On Tuesday, September 13th, the Franco-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most famous and controversial film directors of the 20th century, died at age 91. According to a family lawyer cited by the news server AFP, Godard was facing “multiple incapacitating illnesses” and thus opted for assisted suicide in Switzerland, even though a source close to the family told the newspaper Liberation that the filmmaker was “not sick, he was simply exhausted.” Godard had opted to ‘end it’ and, according to the unnamed source, “it was important for him that it be known.” Godard was widely recognized for his contribution to the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) and his political activism that often took a prominent place in his movies.
French President Emmanuel Macron commented on Twitter, saying that “we lost a national treasure, the eye of a genius.” While many cinephiles will tend to agree with the president, Godard has been a controversial figure for a long time. He was launched to international fame with his first feature film Breathless, featuring a young Jean-Paul Belmondo, and showcasing the principles of Nouvelle Vague filmmaking with its rebellious upheaval of the norms of French filmmaking of the time. The style was defined by an almost improvisatory approach that resembled similar trends found in the Cinéma vérité (‘truthful cinema’) movement of documentary filmmaking. For Godard, experimental rawness, with unconventional editing and the absence of artificial light went hand in hand with an often explicit political commentary, wrapped in an ironically detached vision of the world, that made him a Zeitgeist favorite in the 1960s.
It was that period in which Godard cemented his place as one of the most influential filmmakers of France, while also becoming a fixture in film school curricula all over the world. His excessively long tracking shot in Weekend became one of the most quoted scenes in reference literature on filmmaking, as well as among film students. Other techniques he popularized included jump cuts and the breaking of the fourth wall (e.g. the character addressing the audience by looking straight into the camera). His struggle against the French filmmaking conventions of the 1950s is as deconstructivist as his political views were aimed at revolutionizing society.
Very soon, however, the revolutionary methods of the Nouvelle Vague became outdated again—for Godard, that is. In 1968 he was inspired by the student revolts and decided to set up his own protest and shut down the Cannes Film Festival. The then self-proclaimed Maoist film director complained that none of the films at the festival represented the cause of students and workers. “Not one, whether by Milos Forman, myself, Roman Polanski, or François Truffaut. There are none. We’re behind the times.”
It was also at that time that Godard formed the Groupe Dziga Vertov, named after the Soviet documentary filmmaker that coupled revolutionary visuals with outright propaganda. The filmmaking collective produced a grand total of nine films between 1968 and 1972, all of which were heavily influenced by Marxist ideology, including such titles as See You At Mao, Pravda, Wind from the East, and Until Victory/Palestine Will Win. The group dissolved in 1972 when Godard became disillusioned with Maoism.
The following period saw his output decline drastically. In the 1980s, he returned to more traditional filmmaking, and while still controversial and provocative, his work failed to resonate with audiences the way it did in the 1960s. From the 1990s onwards, Godard’s films were mostly reduced to reaching niche audiences, many of which adored the filmmaker for his contributions to cinema. Formally, he stayed true to his provocative persona—even though a sense of not having developed past the 1960s prevailed—most notably perhaps in his 2010 film Film Socialisme. While Godard never regained commercial success again after the 1970s, he remained popular within filmmaking circles and among critics. His next-to-last film, Goodbye to Language won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. In 2010, Godard was awarded the honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement.
As much as he was loved by his admirers for his daring political statements and deconstructivist approach to cinema, his critics considered his movies to be borderline unwatchable and, with age, increasingly self-referential. The fact remains that Jean-Luc Godard, an influential part of not only French cinema, but also of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, has died. His life, work, and voluntary end will now be judged by the Great Critic in heaven.
David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.