Jean-Luc Godard: Truth, 24 Frames a Second
By Nate Chapman
The French New Wave was one of the more important movements in the history of film, as it encouraged creativity and revitalized a movie industry that had grown complacent, and with that complacency, conservative and predictable. It used new, radical techniques like long shots and stressed existential themes. It also borrowed heavily from Italian Neorealism in that it tried to have the actors be realistic in their dialogue and actions. The story wasn’t always linear, nor was it necessarily the most important aspect of the film. In a phrase, the New Wave shook up the cinema status-quo. The leading figure, considered by many to be the instigator of the movement, was Jean-Luc Godard. Wealthy, young and bored, he found himself living in Paris amidst a number of young film critics and directors in an atmosphere that was ripe for innovation. With his first feature film Breathless, Godard set a precedent for a new, young generation of filmmakers and showed the older ones a new way to reach indifferent crowds. An early proponent of auteur theory alongside the original advocate, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard’s films have a distinct “Godard” feel to them that is shown through different editing techniques, and of course, a break from the typical Hollywood film formula. Still alive and well, Godard’s legacy left its mark on directors today; there is a reason he has been ranked the third greatest director of all time by a Sight & Sound poll.
Jean-Luc Godard was born in 1930 in Paris to a wealthy family; his father was a Swiss physician and his mother came from a family of bankers who founded the Banque Paribas. When Godard was four, his family moved to Switzerland, where he would remain for a good portion of his early years; however, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Godard found himself in France and encountered some difficulty returning to Switzerland. Jean-Luc was never truly into film early on. In fact, it was not until he read Malraux’s Outline of a Psychology of Cinema that he found it to be an interest he would pursue. He moved to Paris in 1946 to study at the Lycée Buffon, a secondary school; here he mixed with members of high society. However, he failed his baccalaureate exams after two years and returned to Switzerland. After time in Geneva, he returned to the University of Paris to pursue a certificate in anthropology, but he didn’t show up for many classes; instead, he found himself involved with “the young group of film critics at the cine-clubs that started the New Wave” (Wikipedia, Godard). Here in the fifties begins Godard’s involvement with film, albeit criticism, as a career path.
Jean-Luc Godard, living in Paris in the 1950’s, was a frequent attendee of local film clubs. The clubs would screen films and fuel discussions after the viewing, many of which reached deep philosophical levels: “At the Cinematheque I discovered a world which nobody had spoken to me about…they’d told us about Goethe, but not about Dreyer…we dreamed about films” (Wikipedia). Godard found success as a critic for the magazine Cahiers du cinema in the early fifties. In his articles he would come to praise directors like Otto Preminger and Howard Hawks and their “harsh melodramas”, and blast the “formalistic and overtly artful films of Welles, De Sica and Wyler”; the aspects of Italian Neorealism that focused on realism and veracity would find root in Godard’s films later on, much as American film noir refused to sugar coat their stories. In 1953, while working construction on a dam project in Switzerland, he had his first major attempt at filming: “with money from the job, he made a short film about the building of the dam called Opération béton (Operation Concrete)” (Godard Timeline). The film was sold to the dam administration and used for publicity. He continued with several more short films and became friends and associated with soon-to-be important young directors, mainly Truffaut. In 1955, in an important collaboration, Truffaut got Godard to help work on “an idea he had for a film based on the true-crime story of a petty criminal…who had shot a motorcycle policeman and whose girlfriend had turned him in to the police…” (Wikipedia). Nothing came of the project at the time, as no producers were interested (though he would come to revisit the project, to major success as we will soon find out). In 1958, Godard made his most prominent short, Charlotte et son Jules, shot entirely in his own hotel room. The film was notable for Godard’s first use of actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, who would become famous for Breathless.
Come 1959, it would seem Jean-Luc Godard had had enough of reporting from the sidelines. Many of his friends and acquaintances were now well-known filmmakers themselves. Godard went to the Cannes Film Festival that year and requested from Francois Truffaut the rights to the story they had collaborated on previously. Godard secured funding for the film, though not much, and went about recruiting his cast for what would be his first feature-length film. Jean-Paul Belmondo was signed on first, but he didn’t have the star power Godard wanted for the film, so Godard sought out Jean Seberg, an American actress living in Paris. The stage was set for his first major film, the film that would usher in a new era in cinema.
