Jean-Luc Godard, King of France’s New Wave, Dies at 91

Franco-Swiss director and New Wave linchpin Jean-Luc Godard, who revolutionized world cinema with his ground-breaking debut, “Breathless,” and never stopped pushing the envelope of his creativity, has died. He was 91.

The news was first reported in Liberation. Although there hasn’t been an official confirmation at midday in Paris, French president Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Godard on social media with a message describing Godard as “the most iconoclastic of New Wave filmmakers, had invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art. We are losing a national treasure, a look of genius.”

The prolific icon worked his whole life. He presented his last film “The Image Book,” a kaleidoscopic bulletin spanning 200 years of history, in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and was celebrated with the Special Palme d’Or. Godard was also planning to adapt “The Image Book” into an exhibit in Paris, Madrid, New York and Singapore before the pandemic hit.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awarded Godard an Honorary Oscar at a 2010 event. Godard didn’t come to accept; it would have been surprising if he had (he was always the maverick outsider, and Oscar is the ultimate symbol of the film establishment). But at the event, several AMPAS governors spoke of his influence, with scribe Phil Alden Robinson saying, “He didn’t just break the rules, he ran them over with a stolen car,” adding that, for good measure, Godard backed up the stolen car to make sure the rules were dead.

Others pointed out that his use of long takes, jump-cuts and actors’ asides to the camera all changed the filmmaking vocabulary. He once famously stated that every film needs a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

“There was cinema before Godard and cinema after Godard,” declared Luigi Chiarini, president of the Venice Film Festival not long after the release of “Breathless” in 1960. Not since Orson Welles, with “Citizen Kane” 20 years earlier, had a first-time director transformed the grammar of filmmaking in such radical fashion.

Godard directed his cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot “Breathless” like TV reportage with a handheld camera, something almost unheard of at the time. The film’s kinetic rhythm was further enhanced by Godard’s use of jump cuts to propel the action along and his snappily feeding the actors lines of improvised dialogue during shooting. Ostensibly a gangster pic about a girl (Jean Seberg), a guy (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and a gun, “Breathless” was also a film of existential ideas. The film, which was awarded the Prix Jean-Vigo and the prize for best director at Berlin, remains Godard’s most accessible pic and for many his most accomplished in a career that spanned more than 50 years, some 30 features, numerous shorts and filmed essays.

Aged 29 when “Breathless” was released, Godard went from being a promising director with several short films to an overnight sensation. Hollywood was ready to welcome him with open arms, but Godard never bit; he turned down an opportunity to direct “Bonnie and Clyde,” unwilling to compromise his artistic principles.

He won major European film awards including the Golden Berlin Bear for hypnotic sci-fi movie “Alphaville” (1965) and the Venice Golden Lion for the frankly erotic “First Name: Carmen” (1983), but Godard never received an Academy Award nomination.

He was critical of everything in Hollywood and occasionally singled out Steven Spielberg, claiming his films lacked artistic merit. His views led to his falling out with his New Wave contemporaries Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, whose films became more narrative driven and audience-friendly as they grew older.

Born in Paris, Godard had a privileged upbringing as the son of well-off Franco-Swiss parents. His French father was a doctor who owned his own clinic, and his mother was descended from a Swiss banking family.

While Godard was studying ethnology at the Sorbonne in the late 1940s, the first cine-clubs began sprouting up all over the capital. Watching films was akin to a religious experience for Godard. “We were like Christians in the catacombs,” he once said, referring to himself and contemporaries like Truffaut, Chabrol and Jacques Demy.

In 1951 Godard became one of the first writers, along with Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, to write for Andre Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinema film magazine. He was a vociferous critic of post-war French films, whose directors, he felt, had run out of ideas, and he helped introduce the idea of an auteur-driven cinema, arguing that certain directors should be given the same consideration as top-tier novelists.

In “The Little Soldier” (1961), Godard courageously exposed France’s use of torture during the Algerian War of independence. The film was banned in France until January 1963. It was the first time Godard cast the Danish-born actress Anna Karina, whom he married and subsequently divorced.

Godard’s reputation as one of the most influential members of the French New Wave was cemented in the mid-1960s with a string of popular and critically acclaimed films, many featuring Karina. His marriage to Karina ended in 1964 but he continued as a major world force in cinema with “Bande a Part” (Band of Outsiders), a return to the world of the gangster film, which he called “Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka.”

He scored his biggest commercial hit with “Contempt,” which starred a resplendent Brigitte Bardot as the wife of a disillusioned script writer (Michel Piccoli). “Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d’elle” (Two or Three Things I Know About Her) was also chock-a-block with observations about modern life. Films like “My Life to Live,” “Alphaville,” “Pierrot le Fou” and “Masculine, Feminine” revealed Godard’s talent for mashing-up lowbrow and highbrow aesthetics.

The high point of this period was the savage and memorable “Week-End,” in 1968, with cars piled up in an endless gridlock and commentary about the decline of Western civilization. “La Chinoise” was remarkably prescient for the way it predicted the French student riots of May 1968. During filming Godard married the pic’s star, Anne Wiazemsky, whom he later divorced.

The late 1960s saw Godard retreat from mainstream cinema. For the next few years he worked with a group of left-wing political activists, producing his own political films. Godard became increasingly reclusive, making films for his own amusement, before returning to narrative cinema with his 1979 effort “Every Man for Himself.” During the 1980s, “First Name Carmen,” “Hail Mary” and “Detective” garnered some festival attention.

At the 2010 AMPAS event, documentarian Lynne Littman said, “Godard dared us to misbehave, both as grownups and as artists. He is still misbehaving, and I’d like to think tonight is the first time we’ve ever given an Oscar for it.”

Godard’s most ambitious project was his multipart video project “Histoire(s) du Cinema” (1988-1998), an iconoclastic and very personal study of the concept of cinema and how it related to the 20th century. More recently, his films “In Praise of Love” (2001) and “Notre musique” (2004) were well received at the Cannes Film Festival. His “Film Socialisme” met with a more bemused reaction when it screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2010; the highly experimental work ended with a title card reading “No Comment,” a statement reflected in Godard’s conspicuous absence from the festival.

But Godard had a significant career resurgence at Cannes in 2004 with “Goodbye to Language,” in which he experimented with the 3D format while offering what Variety‘s Scott Foundas called “a characteristically vigorous, playful, mordant commentary on everything from the state of movies to the state of the world.” It won the festival’s jury prize (shared with Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy”) and went on to be named best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics.

For the last 30 years or more of his life Godard worked in close collaboration with his partner, Swiss filmmaker Anne-Marie Mieville. She survives him.

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