On June 9, 1971, Jean-Luc Godard suffered from a sickening traffic accident, with the motorcycle that he used to zip around Paris colliding with a van. He was immediately taken to an intensive care unit, and within days reports were circulating that he had died. In a way, the story was so apt that it was tempting to believe it: was Godard not the most innately rebellious of the new wave filmmakers, fated to burn brightly and die young, like Heinrich von Kleist, Nicholas de Staël or James Dean before him? Had not so many of his films been suffused with the pallor of suicide and death: Belmondo in À bout de souffle and Pierrot le fou, Karina in Le Petit Soldat and Vivre sa vie, Bardot in Le Mépris, Léaud in Masculin féminin? Did his sign-off from commercial cinema in Weekend and his frenetic engagement in militant filmmaking after May ’68 not represent a form of self-negation? Surely an early death, either by his own hand or the cruel workings of fate, was the only fitting conclusion to the logic of his cinema.

In truth, of course, the rumours were unfounded. Not only did Godard not perish from a motorcycle accident at the age of 40, he is still with us today, having recently toasted his 91st birthday. Truffaut, it turned out, was the first of the cohort of nouvelle vague filmmakers to have passed away, in 1984. He was followed by Jacques Demy in 1991, and then, in a decade-long necrologue from 2009 to 2019, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette and Agnès Varda. Godard, in the end, is the great survivor of the French New Wave. The last of the Mohicans, as he has long been fond of describing himself.

There may be cinephiles out there who would have preferred Godard’s mythical death over his actual endurance, so as not to complicate their adulation of his sixties films with the awareness of his exacting later output – one biographer, Richard Brody, even comes close to admitting as much. But to do so is an injustice not just to the man, but the cinema as a whole. His post-New Wave work, from the Groupe Dziga Vertov era, through to the video work of the 1970s, the spiritualist turn of the 1980s, the mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma project of the 1990s, and the digital essays of the 21st century, arguably constitutes the greatest artistic œuvre of the last half-century, in any medium. These films, whose amplitude now dwarfs the quinze glorieuses from À bout souffle to Weekend, do not detract from or besmirch the splendour of the early films; rather, they enrich our understanding of them, and take our appreciation of Godard in a multiplicity of new directions. Godard’s cinema, taken in its totality, from the 1955 short film Opération Béton and his youthful criticism right up to his latest release Le livre d’image (The Image Book, 2018), has done more than that of any other filmmaker to open up the possibilities of the cinema, and expand our perceptual horizons as spectators and as inhabitants of the world. 

Indeed, throughout all of these periods, it is the formal work of the films that characterises Godard’s output, the restless experimentation and drive for aesthetic novelty that propels his filmmaking. This is not innovation for its own sake. Rather, as Godard repeatedly insists, it is the forms that think. For the spectator, it is the cognitive demands made by the relations between the aesthetic elements of his film – the role of montage, contrapuntal image-sound combinations, the graphic prominence of on-screen text – that prod us to new ways of seeing and thinking. For Godard, meanwhile, his films have been the vehicles for prolonged meditations on the history of cinema, its relationship with the political vicissitudes of the twentieth century, and the very nature of reality itself. Ever the Bazinian, Godard considers film to be the privileged medium for such inquiry.

It is in this spirit that the present dossier was conceived. Bringing together the writings of venerable Godardalogists and callow initiates to the field, our dossier presents pieces from scholars hailing from Europe, North and South America, the Middle East and Australia. Truly, we have to reckon with a global Godard, whose influences reaches across the world, inspiring cinephiles and budding filmmakers in all countries with his permanent stance of resistance to the debilitating hegemony of mainstream cinema and his practical clarion cry for artistic freedom.

Murray Pomerance kicks things off with a rumination on the space of À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), emblematised above all by the Cadillac El Dorado with which Michel Poiccard and Patricia Franchini careen through the streets of the French capital. Elliott Bloom looks at both Godard’s debut film and Le Mépris, analysing them for an element of their form that has always attracted people to the filmmaker’s work but has rarely gained sustained scholarly study: namely, fashion. Sally Shafto renews her work on the relationship between Godard and the plastic arts with a reflection on the parallels between the visuals of Le Petit Soldat (1960) and Les Carabiniers (1962) and the painting of Gerhard Richter, while Mariam Razmadze looks at the motif of the flight from civilisation in Pierrot le fou (1965) and Weekend (1967).

Weekend, we noted, marked the end of Godard’s association with traditional modes of film production and distribution, and his headlong plunge into militant cinema, culminating in his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin under the guise of the Groupe Dziga Vertov. David Fresko looks at the presence of natural settings in Godard’s radical works, arguing for its highly politicised, even anti-capitalist functioning, while Daniel Fairfax looks at the role of montage in Luttes en Italie (Struggles in Italy, 1969) and the inspiration it took from Louis Althusser’s writings on ideology. Palestinian scholar Rula Shawan, meanwhile, unearths the back story of the filming process of the aborted project on the Palestinian resistance movement, Jusqu’à la victoire – which later metamorphosed into Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1975) – and interviews activists who were either part of the shooting process or deeply affected by its legendary status.

Two pieces focus on Godard’s essayistic work of the late 1970s, which manifested itself not only in film and video work, but also in printed materials: Dork Zabunyan gives a detailed consideration of Godard’s “direction” of special issue no. 300 of Cahiers du cinéma (from 1978), while Volker Pantenburg interviews Margerete von Lupin on her part in bringing the television series France tour détour deux enfants (1977-78) to German audiences via the medium of an idiosyncratic book adaptation. 

Godard’s late work is equally a focus of the dossier: Giles Fielke & Ivan Cerecina and Pablo Gonzalez Ramalho both concern themselves with Godard’s mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma project (1988-98), looking at the 4-and-a-half-hour montage-essay’s relations with Hollis Frampton and Sergei Eisenstein respectively. Hamish Ford turns his attention to a frequently discussed – if often casually disparaged – aspect of 2001’s Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love): its treatment of the USA. Two pieces round out the dossier with discussions of one of Godard’s most recent releases, his 3D film Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014). Patrick Kokoszynski reflects on the paradoxes of the film’s treatment of post-structuralist theory, while Vinzenz Hediger examines the singular presence of the dog Roxy in the same film, a role that, perhaps more than any other in Godard’s cinema, dismantles the ontological hierarchies that have heretofore dominated the cinema.

As we head further into the 2020s, Godard proves indomitable. The erstwhile Young Turk of Parisian cinephilia has become the Old Man of world cinema, but his most recent films come off as more punkishly youthful than almost anything else being made today. The Berlinale has just announced a new installation rendering of Le livre d’image, which Godard, ever the provocateur, even proposed should be accompanied by a feeding trough for the city’s population of wild boars. He also recently teased his fanbase with mention of work on scripts for two new films. Godard, assuredly, will keep creating until his last breath. And his forms will continue to think, and spur us to think, for long after that.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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