hope to be up to date for long; no other important director makes as many films a year as he. All the more reason, however, I thought, to try to make this one up to date for at least a month or two after its publication." Soon after Roud wrote those words, the portmanteau film Loin du Viêtnam appeared (featuring Godard's contribution, titled Caméra-oeil in homage to Dziga Vertov), and then Weekend were released. In the same period, Godard was shooting L'amour, his segment of the Italian anthology film Vangelo 70. Godard has made over a hundred films since then.

For obvious reasons, Godard was particularly productive in the period following the collapse of his marriage to Anna Karina, but he never stopped making films. His extraordinary productivity is one of many reasons he is also among the most discussed of directors. There is a lot to discuss. And to discuss Godard is, still, to take sides. Few directors have divided opinion as sharply he has: where some see a playful profundity, others see pretentious prolixity, others again see an intoxicating, often irritating admixture of both; where some see a succession of astonishing films equally successful in their own terms, others see a bafflingly overrated body of work punctuated by failures, and others see an understandably uneven oeuvre marked by discernible continuities. Godard even divides his admirers: some find his accessible early films dazzlingly successful, others prefer his 'political' films, others again regard his later experiments in video and 3-D as the best of his vast output.

Godard's admirers will hope he is still making films at 103, as the late Manoel de Oliveira was, and that he continues to interrogate the world at large, and audio-visual culture in particular, with his characteristic vigour and invention. Those annoyed by his politics and philosophy, his contradictions and intransigence may wish Godard would just drop dead. Gerturde Stein famously described Ezra Pound as "a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." Godard is, among other things an explainer of and for the global village of cinephiles. It is easy to see why those poor souls living beyond our boundaries do not always share our enthusiasm for Godard. Much online coverage of film is derisively referred to as 'fan' content, as if enthusiasm were a weakness not a virtue. I make no apologies for declaring my passionately partisan predilection for Godard.

To illustrate the divergent opinions that crystallize around Godard, I'll begin by scratching an itch on a long-healed wound. My jaw dropped and my pulse quickened, earlier this year, when I clicked on 'Perfect! Let's Do It Again', a boldly provocative article on this site, in which 'Camus', our 'unofficial Hollywood correspondent', considered great directors and what makes them great. It was New Year's Day and the disorientating after-effects of bacchanalian excess intensified as I absorbed his engaging thoughts. The period we make merry with lists was still upon us and he duly obliged with a 'Top Ten' of Bergman, Fellini, Ford, Hitchcock, Kubrik, Kurosawa, Ray, Renoir, Welles and Wilder. I momentarily wondered whether he meant Nicholas or Sajit Ray, weighed In a Lonely Place against The Apu Trilogy, and then instinctively reacted by reaching for Godard – Godard and Antonioni, Bresson, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Gance, Resnais, Tarkovsky, Vertov and Visconti. To my huge relief, my colleague granted Andrew Sarris space to flesh out the pantheon with another ten canonical names. Take a bow Chaplin, Flaherty, Griffith, Hawks, Keaton, Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Ophüls and von Sternberg. He also shoehorned in a nod to Scorsese and a wink to Truffaut. By then, I'd revised my first thoughts and plumped, instead, for Cassavetes, Chytilová, Erice, Jennings, Marker, Pialat, Pasolini, Pudovkin, Rossellini ("one cannot live without Rossellini") and Vláčil. The names fell fast, randomly, sometimes alliteratively, occasionally associatively, as I worked my way through the alphabet or the revered masters of cinema.

My mind was bursting with names. It nearly exploded when my colleague asserted that no living director could make the cut. "You cannot," he wrote, "be great and still be alive (time is the first judge of greatness)." Again, I screamed out -"'Godard! Godard for fuck's sake!" – before selecting ten alive and kicking also- greats who've stood time's test: Bertolucci, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Kaurismäki, Kiarostami, Kieślowski, Sissako, Sukarov, Tarr, Varda and Wadja. I then blushed and hurriedly added Akerman, Clarke, Deren, Holland, Ramsey, Reichardt, Reiniger, Shepitko, Shub and von Trotta. The front cover of Sight & Sound's October issue announces a special feature, The Female Gaze, which contains a list, spread over twenty pages, of "100 overlooked films directed by women." In the same issue, Marc Cousins throws his weight behind this long-overdue act of reclamation. He argues against the assumption that partriachy successfully excluded female directors. "Luckily," he says, "there are lot's of people - researchers, curators, festivals, publications - who, now and for years, have been naming and celebrating the great female directors from the past." All of which goes to show how blinkered the lists I offer above are, how shamefully sexist as well as Eurocentric I am, how nonsensical lists (particularly lists of ten) are; and what irresistible, useful fun lists are too. The critics' lists appall and enthrall me in equal measure. Lists are a double-edged sword, they are two-faced: they are both the enemy of criticism and its lifeblood, they force us to think while thinking for us, they consolidate the idea of a canon while seeming to confront it, they guide us towards films while steering us away from them. Although I appreciate a canon of 'greats' is an accretion of persuasive reviews and, yes, lists, I still baulk at the way critical consensus marginalizes often more interesting work.

My colleague ended with ten moderns of his own and concluded by inviting us to let him know if he'd missed anyone "really obvious (we're talking about directors with a significant body of quality work, men and women all agreed by most critics and commentators to be in possession of a unique voice)." Godard! Godard for fuck's sake, I screamed, and Apitchaptong, Ceylan, Davies, Diaz, Guzmán, Haneke, Mekas, Olmi, Wenders and Zvyagintsev. The list may not be endless but it's always incomplete. Is it all, though, as he suggested, all merely a matter of opinion? In How to Read Literature, Terry Eagleton provides a ready-made repost to the argument that criticism can only ever be subjective. "Whether you prefer peaches to pears is a question of taste," he says, "which is not true of whether you think Dostoevsky a more accomplished novelist than John Grisham. Dostoevsky is better than Grisham in the sense that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Lady Gaga." Godard is a more accomplished filmmaker than (pick a name, any name), let's say, Spielberg, in the sense that Gina Rowlands was a better actor than, oh, I don't know, Muffin the Mule.

