Jean-Luc Godard photographed by Patrick Messina in 1996 (used with permission)

Jean-Luc Godard, one of the key filmmakers of the French New Wave movement of the 1960s, died today, September 13, at the age of 91, leaving behind a staggering filmography consisting of dozens of features, shorts, television series, and ciné-essays. According to a statement provided to the New York Times by his legal adviser, Patrick Jeanneret, Godard died by assisted suicide after suffering from “multiple disabling pathologies.”

Godard, like his Nouvelle Vague colleagues, entered the realm of film as a critic, but unlike his peers, he never gave up that profession, preferring instead to see his own films as the purest expression of his criticism. Though the director is best known for his early, freewheeling, postmodern genre deconstructions, his six-decade career can be seen as an ever-adapting project to examine cinema’s relationship to the other arts, as well as the inherent aesthetic and moral responsibilities of creating images.

Even his early, more accessible films reveal the director already dismantling the conventions of traditional filmmaking with the curiosity of a clockmaker. His debut feature, Breathless (1960), borrows many conventions of Italian Neorealism but upends that genre’s emphasis on docu-fiction and social urgency in favor of a stream-of-consciousness approach that dissolved the barriers between character, filmmaker, and audience. Commissioned to make Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel into a film, Godard turned splashy, high-production-value studio production against itself with his modernist masterpiece Contempt (1963), which is simultaneously an adaptation of the source novel, a retelling of both Homer and James Joyce’s Ulysses epics, and a movie about its own making. Godard heavily incorporates other cinema touchstones, chiefly the alienating interiors of Michelangelo Antonioni, but he also branches out into an antic collision of other art forms, be it the literature that inspires the story or his defacement of Classical Greek statues with splashes of bright paint. 

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The budding Vietnam protest movement and the May 1968 riots politically galvanized the leftist Godard at the end of the ’60s, catalyzing a shift in priority for the director that increasingly subjected his own methods to scrutiny and revision. This sometimes played out in personal terms, such as the gradual evolution of his chauvinistic attitudes toward women in his collaborations with first wife Anna Karina toward his more respectful and progressive portrayals in the wake of his romantic and working partnership with feminist director Anne-Marie Miéville. More broadly, Godard rejected the blithe, insular cinephilia that defined his early, more puckish films in favor of a more holistic engagement with all arts that regularly considered the historic roles of painting, theater, literature, and cinema in reflecting their times. At this time, the director also began acknowledging the ways in which the limited perspectives and biases, conscious or otherwise, of artists could skew their depiction of reality. 

For Godard, who once had a character quip that “photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times per second,” it is this admission of art’s innate subjectivity that propels his challenging and underseen but perpetually stimulating later work. Starting with his attempts at socialist realism with the Dziga Vertov Group propaganda documentaries, Godard doggedly pursued the possibility of some kind of objective image. To find it, he stayed on the cutting-edge of filmmaking technology, regularly incorporating breakthroughs in video formats that promised less cumbersome filming than traditional celluloid and most especially taking advantage of improvements in editing to create collages of split-screens and superimpositions matched by a contrapuntal use of stereo audio that beset each channel against the other. 

François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in Two in the Wave (2010) directed by Emmanuel Laurent (still courtesy Kino Lorber)

Often, Godard would mix up his own dialogue and images with literary quotations and scans of paintings and statues, attacking a single idea through multiple angles in a manner that blended the philosophical principles of Marxist dialectic with the aesthetic ones of Cubism. And just as Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” contained an entire history of the artform, so too does a work like Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010) cite various eras of filmmaking, fine art, and literature, providing a prismatic view of ongoing political struggle and the question of European identity. Admitting that the pursuit of truth is asymptotic, always just out of contact, Godard often pursued poetic free association over mere facts.

All of this can be exhausting, and many critics and viewers washed their hands of Godard around the time he ironically declared the “end of cinema” with 1967’s Weekend. But to treat his later period as a purely intellectual exercise is to miss his almost whimsical sense of humor and a punster’s sense of wordplay. Film Socialisme, for example, opens with an extended discussion of lost Spanish gold and an early image is of a parrot. (In Spanish, the word for gold is “oro,” while the one for parrot is “loro.”) Godard’s unclassifiable 1987 “adaptation” of Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which the play is reassembled from memory fragments after being lost, deconstructs Cordelia’s pledge of “nothing” to her father into “no thing,” turning her declaration that love cannot be verbalized into a concrete object to be defined by its absence.

Patti Smith as “la chanteuse” in Film Socialisme (2010) (still courtesy Kino Lorber)

While Godard will always be best known for such early pleasures as Breathless or Pierrot le fou (1965), his true magnum opus in this quixotic quest for “Truth” is the decade-in-the-making video project Histoire(s) du cinéma, started in 1989 and completed in 1999. A dense collage piece in which Godard exploits the double meaning of “histoire” as both factual history and narrative story, the multi-part series explores various aspects of film from the evolution of genres like film noir to more philosophical questions regarding how each shot is conceived, filmed and ultimately selected for final cut in editing. He illustrates these ideas via a dense web of overlapping quotations and images that allows the filmmaker to stretch his inner critic over a series of topics that both laud and condemn the capacity of cinema to express feelings, ideas, and social reality. Compared by Jonathan Rosenbaum to James Joyce’s impenetrable final novel, Finnegans Wake (1939), the more than four-hours-long Histoire(s) du cinéma shares with that book a language of pure punnery expressing ideas as frivolous and joking as they can be profound. The man who once wrote his female characters as destructive femmes fatales admits that most women in genre films end up as fatalities, and his youthful belief in cinema to improve the world collides despairingly with its documentable use to paper over or sentimentalize some of modern history’s worst horrors. It’s a culminating, bravura statement of aesthetic and moral vision, and a perfect benediction for his career. In true Godard fashion, he continued to build on and critique that statement for another quarter-century.

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in publications such as Slant Magazine, MTV News, and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online...