Breathless was, as previously mentioned, the tale of a cool, indifferent young criminal and his American girlfriend. It convolutedly followed him over the course of a few days, from his murder of a policeman to his betrayal by the girl and his subsequent death. The film was envisioned as a documentary of sorts; it took many techniques from the previous Italian Neorealism movement. Godard filmed on location in Paris, used a hand-held camera to shoot the entire film, and used natural lighting. One famous scene involved Belmondo and Seberg meeting for the first time, walking down a boulevard in Paris. With the handheld camera in front of them as they stroll, the viewer gets a very realistic feel and an impression that you are right there with them. Godard also wrote lines of dialogue in a private book that no one else was allowed to look at. He would give his actors a few lines at a time and only allow a few rehearsals before attempting a take; this led to a more authentic and genuine feel to the dialogue of the movie. He also never got permission to film in any of the locations used. This meant they had to be in and out after a few takes, lest authorities come in and hamper his process. The film was also notable for its jump cuts, which were used “at every single break in the sentence to give his (Belmondo) language a rhythm and a flow” (Defining French New Wave).
The film was also a strong anti-Hollywood film in the fact that it eschewed typical Hollywood narrative structure of a strong character-driven story. Breathless jumped from frame to frame suddenly, and wasn’t perfectly linear. There is a strong, personal touch in the film as well, showing Godard as one of the early “auteurs”. “Truffaut states ‘Jean-Luc chose a violent end because by nature he was sadder than I…he was in the depths of despair when he made that film” (Defining French New Wave). The original story of Truffaut’s had a much happier ending, with Michel, Belmondo’s character, living at the end. Also, Godard, living in Paris at the time, probably felt a connection between himself and his character Michel, which makes the character that much more important to the viewer.
The next major film of Jean-Luc Godard’s was Le Petit Soldat, or The Little Soldier. The second film in what many consider to be Godard’s cinematic period of filmmaking, it follows a French intelligence agency who is coerced into agreeing to assassinate a National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN) agent. The FLN had been waging a war for the liberation of Algeria from France. The character eventually falls in love with a woman who had, at one point previously, helped the FLN. The two conspire to escape to Brazil together, but are of course captured. The main character escapes imprisonment and agrees to kill the FLN agent in exchange for safe passage to Brazil for him and his lover. However, French agents discover her connections to the FLN and torture her, eventually leading to her death.
In order to truly understand why this film is so important, one must look at 1960 France. Algeria had had independence movements as early as 1954, during a time in which many African nations were shrugging off their imperial European “colonizers”. Algeria was to France as India was to Britain; it was the crown jewel of what had been a French empire. When open fighting did break out, it was analogous to today’s wars in the Middle East: insurgents drawn from the native population facing off against a modern army. The fighting was dirty on both sides, with assassination attempts and civilian bombings abound. At one point Frenchmen living in Algeria flooded to France after the killing and lynching of native loyalists. Another marked aspect of the war was the use of torture and illegal executions. France found itself in a moral dilemma and Charles De Gaulle decided to give up Algeria to its people in 1962. Le Petit Soldat came out in 1960, right in the middle of the Algerian War. The film was subsequently banned in France until 1963 due to the nature of its premise.
Godard again shows himself to be an auteur with this film. He certainly overwhelms his studio and industry by making a film that everyone knew would be immediately controversial. An avowed Marxist, Godard shows his contempt for French imperial ambitions in Africa by making his main character someone who flees France to avoid the draft, out of fear for his life and out of disdain for the cause of the war. The entire plot of the film is based on an illegal assassination, something that French intelligence used many times over in the war despite it being expressly prohibited in the Geneva Convention. These anti-establishment, anti-status-quo themes found in the film are important, but there is another theme in the movie that helped stir the pot and get banned: the explicit torture scenes.