If few remain neutral about Godard it's partly because he represents a certain way of making and thinking about films; a certain tendency in European cinema earthed in the iconoclasm of the avant-garde, shaped by the politics of the anti-Fascist European left, aspiring to art, unashamed of philosophy, and defiantly at odds with Hollywood. In his views on Hollywood, as in many other senses, Godard's career can been seen as a lurching from extreme to another. He fought his first battles with the 'Hitchcocko-Hawksians' of Cahiers du cinéma as they rallied to the flag of Hollywood and then defended it against the enormous condescension of European film critics during the politique des auteurs period. Later, the arch anti-Americanism of Le mépris (1963) and Bande à part (1963), which had already intensified with Made in USA (1966) and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (1967), gradually hardened into virulent disgust. His attitude towards American cultural imperialism and Hollywood is now expressed through a narrative of European resistance and American occupation.

Despite or because of that stance, Godard still has legions of admirers on both sides of the Atlantic.  At 85, he bestrides two competing cultures like a colossus. His latest film, Adieu au langage (2014), a typically daring experiment in DIY 3-D, was unlikely either to win an Oscar or find favour with mainstream audiences but it won both the Jury Prize at Cannes and the U.S. National Film Critics award. Given Godard's stature, the scale of his achievements, and my profound respect for him, my stomach tightens at the mere thought even of offering these few short thoughts on him. In the preface to his indispensible biography Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70, Colin MacCabe says: "In its range of reference – the history of cinema, the history of art, the history of Marxism – the work is as daunting as the life. It would be a fool who thought they had all the necessary competencies to comment fully on this extraordinarily rich œuvre." I'm no such fool, not least because, a decade and half after the release of MacCabe's book, the challenge is larger than ever. The BFI's dual-format release of a newly restored, pristine print of Vivre sa vie (1962) may not, offer much that is new (the BFI themselves released a new print of the film in 2004), but it does present an irresistible opportunity not only to consider one of the most influential films of its era but also to think out loud about Godard and his incomparable, sprawling, inevitably uneven, enviably vast body of work.

What drew me and continues to draw me to Godard? What is it in his work that profoundly moves me? His restless fecundity and ferocious intelligence but perhaps above all, his sly, sharp wit and contrarian cheek. It's funny to think that the thing I love most about Godard might be his elusive, acerbic sense of humour. There's something anarchic and impish in him that corresponds to what Australian poet Les Murray called "The quality of sprawl" – that fiercely independent, rudely democratic Larrikin impulse Murray detected in the outback outlook; something tinged with the spirit of May 1968 and the Maquis but also oddly reminiscent of the anti-authoritarian humour glimpsed in certain Ealing films. For a generally dark, deadly serious director Godard can be very funny.

To pick up the strand of Godard's anti-Americanism again, there's the exhilarating and hilarious scene in Bande à part in which Godard has the three musketeers Claude Brasseur, Sammy Frey, and Anna Karina race through the Louvre in an attempt to beat the speed record set by American tourists. There's the use to which Godard puts TWA and PAN AM flight bags in Deux ou trois choses. There's Belmondo's deadpan, impatient "My name is Ferdinand" in Pierrot le fou. Or the scene in which Belmondo 'bumps into' Jeanne Moreau in a bar in Une Femme est une femme and asks her "How's it going with Jules et Jim?" There's the scene in Éloge de l'amour (2001) in which two women dressed in the folk costume of Brittany canvass signatures for a petition to dub The Matrix (1999) into Breton.

Then again, there's the scene in Le mépris, shot at the legendary Cinecittà studios, in which a European director (Fritz Lang 'as himself') clashes with a philistine Yank producer (Jack Palance as Jerry Prokosch). It tickles me pink when Prokosch hurls a can of celluloid across the screening room as if he were a Greek Olympian hurling a discus. And it always makes me laugh when Lang vainly attempts to explain the adaptation of The Odyssey they're working on. Prokosch asks: "Now what great stuff are we seeing today Fritz?" Lang says: "Each picture should have a definite point of view Jerry . . . here it's the fight of the individual against circumstances. The eternal problem of the old Greeks." To which the American derisively snorts, "Oh, please!"

If Godard's sense of humour passes many people by, it may be because it doesn't announce itself with crashing cymbals and a roll of drums; it seeps, silently and subtly, out of his seriousness. Running alongside the humour, there's Godard's depth of knowledge, his reach and range, his poetics and politics of citation. In a moment characteristic of the cultural layering at play in Godard's work that same scene in Le mépris is reprised, to equally hilarious satiric effect, in Éloge de l'amour. As James Quant (Senior Programmer for the increasingly important Toronto International Film Festival) says: "In both films, European myth, history, and culture are sold, plundered, and falsified by an American producer." Godard, of course, has always 'plundered' American and European culture at will himself, while looking both ways, sometimes three ways at once. For example, Éloge de l'amour also reworks Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and, therefore, À bout de souffle (1960), which reworked the American's film first.

Even if Godard doesn't, as his old Cahiers comrade Luc Moullet claims, always read books whole but, rather, "pecks at books like a hen in the garden," he is the ultimate cultural magpie. He has appropriated material from his contemporaries as well as from literary, philosophical, and cinematic sources, but tends to bend, amend and transform quotations. Witness his inversion of Moullet's claim that "Morality is a question of tracking shots": Godard's oft-quoted aphorism that "Tracking shots are a question of morality" adds aesthetic and political bite to a reactionary phrase initially suggesting that tracking shots are all morality consists of. Godard's work has been compared to Walter Benjamin's unfinished magnus opus The Arcades Project, which was envisaged as a comprehensive, compendious survey of Paris in the 19th century built entirely of quotations that would converse and interact with one another, igniting an almost endless number of associative chain reactions. Godard's work operates that way. Taken as a whole, it is as wide reaching, spacious and monumental as anything in cinema.

Daunted as I am at the prospect of reviewing a Godard film, I'll continue to edge, nervously, toward the task, on safe ground and home turf, by delineating my lifelong relationship with his work. Initially, my intense personal connection to Godard was exclusively emotional and hormonal. An adolescent crush on Charlotte Brontë was, I confess, superseded by a teenage infatuation with Anna Karina. Even as that limited ardour cooled slightly, Godard's early films, so suffused with the energy and excitement of youth, slipped deep into my bloodstream like amphetamine. I was hooked as soon as I saw À bout de souffle, which sat alongside Colin McInnes's Absolute Beginners, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye among the sacred objects of adolescence and the symbols of several generations' rites of passage into adulthood.

