French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard dies aged 91

Updated September 13, 2022 6:34 PM ET

Influential critic and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard died peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on the shores of Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement.

The family statement says Godard, 91, suffered from multiple illnesses and died of an assisted suicide.

A leader of the French New Wave

The director and former “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave helped revolutionize popular cinema in the 1960s and spent the rest of his career pushing boundaries and reinventing the cinematic form.

What greeted audiences in Godard’s feature debut, the 1960 crime drama Breathlesswas shocked by the news.

American actress Jean Seberg was cast opposite a then-unknown Jean Paul Belmondo, a cigarette dangling sexy from his lip. He played a penniless young car thief who models himself on Hollywood movie gangsters. After shooting a policeman, he goes on the run to Italy with Seberg, his pregnant girlfriend who almost seems to lose interest in him.

They were archetypes of Tinseltown, reimagined as the very essence of cool by a director avid Hollywood movies.

As a critic, Godard had defended directors Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, and in Breathless, there is a poster of Humphrey Bogart, to underline what Belmondo wants. But with skipped editing, a fractured narrative, and actors interacting with the camera, the filmmaker has established himself as part of a new wave of storytelling — one filled with experimentation and rejection of accepted technique.

Influence on modern cinema

“He arrives in 1960”, criticizes David Thompson Told NPR’s David D’Arcy, “and said indeed, I’ve seen every movie ever made. I love them, most of them, but I’m giving them up because they’re all outdated. I’m going to do a new kind of film, and I’m going to combine the energy and the novelty of a student’s ideas, with the story forms of old films. And for the past six or seven years, two films a year so we’re talking about a good number of films, he succeeds.”

In pictures like Contempt, with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance, in which he questions commercial cinema; in his science fiction film Alphaville, which places a private detective in a computer-run corporation; and above all in his scathing and satirical denunciation of middle-class materialism, Weekenda black comedy involving murder, cannibalism and an eight-minute traffic jam on a country road, which is among the most famous cinematic moments of the 1960s.

Weekend was created just weeks before student and labor protests shut down much of France in May 1968. Godard, leading a protest that closed the Cannes Film Festival that month, told the crowd that none of the competing films represented their causes.

“We are late,” said this leader of the French New Wave. And at that time, his cinema took a turn. He embarked on a decade of deliberately revolutionary films – low-budget, non-commercial provocations shot in Palestine, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and filled with Marxist fervor. Everything is going wellfor example, with Yves Montand and Jane Fonda in the story of the sausage factory strikers.

The evolution of Godard as a designer

This overt focus on politics was itself a phase, and by the 1980s Godard was looking within and watching the film itself. As his art matured, he was less interested in storytelling and more in experimentation, although he had in fact always experimented.

During a public debate in 1966, he kept questioning cinematic grammar itself, until an exasperated panelist finally sputtered: “Surely you agree that films should have a beginning, a middle and an end.”

“Yes,” concedes Godard, “but not necessarily in that order.”

Godard had come to film in his early 20s, he told NPR.

“My parents spoke to me about literature, other people spoke to me about paintings about music, but no one spoke to me about images.”

So he told the others. He started out as a critic and, in a way, remained one his whole life in public statements with famous quotes: “Everything you need to make a movie”, he once said, ” it’s a girl and a gun.”

But over time, he was happy to do without both girls and guns, and conspiracies. A difficult man in almost every way, he rivaled his contemporaries (an argument with his friend and fellow New Wave director François Truffaut over the day to night in 1973 was not resolved until Truffaut’s death in 1984). And in his later years, he rejected the idea that contemporary Hollywood could ever make serious movies.

If Godard’s own work was serious in his eyes, during his last decades it consisted mainly of what one might call visual “essays” – collages of films and music videos accompanied by sound and commentary. sometimes impenetrable – which found an ever smaller audience. .

But what he achieved in the early 1960s is still there, his innovations so absorbed into the mainstream that he continued to influence filmmakers, some of whom may have barely heard of him, long after that the New Wave has aged.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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