Jean-Luc Godard

One of the most engaging works I saw at the recent 2004 Toronto International Film Festival was the beautiful and poignant Letters to Ali (Clara Law, 2004), a political work dealing with the mandatory detention of a young Afghani refugee in the Australian outback. The most interesting thing about it for me was its willingness to wed its more didactic elements to a certain æsthetic of immediacy. For example, one of the final shots is captured directly from out of filmmaker Clara Law’s car window: two dragons, parent and child, charge in cloud formation through a sunset of red and orange. It is obviously a digital image, but the improved DV projection technology at the Festival this year rivaled 35mm not just in clarity but in what can only be called “feel”. I was absorbed by this digital image in a way not possible only a few short years ago. Its beauty makes it an image of renewal, of hope.

Seeing it reminded me of another admirer of the found image: Jean-Luc Godard. He is, in fact, a pioneer in this area; he envisioned being able to capture such an immediate image as far back as the mid-’70s. It was around this time that he battled for the creation of a portable 35mm “director’s camera” ideal for spontaneous shooting (1) – think of the mottled white and blue sky in Passion (1982), images taken by Godard himself in much the same manner as Law’s dragon image. These found images of immediacy are unrehearsed pieces of the world which just happened to be captured on camera.

Godard’s struggle to capture such images of immediacy on 35mm proves his passion for the cinematic image had not diminished after his video experiments of the 1970s. For the most part these experiments employed video merely as cinema’s servant; video was a tool used to work out ideas, to see beforehand what the “final” film would look like, without incurring the expense of 35mm or even 16mm. Godard’s early filmed scenarios (Scénario vidéo du film Sauve qui peut (la vie), 1979; Scénario du film Passion, 1982; Petites notes à propos du film Je vous salue, Marie, 1983) were still “about” his other “proper” films – even when intended as stand alone works made after the fact, like Scénario du film Passion. In the last 15 years or so, however, Godard has transformed such auto didacticism into a cinema regarding the whole of cinema, not just his own. Starting with the first hints of

Histoire(s) du cinéma

Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989) in the late ’80s, Godard now uses video as more than a means to see what film can or will be. In fact, film and video have ceased to be two – one subservient, one dominant – and perform instead as one, like a old married couple, akin to Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville in Soft and Hard (Soft Talk on a Hard Subject between Two Friends) (1986). They may quarrel, but in the final analysis they support and need each other.

The quality of the image has always been a concern for Godard. Take the meticulous manner in which he worked on the look of Les Carabiniers (1963), for example (2). The difference between Godard then and Godard today is therefore not simply an increased concern for the beauty of the image; what is different can be seen in that freshness, that boldness, that “everything” which Godard claimed one should always put into a film. In short, the cinema of the New Wave was really new, and none more so than Godard’s. Throughout the ’60s, Godard kept reinventing the cinema, right up to the point of its near extinction (at least as a commodity), because there was always uncharted territory up ahead to explore. Week End (1967) marked not the end of cinema but a renewed commitment to keeping cinema alive against the rapidly accumulating spectacle. The result was Le Gai Savoir (1969), which argued for a return to zero, a new starting point from which to create images anew. One might say Le Gai Savoir was Godard’s first “video”, in the sense that it was “not the film which must be made, but rather an indication of some of the paths one must follow if one is to make a film” (3). In fact, video had been an interest for Godard since La Chinoise, ou: plutôt à la Chinoise (1967) but at the time it was too new and too expensive (4).

Another renewal, a second coming, came with Numéro Deux (1975). Video had become a mainstay at Sonimage, Godard-Miéville’s new company, but it was still not yet ready to stand on its own. Instead, separate video images, playing on their own separate monitors, were subsumed into the 35mm film image as a whole. There was also in this period a new focus on television, where video – now in its “proper place” – allowed Godard to reinvent himself and his work once again.

