Today is the 80th birthday of maverick French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, one of the main movie men behind the New Wave which kicked off in Paris in the 60s. It took him to this grand age to finally get his hands on an Oscar; an honorary one mind you, which he didn’t deign to pick up.
Considering JLG’s love-hate relationship with America and its film industry, the award has enraged some quarters of Hollywood. Godard often used American stars and was influenced by American cinematic genres, but challenged their conventions, was critical of their consumer-capitalism and when using Francis Ford Coppola’s studio in the 80s, fell out with many of the head honchos.
Whilst elements of his films are baffling and boring, the thrilling thing about them is that you always know he’s thinking deeply about what filmmaking really is, like when you repeat a word until it feels alien, then reconsider it afresh. Godard deconstructs filmmaking (critic Susan Sontag called him “a deliberate ‘destroyer’ of cinema”) which in ways seems tired and obvious now, but was a radical and necessary way of challenging the formal and fusty films coming out of France at the time.
If you ever want a lesson in how to watch one of his works, start with one of the later films, Passion (1982), a complex and very funny picture which could almost be called ‘How To Enjoy Jean-Luc Godard’. It asks if there needs to be a truth, a set, a story or a political position and its aggressive noises, asynchronous speech, fast-cutting and bad acting make you question whether cinema should even be pleasurable for the viewer.
Seeing Godard through the ages, you get a sense that the more he works in film, the more he questions it, making his films ever more obscure and less watchable, but at least it’s the opposite of complacency. From the experimental, but very real Breathless (the epitome of hip, late 50s Paris) to the disorientating, harsh futurism of Alphaville (think Brave New World) and from the tricksy, absurd Made In USA (God, the 60s look cheap and grim) to the sweeping, surreal Passion (my favourite), this is a man on the move, and one still making movies at the age of 80.
Joyeux Anniversaire Jean-Luc!