The adrenaline rush of my teenage encounters with Godard returns each time I watch Vivre sa vie, Band à part, Une femme est femme (1961) and Masculin/Feminin (1966). For me back then, these were films of Swinging Paris as surely as Blow Up (1966) was a film of Swinging London. All are now like love songs carried on the breeze, bearing with them memories of naïve dreams and teenage kicks. The charge those stylish, irreverent films transmitted was bound up with a love of mod culture inseparable from a deepening cinephilia that was itself inseparable from Francophilia. Just as the 'young Turks' of Cahiers du cinéma had championed Hollywood's finest as a reaction against the moribund, stultifying cinéma de papa or cinéma de qualité, so the young punks of my university days rallied to Godard and the European New Waves as an alternative to increasingly repulsive and formulaic mainstream Hollywood films and a fusty, generally reactionary British film culture.

Growing up, it seemed to me in my late teens, meant coming to prefer, better say, claiming to prefer Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965), Made in USA (1966), Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (1967), and Weekend (1967) to the superficially slighter early films, though the depth of those films only revealed itself gradually. Interestingly, Anna Karina says in No. 13 of Faber & Faber's 'Projections series, "The young people I meet at film festivals tell me their favourites are Vivre sa vie or Une femme est une femme, but mostly Pierrot le fou. In England and Brazil they love Alphaville, and in Germany they prefer Une femme est une femme." Uhm.

As the buds of my mind opened, I deserted Literature for Film, after belatedly realising, halfway through my degree, that I could actually study Godard. And as I explored his work he hastened my politicisation, even shaped my worldview, to the same extent reading Orwell (another formative influence) did. As with Orwell, the more I learned of the man, the less I liked him; the more I learned of the work, the more I respected him as an 'artist'. I was surprised to find marked similarities between Orwell and Godard: both worked from a deep-seated European suspicion of American culture and power; both were outspoken socialists, critics of the status quo, fearless in presenting unpleasant truths, and eloquent proselytizers for their respective forms and politics. There were similarities in their personalities too: both men, for instance, surmounted their early misogyny and both were initially unsuccessful serial mariage proposers. Of course, while Orwell lacked Godard's sense of humour, he more than made up for it in other ways. Godard, for his part, stretched his form to breaking point. His long-since co-opted co-option of genres, his encyclopaedic cultural references, his political insight and idiocy, his entire extraordinary work pointed me in extracurricular directions of which most of my tutors seemed to have scant knowledge. Godard taught me in ways they didn't.

And when I eventually watched the films of Godard's 'militant' or 'Maoist' phase (the Dziga Vertov/Sonimage period when he worked primarily with Jean-Pierre Gorin), I did so with a new kind of excitement, as an ardent convert to the old-fashioned idea that money isn't everything and as one persuaded that humankind faced a stark choice between socialism and barbarism. This was in the eighties – a period when, as I saw it, folk had begun to give high-sounding names to sordid instincts. As a grasping love of money was elevated to the highest social virtue and the iron fist of monetarism began battering communities to death, films like One Plus One (1968), Vent d'est (1969), British Sounds (1969), Lotte in Italia (1970), Vladimir et Rosa (1971), and Tout va bien (1972) struck a different chord with me. They chimed with my rising anger. They offered an alternative narrative about the catastrophic changes unfolding before my very eyes, a refuge from the depredations of neo-liberalism and the piles of human misery on which Thatcher's Britain were built.

If I sensed the futility of a retreat into the past, I think I reasoned that, as someone once said, withdrawal in disgust isn't the same as apathy. And anyway, hadn't Godard himself retreated from political realities? That's the million-dollar question. It might be argued that he has been in hiding since the seventies; initially, because confronted by the dead-end of Maoism, recoiling from the shock of shattered dreams, perhaps embarrassed by things said at the height of the fighting; later, increasingly hermetic as a sense of alienation from and generalised revulsion at the world set in. Godard paid a heavy price for the loss of audience his urge to invention entailed: a collapse into individual subjectivity characterised by meditative melancholia and elegiac interiority. He often seems like a devoted mediaeval anchorite who has withdrawn to a cell (in Rolle), communicating his religious fervour for cinema, and his findings on it, to the outside world through a thin slit in the wall of distribution. In Je vous salue, Marie (1985), a woman called Eva, asks a professor what he's thinking. He might be speaking for Godard when he replies: "I think politics, today, must be the voice of horror."

Then there's Serge Daney's argument that "There has never been anything revolutionary about Godard, rather he is more interested in radical reformism . . . His own utopia is to demand that people open themselves up to the possibility of doing things 'differently' even while continuing as before. This utopia is less about doing something different than about doing the same things, differently."

Daney has a point. There was an air of adventurism and exhibitionism in Godard's revolutionary posturings and pronouncements. He continued to travel first-class, literally and metaphorically, throughout his Maoist phase. Jean-Pierre Gorin's description of himself as "the Yoko Ono of cinema" logically makes Godard 'the John Lennon of cinema', and it could be argued that Godard's politics were always more Lennonist than Leninist (even, or especially around May 1968). Not for nothing did Truffaut call his estranged mate "the Ursula Andress of militancy," and not for nothing did he suggest that Godard's autobiography be called "A Shit is a Shit."

It might equally be argued, against Daney and Truffaut, that the sincerity of Godard's politics and his revolutionary impulses are evident in every film he's ever made. Although he seemed to vanish after the political possibilities of May 1968 were contained, and although he moved from France to Switzerland (first to Grenoble and then Rolle), he continued his investigations into politics and the politics of the image, just in new forms incompatible with conventional methods of film production and distribution. His apparent disappearance enabled him to pursue 'politics by other means'. It could be viewed as a sane response to an insane world and to his own dictum that the challenge for radical filmmakers was not to make political films but to make films politically.

In Film After Film, critic J. Hoberman calls Godard "the first filmmaker to recognize that cinema's classical period was over." Godard was anticipating and precipitating that moment of rupture from as early as 1965: when Cahiers du cinéma asked him what he thought of the immediate and the long-term future of cinema, he replied, "I await the end of cinema with optimism." He prepared for it in the video-editing suite, which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has argued, was, in a sense, the graveyard of cinema and of the history of the 20th Century. Having already re-invented cinema several times over, he catalogued the 'death' of cinema while inventing modern cinema. This is what Daney called "The Godard paradox": "He advances back-to-front, apprehensively, facing what he is leaving behind . . . caught between a recent past and a near future . . . doomed to the present."