The return to the cinematic image proper came in 1979 with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) and with it a new reason for cinema to be. The image quality limitations of video had given Godard the necessary impetus to take its cinematic counterpart to the other extreme. Thus the early ’80s became for Godard a quest for the ideal image, the “holy image”, culminating in the final image of Je vous salue, Marie (1985): an extreme close-up of the virgin’s (Myriem Roussel’s) red rimmed mouth (insert your own “holy” joke here). The ideal image, it seems, had not been found.

By the mid-’80s, the beauty of the image was no longer an ideal to be sought – beauty had become fatal. The films of this period chronicle this doomed quest, especially King Lear (1987), in which the search becomes explicit, mirroring the self-appointed mission of William Shakesper Junior the Fifth (Peter Sellars) to piece together a long-forgotten past. Nostalgia becomes a central conceit in Godard’s cinema at this point, a concern also seen in the rest of the art world around this time: the interest in Jean Baudrillard and his ideas on the simulacrum, the rise of postmodernism as a critical idea, the fading of the romantic notion of the artist as creator. This is not to say Godard’s later work is postmodern; no, it is other than what any totalising label suggests it to be. But it was clear by the end of the ’80s that sheer “newness” as a means toward artistic creation in itself was no longer a viable option.

Nouvelle Vague

Godard’s particular brand of nostalgia is not only for the “new” aspect of the New Wave, but also for that ability to start again, no matter the pretence (Maoism not withstanding). Thus a final “new wave” was still to come. Nouvelle Vague (1990) is perhaps the greatest film of Godard’s late career precisely because it is his last “film” proper – a final statement on cinematic history told entirely in its own language. Note the classical composition, the flowing camera – its reverence for natural beauty comparable to Ford; its mysterious doubling worthy of Hitchcock; its theme of the Miracle of Empty Hands lifted from Robert Bresson’s Le Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) – yet all of this under the yolk of nouveau riche multinational executives who can do no more than mouth words passed down through history via literature, poetry, philosophy…. Nouvelle Vague is a film which takes nostalgia seriously – no postmodern irony here, no self-referentiality, only the deadpan seriousness of a filmmaker at the top of his form.

But what is nostalgia anyway? The nostalgia which informs Godard’s work today is actually a longing for the present. Somehow that continual present, one which brought a newness to every work, has slipped away from him. Now everything new has happened already, in another time and place. Thus Godard’s images of immediacy are gone, replaced by a nostalgia for his own work (think of Histoire(s) and its “adieu” to Anna Karina) and for cinema in general. It is a nostalgia for the experience of newness which Godard’s cinema struggles with today, that experience Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) has in Masculin-Féminin: 15 faits précis (1966) of wanting to live films and not just watch them. It is the same particularly Godardian nostalgia for sitting in the front row of Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française watching films for hours on end (by the way, Jacques Richard’s recent documentary, Le Fantôme d’Henri Langlois (2004), is invaluable – note especially Godard and François Truffaut’s brief May ’68 “commercial” for the Cinémathèque!). Thus when we speak about Godard today, we can speak only of that still accumulating multiplicity: Godard the young iconoclast, the faux-Maoist, the secluded and now perhaps ill master – ill, at least, when he’s invited overseas to film festivals and other momentous occasions. Despite reports to the contrary, we all secretly know that Godard will be around forever – Forever Godard. He has already surpassed Jean Parvulesco’s goal to become immortal and then die, for immortality is still too vague of a term when we speak of Godard today. He has and will continue to become transformed, his work living on for now as relics on DVDs and in retrospectives – but who knows what experiencing Godard’s films will be like in decades to come.

Any survey of late Godard must take into account Godard the actor, a role played by others at times (in Sauve qui peut (la vie), for example). However, Godard acts primarily now as a curator of the history of the 20th century. Predominantly English speakers like myself need to be reminded often of the double meaning of Histoire(s) – history is all about stories, after all. But the title is ironic, for this isn’t exactly how Godard sees it; better yet, it’s how he does see which counts. For the last half-century or so we have been able to experience history as more than narratives passed down since time immemorial. We can now see history in ways unimaginable a century ago, a seeing, says Godard, without need for narration.

