The Classic Early Films of Jean-Luc Godard

Legendary French director passes away at age 92

With the passing of Jean-Luc Godard, the world has lost one of the most iconoclastic filmmakers from the second half of the 20th century. A director whose legendary body of work spans more than sixty years, Godard proved the exception to the rule that film critics are just frustrated filmmakers. Along with his colleague Francois Truffaut, Godard went from writing about the movies for the legendary French journal Cahiers Du Cinema to writing and directing a body of work that helped to revolutionize the film industry in ways that still reverberate today. Any attempt to summarize his work will seem foolhardy, and he probably would’ve hated it if I tried, so I’ll limit myself to a discussion of some of the films that I believe will secure his legacy as a creative force in world cinema.

Breathless (1960)

The adventures of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a petty criminal who hides out in the Paris apartment of his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg), aware that his days are numbered after he murders a motorcycle cop in cold blood. Godard, a huge fan of the American film noir genre that flooded postwar cinemas in 1946, deploys a jazzy score and some unconventional uses of the jump-cut technique to turn a run-of-the-mill crime drama into something approaching high art. The long segment between Belmondo and Seberg in bed together is glorious, and highlights many of Raoul Cotard’s skills as a cinematographer. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows premiered a year earlier and is the shot across the bow for the French New Wave movement, but Breathless was the first real masterpiece of that movement.

Contempt (1963)

A movie about making movies. Godard peels back the layers of glamor to highlight the ways in which creative types sell themselves out to get work. And it’s one of Godard’s first instances of thumbing his nose at audience expectations: when you have a sex symbol like Brigitte Bardot appearing nude, why not film it in the least appealing way possible. Featuring a hammy performance by Jack Palance and Fritz Lang playing himself as the director of the film within the film, Contempt is Godard’s jaded takedown of the very industry he’s now firmly a part of, warts and all.

Band of Outsiders (1964)

No one could accuse Godard of playfulness in his early movies; most of them feature characters doomed to fail and die. But Band of Outsiders is different. It still has characters doomed to fail and die (in this case, Claude Brasseur as a would-be master criminal who learns of Anna Karina’s aunt having a supposed fortune in her home), but they get to have fun before the shooting starts. Most memorable for a blink and you’ll miss it run through the Louvre and a dance scene featuring Karina, Brasseur, and third lead Sami Frey), the film also inspired the name of Quentin Tarantino’s production company (A Bande Apart, the original French title). It’s more playful than most of Godard’s work, and a nice showcase for Karina (Godard’s wife at the time and frequent leading lady).

Alphaville (1965)

Science fiction usually takes place on fantastical worlds that require at least some expenditure on the part of production design (even if the results look as cheap as an Ed Wood film), but Godard did something a little outside the box for his foray into the genre. A hard-boiled noir with sci-fi elements, Alphaville features expatriate American actor Eddie Constantine as a secret agent trying to solve some mysteries with the aid of love interest Anna Karina. Using real locations in Paris that seemed futuristic at the time, Godard shot a very convincing dystopian film mostly at night, aping the genre conventions of film noir. Driving around in his Ford Galaxie, Constantine must do battle with a shadowy computer that controls the world of Alphaville. It’s a weird film, to be sure, and I can’t help but think it helped inspire Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Week-end (1967)

Soon after directing this film, Godard would turn his back on the style of film that had made him famous, embracing more experimental forms that alienated many viewers and seemed to pigeonhole him as a crank”for decades to come. But this film isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either. Following two bourgeois people as they plot to murder a rich elderly relative in the countryside, Week-end has brutal acts of violence, long discursive rambles, and some truly lengthy sequences of tracking shots that test the patience of casual viewers.

Godard’s contempt for society at large sits at the heart of this film; the Vietnam War had radicalized many in France (thanks in no small part to France’s own colonial legacy in the region and defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese in 1954), and Godard was no stranger to the rising anti-American feeling throughout Europe at that time. Week-end is the cutoff line between Godard’s early career and everything that came after, and it signals that the path forward won’t be easy for fair-weather fans of his work.

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Trevor Seigler

Trevor Seigler is currently a substitute teacher (one of the cool ones) in his home state of South Carolina. He also spends a lot of time reading, hence his pursuit of English as a major in college. He's been going broke ever since.

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