In an interview with Daney, Godard said: "People who love cinema today are like the Greeks who loved stories of Zeus . . . if they still like the idea of films on television, so shrunk, it is because there is still a vague memory . . . We no longer have our own identity, but if we turn on the television there is a small and distant signal which tells us that we may still have one. And someday, films will disappear from television too." Godard recognised that change was in the air and, as he had in the late sixites, he hastened change. Working mainly with his new partner Anne-Marie Miéville, from 1972 onwards he produced a series of experimental, politically analytical videos made primarily for television. Sadly, Godard's break with traditional cinema meant his work was inaccessible, even to film students desperate to explore his canon. So, it definitely felt as if Godard had emerged from hiding in the eighties when I watched Sauve qui peut (1980), Passion (1982), Prènom Carmen (1983), Je vous salue, Marie (1985), Détective (1985), and King Lear (1987).

It felt that way until the summer of 2001, when two events coincided that enabled me to view Godard's work (almost) in its entirety: the BFI's two-month long Godard retrospective (advertised under the rubric 'Jean-Luc Godard. Master of modern Cinema – A Definitive Tribute') and Tate Modern's 'For Ever Godard', an international conference addressed by Jean-Pierre Gorin as well as Godard aficionados such as Raymond Bellour, Richard Brody (author of the excellent Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard), Adrian Martin (whose commentary on Vivre sa vie enhances the BFI release), Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Peter Wollen, among many others.

During the retrospective and the conference, I saw many of Godard's video shorts for the first time and the continuities in his work emerged clearly. As an added bonus, the conference inspired the subsequent publication of For Ever Godard (Black Dog Publishing, 2004), a well designed, lavishly illustrated collection of erudite, scholarly essays. Godard's video films, in particular, came into to focus at that time. When he returned to the video-editing suite in the late eighties, all the skills and techniques he'd mastered in the seventies began to bear fruit, firstly in his epic masterpiece Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), and subsequently in Éloge de l'amour, Film Socialisme (2010), and, most recently, Adieu au langage.

Video afforded Godard independence, the opportunity to work from home, and new tools with which to make films and write about films. Nobody has embodied Alexander Astruc's notions of 'La caméra-stylo' more completely than Godard, and nowhere more so than in Histoire(s) du cinéma. A paean to and panegyric on cinema, the consolidation and concentration of all his hard-earned, profound knowledge about cinema, it is a dazzling, dizzying montage of sight and sound, feeling and thinking, a unique 'attempt at visual criticism'.

If Godard was reflecting on the passing of his century and his form, by implication he was also reflecting on his own passing, for he is enmeshed with and enshrined within those histories. At the time, he seemed like a lonely man in an empty cinema; a man adrift of our times and deserted by his mentors, his art form and his friends – Astruc, Bazin and Langlois left long ago, then Antonioni and Bergman left together, on the same day (30 July, 2007), Jean-Pierre Leaud went mad, Truffaut didn't even say goodbye . . . and so on. Godard seemed lonely and adrift then, he seems even more so now. That, I think, is why the tone of the late work is primarily melancholic and elegiac. Godard seemed to be saying goodbye to cinema and himself in Histoire(s) du cinema, and again in Adieu au langage.

Mercifully, neither Godard nor cinema are dead yet. As Michael Temple and James S. Williams said, prophetically, in the introductory chapter of their collection The Cinema Alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard 1985-2000: "It seems clear that cinema is barely emerging from 'the infancy of the art . . . Godard's project remains live and direct, unpredictably changing and always in search of fresh subjects and forms. His is an ingenuity of vision, a curiosity for the world. Isn't that also what cinema is, from before the cinematograph to those digital means and motifs which the future will soon outwit? . . . There is a long way to go. And Godard is still one of cinema's brightest hopes and promises for the new century."

Or as Daniel Morgan put it in the final sentence of his brilliant book Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema: "Still drawing on the history of cinema, but also creating new directions for its future, Godard continues his effort to discover and invent new possibilities for cinema." As Godard himself says in Bande à part, it is "better to carry on than to give up." So, we move on, always move on, as Godard has consistently done; in this instance, finally, to Vivre sa vie.

I have no grand theory about Vivre sa vie to offer, and there cannot remain much to say of a film that has been as extensively discussed as any in film history. I'll keep my remarks brief, therefore, and recommend the following close readings of the film that stand out from the crowd: Susan Sontag's 1964 review in Moviegoer, Adrian's Martin's exemplary commentary on the Extras of the BFI re-release, the sections on the film in Richard Roud's Godard, the chapter on it that opens Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki's Speaking about Godard, and Frieda Grafe's piece on it in the late, lamented Vertigo magazine.

In the booklet accompanying the BFI re-release of Godard's fourth feature, critic David Thompson says: "It remains the most important film of Godard's career, the first in which he achieved a brilliant aesthetic blend of the worlds of documentary and fiction. It is also one of his most tender and moving, words not often associated with a cinema largely devoted to ideas and provocation." It is certainly one of Godard's most important films, representing as it does a decisive shift in his work and a turning point for cinema. The film's exquisitely composed tableaux and lengthy dialogue scenes revolutionised cinema. With Vivre sa vie, which won the Critics' and Jury Prizes at the Venice Film Festival, Godard established the talkies writ large and inaugurated a new, endlessly imitated discursive style.

Despite the explicit political content of Le petit soldat (1960), which was banned for many years in France, Vivre sa vie is not only Godard's most deliberately composted film but also his first step toward political cinema and the creation of a counter-cinema at odds with the values of orthodox cinema. It bears all the hallmarks of the radical oppositional style delineated by Peter Wollen in his essay on Godard in Readings and Writing: Semiotic Counter-Strategies: the fragmentation of narrative continuity, the disruption of traditional forms of emotional identification with characters, the foregrounding of language and the mechanics of filmmaking, the intertextuality and overspill, the rupture with 'entertainment' cinema that privileges the reality-reality principle over the pleasure-principle. It amounts to Godard's first frontal attack on the society of the spectacle.

Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux, to give the film its full title, tells the story of Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Anna Karina), a single mother working in a record shop and struggling to pay her rent. When we first meet her she is giving her ex-lover, the father of her child, Paul (André S. Labarthe), the brush off. She longs to be an actress (like Anna Karina) but gradually slides into prostitution. She falls into the clutches of a pimp, Raoul (Sady Rebot) who ultimately sells her to other pimps, with tragic consequences. Despite her wretched circumstances, Nana finds short-lived happiness after falling in love with an unnamed 'young man' (Peter Kassovitz), in a pool hall. She wins his heart with one of the most joyous dance sequences in film history. In the same scene, an acquaintance of Raoul's, Luigi (Eric Schlumberger) relieves Anna's boredom by miming a child blowing up a balloon to the point it bursts. Although joy and humour burst out of Godard's films like fireworks, his pessimistic insistence on the impossibility of love precludes happy endings. We are denied one in Vivre sa vie: having begun with a loving close-up of Nana, the film ends with a close-up of her, as a corpse.

In this film of light and shade, walls and windows, Godard uses a single melodic refrain and recurring moments of silence to disrupt synchronicity. As he moves between the streets and boulevards of Paris and the hired hotel rooms and brothels where Nana's 'business' is conducted, he uses direct sound, recorded on a single tape, throughout. He also deploys debased Brechtianism and sub Satrean existentialism, an unwieldy seventy-pound Mitchell camera and quickfire interviews, the structure of the epistolary novel and the words of an official report. He cites Bresson and Zola, Dumas and Dreyer, Ophüls and Poe, Jean-Pierre Melville and Montaigne, Rossellini and Truffaut. Most significantly, he shoots Karina's flawless porcelain complexion and perfect ebony bob in close-up, from angles, from behind, in rising and fading black and white. There have been few more ravishing sights in cinema than Karina; Godard knew it and exploited her beauty to full effect.

Susan Sontag called Vivre sa vie "one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and original works of art that I know of," – and she knew a few. She objected to its ending but felt it was, otherwise, "a perfect film." She says: "It triumphs because it is intelligent, discreet, delicate to the touch. It both edifies and gives pleasure because it is about what is most important . . . the nature of humanity." In Sontag's opinion, Godard is "perhaps the only director today who is interested in 'philosophical' films and possesses an intelligence and discretion equal to the task." Here, Godard is ably abetted by philosopher Brice Parain. As Roland-Francois Lack notes in his useful A-Z primer on the film, Godard has Parain quoting from his book Black on White during a carefully edited 'conversation' with Nana/Karina ("We haven't yet found the means to live without speaking."). Conversation, Parain suggests, is a necessity of all human beings. We are social animals so we must communicate, but in order to do so we must move, as Vivre sa vie does, from speech into silence and back again.

In the opening scene of Vivre sa vie we find Nana and Paul in a bar, talking. Initially, we see only their collars and the backs of their heads. According to Adrian Martin, critic V.F. Perkins described Vivre sa vie as "a series of propositions about how to film a conversation." If that is so, those propositions were sound. Parain paraphrases Alexander Dumas' story Twenty Years Later, in which the Musketeer Portos plants a bomb in a cellar, thinks for the first time in his life, stops in his tracks, and subsequently dies beneath a pile of rubble. To live fully, to talk and think clearly, is to put oneself at risk. Parain says, "Error is necessary to truth." Godard, like Renoir and Rossellini, constantly reinvents himself and his form because he's always prepared to risk error in search of cinematic truth. With the help of his preternaturally gifted cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, Godard drove cinema forward to new levels of verisimilitude by flouting pre-existent conventions of filming conversations. Despite the switch from the light, portable Caméflex Éclair camera of his first feature to the weighty, unwieldy Mitchell, we feel we're hovering on Nana and Paul's shoulders, eavesdropping. This feeling of intimacy and proximity recurs throughout the film and is one of the many 'documentary' qualities that, along with the tragic narrative and Karina's magnificent acting, make it so moving.

In the film, Paul is played by Cahiers critic André S. Labarthe, who went on to make a series of exemplary documentaries on important directors for the Cinéastes de notre temps series he established with Janine Bazin in 1963. Labarthe filmed Godard in conversation with Fritz Lang for the series shortly after the two men had finished working together on Le mépris. In the resulting film, Le dinosaur et le bébé, Godard and Lang discuss the great pioneers of silent cinema. Lang says: "Almost no one from that time when we started out is still with us." Godard interjects: "There's Dreyer, Abel Gance, and you." They agree that Gance's Napoléon (1927), Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), and Lang's own M (1931) stand out as imperishable works of art also capable of appealing to mass audiences. Fortunately, Godard is still with us, and we can add Vivre sa vie to that hallowed number: it was one of Godard's few commercial successes (if only due to its tiny 400,000 franc budget) and received widespread, if not unanimous praise.

Watching a Godard film is a little like unpeeling an onion; it may soothe as well as sting the eyes, but it reveals layer upon layer of meaning the closer one gets to its core. We must always untie the Gordian knot of Godardian references, cross-references, and references within references to penetrate to the heart of his multi-layered, multivalent work. The naming of Nana, for example, is at the root of a characteristic cornucopia of citations. It reveals the debt the film owes to Zola's Nana (his novel of 1880 that also features a prostitute who meets a sticky end), to Jean Renoir's Nana (1926), and to silent cinema. As is often noted 'Nana' is an 'Anna-gram', alerting us to various director-muse/director-star relationships, most notably Renoir's relationship with Catherine Hessling (née Andrée Madelaine Heuschling), which prefigures Godard's relationship with Anna Karina (née Hanne Karin Bayer).  Coincidentally, Pierre Braunberger produced not only Vivre sa vie but also both Renoir's Nana and his short silent film Charleston Parade (1926). As if to highlight the dubious sexual politics of Vivre sa vie, the latter short can be seen as a documentary on the director's wife avant la lettre: Hessling spends most of that film dancing, semi-naked, for the benefit of a gorilla and a time-travelling black and white minstrel. In Godard's case, Karina plays a prostitute, which disturbingly makes Godard both her client and her pimp. We'll come to that soon.

