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Jean-Luc Godard's Most Beautiful Moments

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Courtesy of BFI
"Godard is not merely an iconoclast," Susan Sontag wrote in 1968, "he is a deliberate destroyer of cinema.”

Throughout that decade, from the 1960 release of his debut film Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard made 12 movies.

The Swiss-French intellect had only just turned 30 when Sontag compared him to Picasso. Before that unique burst of creativity, he was a critic for French film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema and chief author of politique des auteurs. Godard saw himself not as a field martial assembling troops, but as a towering centrepiece around which everything happened, an omniscient catalyst, someone capable of using film as a pure expression of their personality. The theorist Alexandre Astruc called the talent "la camera stylo" – a cinematic pen only a destined few possessed.

Godard certainly had one. Each of his films borrowed, stole, bowed to and subverted; each he saw as an act of defiance.

Shot in high contrast monochrome, full of jump cuts and relentless edits, interspersed with esoteric statements in white-on-black title cards, his films are nevertheless historical artefacts. Breathless was shot against the backdrop – plainly visible ­– of the actual historic meeting between President de Gaulle and the American Eisenhower. Godard wasn’t interested in crowd control, and at one point an actual policeman leaps into shot to assist Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard’s star, who was acting out mortal pain.
Courtesy of BFI
With fast cars, guns, carefree girls and angry young men, Godard created a stylistic statement somehow greater than the darkness of the cinema. By the calculated destruction of everything that had gone before, he crested the New Wave.

Here are his best moments:

Breathless
Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel – broken-nosed, brazen, with more than a hint of misogyny about him – hijacks a car in the south of France. Fleeing to Paris, he kills a policeman. Then he barges in on the life of an old flame, the American student Patricia. Played by Jean Seberg, Patricia is kept as a virtual hostage as he trawls Paris, trying to claim the money owed by fellow criminals. Slowly, inevitably, the police close on him. In the end, to save herself, Patricia betrays him.

It sounds like so many knock-off Hollywood noirs. And yet this could not be a more intense depiction of love. This is a clash rather than an entwinement, even as they are expressly compared to "Romeo and Juliet" or as the embodiment of "Franco-American rapprochement".

Take the first night, into day, they spend together. Lying in bed together in a cheap hotel, they have sex, and then, lying in bed, share what they want from their lives, spar on their interpretations of William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, and then visit the movies. Shot guerrilla-style as they walk the streets of Paris, he dressed like Humphrey Bogart, she with a copy of the The New York Herald Tribune; rarely has love, even love at a distance, complex and unresolved, been caught in such raw and immediate detail.

Bande à part
American film critic Pauline Kael called Bande à part Anna Karina’s breakthrough film, "a reverie of a gangster movie." It is maybe Godard’s most playful film, about a love triangle between three lives in flux, gadding about Paris trying to make it, untroubled by consequence.

Take the spontaneous Madison, breaking out between Karina – in her first feature film – Sami Frey’s Franz and Claude Brasseur’s Odile, with John Lee Hooker’s "Shake It Baby" on the jukebox as the three moving together in unerringly insouciant sync.

The scene was shot without warning, “in a bar at Vincennes, at the busiest hour.” Onlookers can be seen watching on from the rest of the café. This being Paris, they’re only marginally involved in the goings-on of one of the greatest film directors of all time; conversation must go on.

The music cuts out, and Godard speaks, in voice-over: “Now it’s time to open a second parenthesis, and to describe the emotions of the characters.”

First we hear of Arthur’s thoughts: “Arthur [Brasseur] keeps looking at his feet but he thinks about Odile’s mouth, about her [or, maybe, his] romantic desires.” Then Karina: “Odile is wondering whether the two boys noticed her two breasts, which move beneath her sweater with every step.” Then Frey’s: “Franz is thinking of everything and nothing. He doesn’t know whether the world is becoming a dream or the dream, a world.”

Of the film, Godard wrote in his book Godard on Godard: “Referring to my `Bande à Part' mood characters, who live off the cuff and whose speech is recorded directly."

"The interesting thing is this sort of fluidity, being able to feel existence like physical matter: it is not the people who are important, but the atmosphere between them. Even when they are in close-up, life exists around them."

Pierrot le Fou

“All you need is a girl and a gun.” It remains one of Godard’s most familiar quotes. He said it in 1960, seemingly in connection to Breathless. But the quote best suits Pierrot le Fou, the 1965 film starring Godard’s two most iconic performers, Belmondo and then 25-year-old Karina, entering her final year as the director’s wife.

The film is caught in its opening moments, when the pair, despairing together at the paucity of their life, return to Karina’s apartment for the first time. Unexplained, barely commented on by Belmondo, are guns, casually thrown everywhere. On the bed lays a body, inert, stone-dead.

A vein of masochism runs through the film, a gleeful race to self-destruction, as the adulterous lovers, disgusted by the suffocating conceits of well-heeled Parisian life, hit the road, heading toward the horizon, the sun, the coast.

In the winter of 1964, the late Jacques Rivette directed Karina in a stage adaptation of Diderot’s La Religieuse. “Godard and his wife have achieved perfect harmony,” he told a journalist, “in destroying each other.”

That year, a friend of Godard’s, Paul Gégauff, paid a visit to Godard, who hadn’t been seen for a few weeks. He found his friend naked in a room turned upside down.

“All his clothes and Anna’s were lying on the ground in tatters, the sleeves slashed with a razor, in a mess of wine and broken glass,“ he wrote. “I noticed Anna on a sort of dais in the far corner of the room, also quite naked.”

By 1967, the pair were divorced, and barely on speaking terms. Throughout their marriage, and after, she’s since admitted, she had tried to commit suicide.

With Belmondo as his avatar, it’s easy to see, in Pierrot le Fou, a relationship chaotic, violent, created and sustained by compulsion. “The story of the last romantic couple,” is how Godard termed it, “the last descendants of La Nouvelle Heloise, Werther and Hermann and Dorothea.”

The Godard Season, including Bande à part, continues at London’s BFI until 16th March. More information here.
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