For the movie’s time, the scenes depicting torture were wildly violent. One scene has an interrogator lighting a book of matches on fire and burns the main character’s palms with them. In order to obtain realism, “the actor actually endured, for a brief moment, the torture” (Godard’s Truthful Torture Scene). The actor, and thus character, are forcefully held under water for extended periods of time; he is even electrically shocked as well. The French interrogators appear resigned to this method of questioning, as if it was the only choice they had left and were devoid of morality; another swing by Godard at the French authorities. In all, it was no wonder the film was banned at the time. Torture scenes would not be shown as graphically as this until movies like Marathon Man. The entire project was Godard’s own vision; there is no way any studio, French especially, would have allowed those scenes and themes in a French movie at the time: thus, Godard’s force of personality bent them to his own creative will.
Godard continued making films throughout the sixties, including a homage to American musicals, another anti-war movie, and even a science fiction film. Many of his films had political themes based in the current events going on in France and the rest of the world. His film La Chinoise featured a group of students and a number of their left-wing ideas. Coming out in 1967, it immediately preceded the May 1968 events involving the student rebellions and the collapse of the Republic. It was another film of Godard’s that expressly showed his Marxist leanings.
Following the late 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard moved into what has been labeled his “Revolutionary” or “Radical” period. Films from this era showed Godard’s intense interest in Maoist ideology and featured collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, a young Maoist student. Many of his films from this time were considered extreme, even compared to the Hollywood New Wave films coming out at the time. “Save for small groups of committed militants…most audiences found the combination of recondite ideological hectoring and austere formal rigor all but unwatchable” (Criterion). Godard and his partner Gorin decided to return to a more populist political perspective, moving away from their radical ideas. Come Tout Va Bien.
Tout Va Bien, or Everything Is Fine (All’s Well in the United States), was another political film (yes, another) of Godard’s, coming to theaters in 1972. Godard’s purpose for the film was “to consider the class struggle in France four years on from 1968” (Criterion). It took place in France and centers on a sausage factory under strike. An American reporter played by Jane Fonda is caught up in the strike and becomes radicalized and joins the movement. Fonda, a radical feminist at the time, was the perfect female socialist to play the part in the not-so-subtly Marxist film. Godard took another page from the Neorealism book and hired unemployed, no-name actors to play the factory workers; one way in which he injects a sense of the class-conflict rebounding throughout France at the time into the film. The entire film is based on Fonda’s character and her husband being radicalized over the course of a few nights stuck in the factory, after witnessing the “horrors” of capitalism and its effects on the lower classes. The film even ends with a riot of the workers! If this isn’t classic radical Godard, nothing is.
The film did contain a number of innovative filming techniques. The factory set was actually a cross-sectioned building, allowing the camera to zoom in on one room, then zoom back out and be able to see activity in all rooms, before centering on another. The actors break the fourth wall several times throughout the film as well, talking directly to the camera. There were also a number of long takes and uses montage editing to portray the excitement and chaos of the strike and later riot. The film is important in the Jean-Luc Godard timeline as it was a major “critical and commercial disaster” according to critic Colin MacCabe. Audiences weren’t as enchanted with the extreme Fonda character as Godard hoped. The American premiere didn’t fare much better. The film forced Jean-Luc to recognize that his films weren’t having the political impact he had hoped they were.
Godard made a few more tame political movies later in the seventies, but eventually returned to a more traditional format and mass-appealing source material. In 1987 Godard filmed King Lear, about as clear cut of source material as one can get. Histoire(s) du cinema, completed in 1998, was an extremely long “examination of the history of the concept of cinema and how it relates to the 20th century” (Wikipedia). In some ways it was a return to his roots as a critic.
Jean-Luc Godard is still alive and well today, his most recent film being a short called The Three Disasters. He is and always has been an auteur, of the theory developed by his close friend Francois Truffaut, in the sense that his films were always his own. They were creative and framed many of his own political and personal beliefs and ideologies. Pursuing this auteur idea is what lead him to Breathless, the film that would start it all. Many consider him to be a living legend, and in many ways this is true. Without Godard, there would be no Woody Allen, no Scorsese, or Tarantino. The edgy films we know and love today all are possible because of Jean-Luc Godard and his breaking of the mold with Breathless, over fifty years ago.
Wikipedia: Jean Seberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless, The Little Soldier, French New Wave, All’s Well
Biographical Timeline http://www.carleton.edu/curricular/MEDA/classes/media110/Friesema/intro.html
Criterion: Tout va bien revisited
Godard’s Truthful Torture Scene
The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette by James Monaco
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: Defining the French New Wave