Prostitution, literal and figurative, is, of course, a recurring theme in Godard's work. Most obviously, it's embodied by Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie, Marina Vlady in Deux ou trois choses, and Isabelle Huppert in Sauve qui peut, but it's there, too, in Le mépris (the writer who prostitutes his talent), in Une femme mariée (marriage as legalised prostitution), in Alphaville (dystopian-state-sponsored-prostitution), and so on. For Godard, we're all trapped in the cash nexus; advertising is a form of prostitution that moulds us all; we work, clock off, and then begin working again, for the industries of the night. The Frank Tashlin he loved most was the Tashlin of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) – a barbed satire on Madison Avenue ad men that spoke to Godard's contempt for American consumer capitalism . In Vivre sa vie, though, that contempt is muted and there are still traces in the film of the love of Americana and Hollywood that underpinned the Cahiers critics' politique des auteurs position.

The film is dedicated to B-movies and its grand finale is straight out of a Hollywood gangster flick. Fittingly, it was filmed around the corner from Jean-Pierre Melville's suburban studios and replicates a scene, shot on exactly the same spot, in Melville's Bob le flambeur (1956). In a sense, it is fitting, too, that the ostentatious American car (a Ford Galaxie Sunliner) driven by the pimps who kill Nana was actually one of Melville's own: Melville was a witness at Godard and Karina's wedding, but it was he who had introduced Godard to the brothels and striptease clubs of Paris in the fifties. The trailer for Melville's film announces: "From the nightclubs of Pigalle to Deauville's 'private' rooms, everyone knows Bob." Although Godard and Melville had bonded around a shared cinephilia and pronounced passion for Hollywood as well as similarly pecuniary lecherous habits, they fell out over Vivre sa vie. In Everything is Cinema, Richard Brody notes that Melville's widow, Florence, remembered Melville saying to Godard: "You are making a lazy man's cinema . . . you put down the camera and you have people talk, nothing more. For me this isn't cinema."

Melville wasn't the only one to take against the film's formal innovations. As Richard Brody again reports, Roberto Rossellini, whom Godard revered, was equally unimpressed. In late 1962, when screenwriter Jean Gruault brought Rossellini to a screening of Vivre sa vie, the Italian reprimanded the Frenchman for having "made him waste his time." Gruault recounts the conversation he overheard the following day when Godard drove Rossellini to Orly airport: "On the road to the airport, [Rossellini] maintained a silence that was heavy with danger. Suddenly he proclaimed, in a deep, prophetic voice, like that of Cassandra announcing the fall of Troy or Isaiah threatening an impious people with the gravest harm: 'Jean-Luc, you are on the verge of Antonioni-ism!' The insult was such that the unfortunate Godard lost control of the car for an instant and almost sent into the landscape." This incident, in addition to giving another meaning to the idea of cinema as matter of life and death, reflected Rossellini's discomfort with what he saw as Godard's imitation of Antonioni's arid formalism and tendency to trap his characters in a prison of inescapable alienation, specifically by denying Nana agency and presenting her descent into prostitution as inevitable and inexplicable. 

Vivre sa vie was not, of course, either the first or last word on prostitutes or prostitution in cinema. Anna Karina's Nana send us back to Louis Brooks in Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929) and Greta Garbo in Clarence Brown's Anna Christie (1930) while anticipating Shirley MacLaine in Wilder's Irma la douce (1963) and Catherine Deneuve in Buñuel's Belle de jour (1967). Godard's interest in prostitution as a theme, which would intensify with his politicisation, may have been precipitated by evenings spent with Jean-Pierre Melville but it primarily arose from his bibliophilia and cinephilia, specifically from his admiration of Guy de Maupassant and Max Ophüls.

Two Ophüls' films, in particular, left their mark on Godard: Le Plaisir (1952) and Lola Montès (1955). While promoting Vivre sa vie, he made repeated references to the latter. "Nana," Godard said, "like Lola Montes, is able to safeguard her soul while selling her body." Elsewhere, he seems to predict and forestall Rossellini's criticism: "Nana does not pervert herself, she just accepts what comes – whatever happens she continues to exist (like in the Lola Montès song). What interests me is how her situation is the result of the world around her; how her freedom is tied to the freedom of others."

Godard defied bourgeois hypocrisy and male chauvinism (sins of which he himself was guility) when he called Ophüls' Le Plaisir "the greatest French film made since the Liberation." The influence of Ophüls magisterial adaptation of three short stories by Guy de Mauppasant is evident in the nonjudgemental way Godard treats prostitution in Vivre sa vie. There can be no doubt that Godard was emboldened by Ophüls' daring approach to the subject of prostitution. In La Ronde (1950), the first film Ophüls made after his return to Europe after working in Hollywood during the war, Simon Signoret plays Leocadie, a street-walking prostitute ordered by the master of ceremonies to proposition the sixth soldier who comes her way. The third part of Le Plaisir, his follow-up to the hugely successful La Ronde, features a rejected lover who cripples herself in a suicide attempt. Astonishingly when one considers the repressive mores of that period, Ophüls had intended to tell the story of a young man who drowns himself after his girlfriend is seduced by lesbians. Sadly, the producers of the film weren't as progressive as Ophüls.

As Roland-François Lack says, the comment that opens tableau 10 ("There's no gaiety in happiness") is a direct quote from Le Plaisir. In the central story, La Maison Tellier, the sailors of a port town and its local male bourgeoisie go into shock when the local brothel temporarily closes to enable the women who work there to attend a rural first communion. The women are shown to be intelligent and vivacious. They insist on their right to live their lives as they see fit. They lend themselves to others but give themselves to themselves. [The film, incidentally, stars Simone Simon, who had earlier appeared in Robert Wise's Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) – which itself amalgamates two other Maupassant stories concerning prostitutes: Mademoiselle Fifi and Boule de Suif (1945) – with the latter being the source text not only for Christian Jacque's Boule de suif (1945) but also for John Ford's Stagecoach (1939)].

In addition to the influence of Maupassant, Melville, Ophüls and Renoir,  the figure of Bresson looms large. Discussing Vivre sa vie in Contintental Film Review, Godard said: "I've a great admiration for Bresson. I hope in a way that Vivre sa vie is for the prostitute what Pickpocket (1959) was to the world of the thief. But while Bresson probes the interior, I want to express the interior by revealing the exterior behavior. I show the everyday details of Nana's existence because I want the spectator to understand why she follows this evolution (into prostitution)." The famous scene in which Nana watches Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc in a cinema was initially intended to feature excerpts from Bresson's Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (1962). He had Bresson's permission and the extracts lined-up, but changed his mind at the last minute.