Which brings me to the very first film I saw at the Toronto festival this year, Notre Musique (2004). Godard once again plays “himself”, a role which for the most part has taken one of two forms: the “man himself”, so to speak, and “Oncle Jean”. The later has its various embodiments: the ageing director, the fool, the idiot savant. The “man himself” shows up as disembodied voice (Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d’elle, 1967, Le Gai Savoir, Ici et ailleurs, 1976, etc.), militant (the Dziga Vertov films), even domestic partner in Soft and Hard. In Nôtre Music, Godard’s character as ageing director is not played for comic relief as it was in, say, Prénom Carmen (1983); nor does Godard become overly didactic the way he was in, say, Numéro Deux. Instead Godard sprinkles the role here and there with varying degrees of both. One scene has him accidentally bashing his head into an overhanging railing, while another has him silently pondering the question of video’s impact on the cinema. I would venture that Notre Musique sees Godard give his most understated performance in quite some time.

Notre Musique does, of course, utilise the same well-worn tropes Godard has been using throughout his career. Note especially the faux volleyball game – Nouvelle Vague did the same with soccer, Blowup (5) with tennis (wait, was that last film one of Godard’s?). Images of the Russian theatre massacre are juxtaposed with other images of war from old movies – in fact, the whole first section seems like an episode of Histoire(s) reprised. There are also the requisite bits of clarity Godard’s work offers up to those who need them. Godard plays himself lecturing to young students on cinema; at one point he “explains” the fact that Howard Hawks can’t tell the difference between men and woman. At another point he likens Palestine to documentary, Israel to fiction. These are examples of the same standard, trivial, easily digested morsels Godard includes again and again in his later work. More and more I suspect Godard adds these tidbits just to appease mainstream critics – it gives them something to report without ever having to actually contemplate the film at all.

For we still want to be enlightened by Godard the Master, even if we don’t want to put in the time and effort. Godard’s cinema is work – but, as in Passion, it’s love for one’s work which drives one on. One must first give oneself over to the films, experience them without prejudice, and only then begin to study them as one would study any other master. With a little patience, time and effort, it can be done. I have experienced epiphanies while watching later Godard; of course, I suffered through much confusion, futility, and at times even boredom to reach such a stage. Godard’s cinema asks much of its viewer, not the least of which is: “Do you see”? This is the simple question underlying all of Godard’s work. Seeing is what he wants us to do. Too often the remark is made: “Well, it was beautiful, but I didn’t understand any of it.” The key to understanding the later Godard is to freely and joyously admit to oneself that understanding is not the key – at least not in that rational model we’ve all been trained to use in order to read the cinema. The Godardian model of experiencing cinema takes some getting used to. Still, one is trained to understand the cinema only by watching cinema, and Godard’s cinema is no different. Such training takes time. Though it is rapidly shrinking, the lag between Godard’s films reaching an audience and any sort of intuitive, penetrating criticism still averages out at roughly a decade or so (the notable exception being Histoire(s)). Take for example Nouvelle Vague, a film much misunderstood upon its release which is only recently receiving any close critical scrutiny (6).

Notre Musique

The scattered thoughts I’ve written above are informed by only a single viewing of Notre Musique, which is certainly insufficient to deal with the film as a text. Yet every film has its first viewing, and the impressions made do not necessarily need to be confirmed or denied by a subsequent viewing. Godard’s work, even at its most “essayist”, should not be viewed a means toward some predefined end. The consensus is that, because it is so impenetrable, there must be concrete insight buried deep within its layers, a deeper meaning beyond the impact of its immediacy. Yet Godard’s work provides is its own theoretical basis for its existence, and as such should be seen as an end in itself. All this to say that Godard’s films are to be experienced, a notion that should be of primary importance in any critical study of Godard. Yet Godard, it is true, is of particular interest to those interested in more structural analysis, and of course more recently to historians of the cinema and otherwise. Don’t get me wrong – deep structural readings of Godard’s films are vital. I am simply arguing that they must be grounded in an analysis of the viewing experience.

