Jean-Luc Godard’s Late Films: A Primer

In 1960, Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film, Breathless, would make him an icon of French cinema, inaugurating a career that has consistently expanded society’s definitions and expectations of cinema. That film alone would have reason enough to consider him an important filmmaker, but Godard went on to direct fourteen more features through 1967, culminating with his attack on bourgeois culture, Weekend.

Following this extraordinary run of films, Godard found himself at a moment of great change. His romantic and artistic partnership with Anna Karina had ended, to be replaced with a new (but short-lived) marriage to Anne Wiazemsky, who would serve as a bridge to the current youth culture. Godard’s politics had also changed considerably since the 1950s. His conservatism, a relic of his parents’s politics, had been replaced with an interest in Maoism and an increasing distaste for anything evoking America. (Classic Hollywood cinema initially got a pass, despite being responsible for defining much of America’s image throughout the world.) After the tumult of his constantly evolving films, the world of politics offered Godard a welcomed respite, and he was able to devote himself to documenting and participating in the French student protests of 1968.

Following the upheaval of ’68, politics became the central concern of Godard’s films, almost completely replacing plot, story, and characters. Many of the films for the next few years were directed in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, a much younger filmmaker who also connected Godard to contemporary trends. The films they directed as the Dziga Vertov group are often abstract and invariably remind viewers that they are watching a film, rather than allowing them to develop a deeper connection to what is on screen. Godard could never be accused of making realist films, but his Brechtian desire to cue his audience into the artificiality of film had reached a new level. Often this was achieved through a radical use of sound and music editing. In 1962, A Woman is a Woman deconstructed traditional use of songs in musicals, and A Married Woman (1964) was scored with Beethoven’s late quartets, rather than an original score that might mimic and emphasize the film’s mood. Godard’s films from 1968 on either used little music or were filled with preexisting classical music. Cues would abruptly end in the middle of scenes, or they would start up in the middle of a conversation with no obvious explanation. Art house audiences had grown accustomed to experimental films, but even the most radical works of Bergman, Truffaut, and Antonioni steered toward more traditional uses of sound and music. The Dziga Vertov group eventually dissolved in 1972.

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