Godard's decision to use Dreyer's film instead was a good call. The close-ups of Karina replicate Dreyer's close-ups of Falconetti; the parallels between two women at the mercy of men, interrogated by men, and ultimately killed by them is clearer in Dreyer's film; and, anyway, Dreyer's version is far superior. Bresson was as important to Godard as Dryer, in life as in films. It was Bresson who introduced him to his next 'Anna': Godard and his second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, first met on the set of Bresson's Au hasard, Balthazar (1966), which Godard would famously described as "The world in an hour and a half." Wiazemsky subsequently appeared in several Godard films, which sit between art and life and are built from both.

Life and art are inseparable in Godard's work because for him cinema is life. Without the chance to film, he was like a little boy lost. Interviewed by Michel Vianey during the shooting of Pierrot le fou, Godard said: "If I shoot films, it's because I'm alone. I have no family. Nobody. It's a means of seeing people. Of going places." It is that deep need to make films and his interrelated insistence on the real that makes Godard tick. In Jean-Luc Godard (Editions Seghers, 1963), the first book on the director, Jean Collet suggests that the key to Godard's work lies in the interplay of documentary and fiction. "My starting point is documentary," Godard said, "to which I try to give the truth of fiction."

Of course, Godard's starting point was documentary in a literal sense: he began with Opération Béton and made his breakthrough with À bout de souffle – of which Raoul Coutard said: "Producer Georges de Beauregard told Jean-Luc he had to work with me. I was cheap and Godard was determined this was going to be the cheapest film ever made, shooting in the street, with no sound, no lights, no crew. He told me it would be like shooting a reportage."

In the opening sequence of the film, Paul tells Nana a story written by one of his father's pupils: "A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there's the inside. Remove the inside and you see the soul." "How can you render the inside?" asked Godard during an interview about Vivre sa vie, before replying "Precisely by staying prudently outside." Godard could tell a story when he wanted to. He just generally chose not to. The film alternates between documentary and fiction while Anna moves between being in possession of herself and at the disposal of others. Tableau 8 is taken up by a verbatim reading from Judge Marcel Sacotte's report, Où en est la prostitution? Nana/Karina writes a letter applying for work as a prostitute, copying verbatim the text of a sample letter in Sacotte's survey.

The film, then, is a story with a beginning, middle, and end, in that order, but opens with a documentary of a face (one of the most beautiful, photogenic faces ever to grace the screen), has a documentary on prostitution at its centre, and ends with a documentary on the collapse of a marriage. Cahiers du cinéma described Une Femme et une femme, as a documentary on Anna Karina. Vivre sa vie is another one. It is, I think, impossible to fully understand the film without reference to Godard's relationship with Karina.

While Godard's treatment of prostitution isn't explicit or exploitative, his relationship with Karina complicates matters, to say the least. In Images of Women, Images of Sexuality, an essay co-written with Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey says: "More than any other single film-maker Godard has shown up the exploitation of woman as an image in consumer society . . . but his own relation to that image raises further problems . . . Godard slides continually between an investigation of the images of woman and an investigation that uses those images."

Mulvey is best known for her iconic essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which invented the notion of 'the male gaze'. In it, she says: "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the lietmotif of erotic spectacle."

For all that Godard's treatment of prostitution is serious-minded and far from salacious, Mulvey's formulation fits Vivre sa vie like a glove: Godard is the active/male gaze, Karina passive/female object of desire. Earlier this year, I attended Birbeck's inaugural Essay Film Festival. In among the many films shown was one by Constaze Ruhm and Roland-François Lack called La difficulté d'une perspective/Une femme est une femme/Godard (2013). Introduced by Laura Mulvey, the film reversed the spectator's gaze by showing locations from Une femme est une femme and Vivre sa vie as they would have been seen from Nana/Anna Karina's perspective. It is a productive exercise in radical cinephilia that raised serious questions about Godard's use of Karina.

As Adrian Martin notes in his commentary on the BFI release, Vivre sa vie may not be salacious but the psychosexual dynamic of Godard's relationship with Karina raises troubling questions. Here is a director filming his wife, who has recently had a miscarriage and is suicidal, as a prostitute and casting her as a character killed at the end of the film. It cries out for a forensic feminist and psychoanalytical reading (which I lack the skills to conduct), so I offer a few biographical details – in the hope that they speak for themselves or that the (more capable) reader will fill in the gaps left by my analytical inadequacies.

Godard, whose parents separated in his teens, was a 'troubled' youth. Although he came from haute bourgeois stock, he was a peripatetic misfit, a committed kleptomaniac who stole from colleagues, employers, friends and family alike. Godard is being disingenuous when he talks of a happy childhood. His relationship with family, particularly his father, was fraught. Father and son were estranged by the mid-fifties. While discussing Emmanuel Laurent's Deux de la vague (2010), I noted the role figures like André Bazin and Henri Langlois played in Godard and Truffaut's world as surrogate father figures.

Most of the directors most admired by the Cahiers critics –Bresson, Fuller, Hitchcock, Lang, Mizoguchi, Ray, Renoir and Rossellini  – grew fond, in their turn, of the Young Turks. The respect was mutual. It amounted to a series of successful father-son relationships within the family of cinema. More precisely, it was a series of surrogate father-son relationships, as the experienced masters often 'replaced' actual fathers. As film theorist Thomas Elsaesser suggests in his essay Cinephilia or the Uses of Disenchantment, the Young Turks' insolent oedipal revolt against the 'cinéma de papa' represented a rejection of papa as much as a declaration of war on the New Wave's cinematic enemies.

After Godard was caught stealing from a Swiss TV company he spent three nights in jail and, subsequently, his father consigned him to a few months in a mental hospital, Le Grangette near Lausanne. This did not stop Godard stealing. He was soon in trouble again, after being caught filching and flogging his grandfather's valuable signed first edition copies of Valéry (who was a family friend). The clinician who treated Godard, Dr Mueller, considered him neurotic. It can't have helped that his parents split up during this crisis his life, his mother was killed in a car crash two years later, and he wasn't allowed to attend the funeral.

Little wonder that Godard's sister was concerned that he kept a razor blade on his person at all time, should he ever feel the need to commit suicide. You don't have to be a qualified psychologist to see Godard's kleptomania as a desire to be caught and punished or his razor blade as a sign-posted cry for help. It is surely significant that Godard advertised his possession of the razor blade and that he sold the stolen Valéry titles at a local bookshop close to home.