Even as recent as a decade ago, the relative unavailability of Godard’s work kept this grounding from being possible. Today, however, the number of titles on DVD alone grows larger every year, and now even the more obscure work is available to those who wish to see it. A few years ago I wrote about a renaissance in Godardian studies; little did I know I had only seen the tip of the iceberg. Since then two major critical anthologies, The Cinema Alone: Essays on the work of Jean-Luc Godard 1985-2000 (7) and For Ever Godard: The Work of Jean-Luc Godard (8) as well as Colin MacCabe’s biography, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (9), have been published. I have to admit my favourite article is Jacques Aumont’s “Mortal Beauty,” in The Cinema Alone, since it is as opaque as Godard’s films usually are. For the graphics lover, For Ever Godard has an incredible and to my mind essential 45-page filmography, each entry illustrated with a poster, still or other related image. In fact the book is a weighty piece of art all unto itself, comparable only to Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991 (10) in terms of matching a book’s form with it content. By contrast, MacCabe’s bio seems at first glance dull, with only the occasional black and white still. Take a look at these stills, however, and you’ll see just what a coup it was to get some of them: André Bazin at his desk in 1947, or a shot of Truffaut with Godard in the background circa 1949, to name just two. A book like Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy is long overdue, but I doubt if it should remain the definitive word on the subject. The last section in particular is really more MacCabe’s personal account of his dealings with Godard while he was producing both 2 X 50 ans de cinéma français (1995) and The Old Place (1998). Personal insights are always interesting to read, enlightening even, but they seem out of place in a biography which deals in great part with situating Godard and his work in a larger historical context. For the later years we might do better to study JLG/JLG: autoportrait de décembre (1995) – after all, it seems essential for any biography of Godard to incorporate some form of moving images. If Godard can do this with history, why not biography?

Each subsequent Godard film engages its viewer in cinematic history. Remember, however, that to be concerned with present day Godard is to be concerned not only with the cinema’s past but also its future. Besides, what is old always becomes new again. There are newer waves approaching – you can see them in the works of Gaspar Noé, Bruno Dumont, Sharunas Bartas, Catherine Breillat, Philippe Grandrieux. But you can also see it in the tripart structure of Notre Musique, in the hint of a new cinema born from the relics of its own history.


  1. See “Genesis of a Camera: Jean-Pierre Beauviala and Jean-Luc Godard”, Camera Obscura, Vol. 5, No. 13–14, Spring-Summer 1985, pp. 163–193.
  2. See “Les Carabiniers Under Fire” in Godard on Godard, translated and edited by Tom Milne (New York: Da Capo, 1986), p. 200.
  3. These final words of the film are spoken off-screen by Godard.
  4. See Colin MacCabe, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. 133.
  5. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966.
  6. See especially Vicki Callahan, “Gravity and Grace: On the ‘Sacred’ and Cinematic Vision in the Films of Jean-Luc Godard”, as well as James S. Williams, “Music, Love, and the Cinematic Event”, both in Michael Temple, et al (Eds), For Ever Godard: The Work of Jean-Luc Godard (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004); see also Peter Harcourt, “Calculated Approximations of Probabilities: Rhetorical Strategies in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard,” Cineaction, No. 48, December 1988, pp. 8–17; and the chapter on Nouvelle Vague in Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, Speaking about Godard (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
  7. James S. Williams, et al (Eds), The Cinema Alone: Essays on the work of Jean-Luc Godard 1985-2000, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000).
  8. Michael Temple, et al (Eds), For Ever Godard: The Work of Jean-Luc Godard (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004).
  9. Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2004.
  10. Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (Eds), Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992).

About The Author

Glen W. Norton is a doctoral candidate in Social and Political Thought at York University, Toronto. He has written for various journals and magazines, and also maintains the Cinema=Jean-Luc Godard=Cinema website.

Related Posts