If any film-maker deserved the title “founder of modern cinema”, it was Jean-Luc Godard, who has died at the age of 91. He was the most original and provocative voice among the band of three identified with that tidal cataclysm in postwar film, the French New Wave. Where François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol never wholly abandoned traditional storytelling modes, for all their radicalism of theme or style, Godard insisted that a story should have a “beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order”.
From his 1960 feature debut À bout de souffle (Breathless) he changed rules, challenged traditions and explored new forms for the moving image. He embraced the radical documentary, the agitprop allegory (Week-end, Made in USA) and the music movie (Sympathy for the Devil with the Rolling Stones). He leapt at the aesthetic opportunities of the video and computer ages.
Godard regarded cinema less as a medium for drama than as the platform for a kind of never-ending dialogue: between artist and audience, between reality and artifice, above all between the present day and the cultural, political and philosophical treasure-house of the past.
Godard’s later work had fewer fans than his earlier. He forsook such little interest he had, even early on, in narrative cinema. Films made in the 1990s such as Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero) and Hélas pour moi (Oh, Woe Is Me) were complex, bewildering image-collages invoking and simultaneously dismembering the world’s thought systems: art, history, politics, cinema.
The great early Godard movies — À bout de souffle, Vivre sa vie, Masculin Féminin, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou — now seem almost simple by contrast. He took from Bertolt Brecht, a significant influence, not only Brecht’s didactic tendency but also his passion for presenting drama as a game of play and charade and direct address. Godard made scant effort to pretend that the playacting of cinema was anything other than playacting. The result was a postmodern precocity that endeared him to such unlikely fans as Quentin Tarantino (who named his production company A Band Apart after the Godard movie Bande à part) and the populist, cinematically Eurosceptic critic for the New Yorker Pauline Kael.
Godard was born in Paris in December 1930, the son of a doctor and a banker’s daughter, and was brought up in Nyon, Switzerland. Returning to Paris, he enrolled at the Sorbonne with the supposed aim of studying anthropology. Instead he haunted Left Bank cinemas and the Cinémathèque, giving himself a film education alongside the men — Truffaut, Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer — with whom he would launch the influential Gazette du Cinéma and make famous the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Later the same group would found the Nouvelle Vague.
In the early 1950s Godard cut ties with his family after his father put him in a psychiatric institution following a spell in jail for theft; his mother died in a motor crash a couple of years later. A money-earning stint as a dam-labourer in Switzerland led to his first film Opération béton (1955), a 20-minute documentary filmed on a 35mm camera.
He made more shorts before finding world fame with À bout de souffle. Based on an idea by Truffaut, this film’s blend of handheld street filming with scenes of impudent, static talkiness was a whole new recipe for cinema. So was its heady cocktail of disruptive plotting, mock-hard-boiled romance and literary and filmic quotation. His next film, Le petit soldat (The Little Soldier), was banned for three years for its indictment of French policy in Algeria, though its star Anna Karina emerged as Godard’s first actress-muse, playing lead roles in his musical Une femme est une femme (1961) and his tale of sex work, Vivre sa vie (1962). Godard and Karina married in 1961, divorcing in 1965.
In the late 1960s, after critical success with Le Mépris (Contempt), starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance and Fritz Lang, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou, he switched direction to explore agitprop cinema. Discovering Maoism through his second wife, the actress Anne Wiazemsky, he made radical movies for a resistant world audience such as La Chinoise (1967) and Week-end (also 1967). Later, after co-founding the Dziga Vertov Group to “make political films politically”, he added the hermetic and hectoring works British Sounds and Le Vent d’est.
He re-emerged, sometimes, to make contact with a vestigial popular audience. Tout Va Bien (1972) starred Jane Fonda and Yves Montand in a labour-versus-capital comedy drama using a multilevel set inspired by Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man. Even this weird high-profile effort was soon forgotten as he burrowed back into radicalism with a new partner, Anne-Marie Miéville, moving to Switzerland to begin a series of films, videos and TV programmes.
The pattern of “now audiences see him, now they don’t” continued. His 1980s “trilogy of the sublime” began with the luxuriously cast thriller Passion, continued with the Venice Golden Lion-winning Prénom Carmen (almost a return to the witty mock-romantic brio of early Godard) and ended with the complex Hail Mary, which was condemned by the Pope.
Since 1990, Godard’s feature films were fitful in all senses, with long intervals separating the fragmented, doggedly political impromptus: from Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, a sour meditation on the New Europe, to For Ever Mozart, in which a French troupe tries to stage a play in Sarajevo. His most monumental late-millennial project was the eight-part Histoire(s) du Cinéma, a made-on-video summary, typically wide-ranging and provocative, of our filmic heritage.
That there was never another film-maker quite like Godard is beyond dispute. That there was never another Godard quite like the early Godard is, for many fans, equally true.