After Karina fell pregnant during the shooting of Une Femme et une femme (in which Karina plays a woman desperate for a child), Godard and Karina decided to marry. They did so twice: first in Switzerland and then in France. On 3 March, 1961, in Begnins near Nyon, where Godard père practised medicine and Godard fils studied classics during the war, and, again, three weeks later, in Paris.

It is unsurprising that their relationship was tempestuous from the start because both had unsettled upbringings and were emotionally insecure, even 'damaged'. Karina grew up feeling unloved and unwanted: in the absence of her biological father, she was raised first by her maternal grandparents, then in various foster homes, and finally in the house her mother shared with her second husband. In 1958, after a blazing row with her mother, Karina left for Paris. The 18 year-old Dane found love almost immediately when she met Godard, but his tendency to disappear without warning for weeks on end can only have done serious damage to her emotional stability and exacerbated her suicidal tendencies.

Karina, too, had her neuroses and they were intensified during the shooting of Vivre sa vie by a miscarriage that lead to several suicide attempts. After she narrowly survived an overdose of barbiturates, Godard committed her to a mental asylum. What can one say of a man who portrays his young wife first as a stripper and then as a prostitute, whom he films being killed; of a man who, having come through an asylum himself, imposes that experience on his wife and asks others to pick up the pieces of problems he himself partly precipitated? At minimum, that he probably wasn't as supportive as he might have been.

All the evidence suggests that Godard damaged the lovely woman he loved and who loved him. I'll neither forget nor forgive one particular moment of cold-hearted cruelty. In Michel Royer's film Godard à la télé: 1960-2000 (1999), we watch archive footage of a sofa appearance by Godard and Karina on a primetime TV chat show in the eighties. When the invasive interviewer presses the estranged couple about their relationship, Godard says: "Well, I said to myself, after all, there was Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Renoir and Catherine Hessling, so I thought to myself, 'I want that too! . . . and tomorrow is always a new day." Karina is reduced to tears. Godard spurns the opportunity for tenderness. He even throws out an arm to restrain his ex-wife. He makes no attempt to console her and she flees the set in pieces.

Controversially, I don't think Godard's early views of women and his contemptuous treatment of Karina, the cinematic misogyny and the general odiousness of his behaviour, negate the brilliance of his work. Nor does Louis-Ferdinand Céline's virulent anti-Semitism negate the genius of Journey to the End of Night or the Nazi sympathies of Francis Stuart and Knut Hamsun invalidate the achievements of Black List, Section H or Hunger. It may be in bad taste to rake through the coals of Godard and Karina's personal past, as that interviewer did and I am doing, but it is surely legitimate to do so given the ways that relationship is stitched into the films.

Karina said of her relationship with Godard: "It was amour fou. Love. Jealously. Revenge. We adored each other. We were passionate, but we had crises of jealousy." Godard and Karina, in fact, had frequent violent rows in which flats and their contents were destroyed. Their relationship was punctuated by repeated separations and reconciliations. Under such chaotic circumstances, with infidelities on both sides placing additional strain on the marriage, it surprising that Vivre sa vie it is so well ordered, unsurprising that it becomes increasingly dark. The block colours, the bright reds and blues of Une femme est une femme are replaced by sombre black and white, the score shifts from jaunty jazz to melancholic neo-classical fugues, the tone becomes dour.

Although Godard returned to colour in Le mépris – which delineates the disintegrating marriage of Camille (Brigitte Bardot) and Paul (Michel Piccoli) – he deliberately and subconsciously continued to draw his fraught relationship with Karina into his work. Bardot wore black bobs à la Karina, delivers dialogue that includes things Karina had said to Godard, and was even asked to walk like Karina. Piccoli wore Godard's hat. The film features a poster of Vivre sa vie juxtaposed with one for Psycho. By the time of Band à part, a crisis point had been reached. As Karina says: "That film saved my life. I had no desire to live. I was doing very, very badly." Pierrot le fou is Godard's angry farewell letter to Karina. The atmosphere during the shooting of that film was famously bitter, poisoned by Godard and Karina's constant fights. Karina's co-star Jean-Paul Belmondo says they were "like a cobra and a mongoose, always glaring at each other." Godard was lucky to find Karina and foolish to lose her; she was lucky to find him too and equally lucky to survive him; we are lucky that, together, they produced several of the finest, most beautiful films made, anywhere, by anyone.

Anna Karina's stunning looks meant she didn't receive the credit she deserved for her acting. Her timing was perfect, her capacity to act naturally in front of a camera almost unsurpassed. Above, I touched on a few of the reasons I was drawn to Godard. I'll close with another couple of reasons: Nana/Karina's delightful 'mating' dance in the pool hall and the single imperishable scene in which Nana/Karina weeps while watching Maria Falconetti weep in Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928). In his book The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible, David Sterritt says: "Nana's tears are for Joan, for herself, and for a world in which the pitiless have a monopoly on power . . . Nana's double becomes the threatened and imprisoned Joan, so Karina's double becomes Maria Falconetti." Godard himself said: The film has a Satrean character in that it develops the idea that purity exists in everyone regardless of the way they have chosen to live. That's why I've inserted a sequence from Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, to make plain the parallels between the heroine burning at the stake and the heroine of my film."

That ravishingly beautiful, heart-rending scene fits perfectly into the film. It shows Nana's inner sadness, it shows her pity and self-pity, but it goes beyond that. For me, it is a symbol of all cinema. Dreyer and Falconetti plus Godard and Karina equal cinematic heaven. Nana reflects the commonplace that the tears of others make us cry, but her tears are also those of rapture before the sublime. As surely as the majestic scene in Terence Davies's Distant Voices, Still Lives in which Eileen and Maisie dab at their tears with hankies while watching Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing (1955), this scene in Vivre sa vie is emblematic of cinema's capacity to move us to tears of joy and pain. It is symbolic of that love of classical cinema that the film itself both acknowledges and dismantles. I've come to see Nana's tears as a requiem for the bygone era of celluloid cinema and for the ineffable joy of opening up and letting it out, alone with others, in darkened rooms. For this reason alone, Vivre sa vie is, like every film Godard has ever made (even the less successful ones), worth watching time and time again.

Films reviewed

No comments:

Post a Comment