Godard vs. Godard
Jean Luc Godard is arguably the single most important name in the history of film. Former film critic for the legendary Cahiers du Cinema turned director of over 100 films, Godard is the face of French cinema as a whole. His pioneering film, Breathless, kickstarted the French New Wave, which basically paved the way for exciting, independent cinema. His influence cannot be understated and without his revolutionary style, the modern film landscape wouldn’t be what it is today.
Strangely enough, modern audiences seem to harbor a different perspective of Godard. Sure, any self-proclaimed “cinephile” will appreciate the talent and skill on display, but while contemporaries like Varda, Truffaut, Malle, and Varda only get more acclaimed, Godard seems to have fallen a bit to the wayside. While many may proclaim this to be the death of cinema and the continued decay of the mind of the audience, I would disagree.
It took many years, but with the rise of film accessibility and continued exposure of Godard’s peers, I’d argue that technical merits can no longer carry Godard’s catalogue. In my opinion, Godard is a very talented but very flawed artist. It appears he is a director at odds with himself, and this conflict is what makes his movies so difficult to appreciate now. Dare I say Godard’s worst creative enemy is himself.
To properly analyze how Godard functions, you must analyze his style. As I said earlier, Godard is the poster child for the French New Wave, so that style is what dictates his entire filmography. Jump cuts, intertextuality, political undertones, and a dynamic camera make up a decidedly bold and independent cinematic experience. The style is undoubtedly the highlight of Godard’s films, and nobody quite wields the camera like Godard. His style is not only very technically impressive, but very distinctive to him. Watching a Godard film feels very exciting, as its style emulates a very exciting director. Godard’s brazen disdain for monotony results in a style that rejects nearly every pre-conceived notion of movies. Not only was that influential in the time period, but it also still feels shockingly fresh today. In the style of majority of art films, Godard’s style feels like an extension of him, but so does his narrative.
While Godard’s films may possess a flashy exterior, I often find the interior to be appallingly hollow. It’s this hollow interior that seems to be rubbing modern audiences the wrong way, and rightfully so. While it isn’t fair to expect Godard’s films to be complex examinations of human nature like Resnais or Varda, it is fair to expect them to be thoughtful. The Young Girls of Rochefort, Zazie Dans La Metro, Jules and Jim, these movies have very simplistic and accessible themes, but they’re still thoughtful films. What separates a large chunk of Godard’s filmography from the rest of the new wave is a severe lack of thoughtfulness. Godard’s films follow the subjective model of the art film, in a sense that it’s self-reflective, and in turn an extension of the director themselves. This form is synonymous with auteurism and the art film, but while Godard’s films fit the template, they lack something important.
Something beautiful about the art film is how by acting as an extension of the director, the film ends up grappling with universal themes. While The 400 Blows is a semi-autobiographical tale of Truffaut’s childhood, the film feels universal in its themes of childhood recklessness and ambivalence. The Seventh Seal was Bergman’s own grapple with death, but many connect with it anyways. These films are personal but universal, like a therapy session that anybody can attend. Godard lacks that universality; his movies are too attached to his ethos. A Godard movie is often unable to transcend the mind of the creator, and in turn seems more like a diary than a deconstruction.
Godard’s sexual politics, communism, and opinions on art are vehemently his own, and that’s ok (aside from the sexism which is very childish). Incorporating ideologies into art is what makes it art, but it’s what you do with that that separates good art from poor art. Godard is very stubborn, insisting that he’s the only one who’s right. His films reflect this stubbornness. We get one viewpoint, no counter ideologies, no deconstruction, no explanation. As a result, his films don’t feel like art, rather just watching a bad lecture. One theme being blasted on full volume, drowning out any nuance whatsoever. Tout Va Bien, La Chinoise, Masculin Feminin, are films pushing Marxism. Now, a movie pushing an ideology is fine, but these movies aren’t effective in the least. They’re mouthpieces for Godard. Instead of adding any creativity whatsoever, all we get is “This is good, and this is bad! No further questions!” In the landscape of nuanced films, Godard’s come across as very shallow. Only existing so Godard can tell you what you must think, rather than invite thoughtful discussion. The same goes for his movies Le Mepris, Breathless, and Alphaville, empty asides from Godard’s ego.
This also extends to characters. Characters don’t act as characters, they’re just pieces for Godard to push his ideology. If you took any female character in a Godard movie and did a one page, write up for each, every write up would look the same, and it wouldn’t be pretty. Godard isn’t a filmmaker who grows or metamorphosizes, he has a set template and refuses to move out of it. There’s nothing of value, just Godard’s uniform caricatures of people around him. As a result, there’s no emotional attachment whatsoever. The only person who can really connect fully is Godard since he only writes for himself and his very limited perspective. We get a story to service only Godard populated by characters who only serve Godard, so how are we the audience meant to connect?
Godard is a filmmaker who I believe is worth a visit, but no longer deserves a spot as one of the best. His two best movies, Une Femme est Une Femme and Peirrot Le Fou, are phenomenal explosions of creativity, but outside of that I didn’t find much. His influence cannot be understated, but his childish storytelling and egotistical writing holds his works back from masterpiece status. His vapid writing used to take a backseat since his filmmaking was so bold, but with a little perspective, it’s hard to label something a masterpiece based on technique alone. His brilliant mind for filmmaking clashes with his ego. His incapability to analyze himself and his thoughts creates poor structured films that are visually and technically stunning. Basically, Godard the director is a genius who’s one of the most influential voices in cinema, while Godard the writer is stubborn and egotistical who writes like an amateur. Godard is polarizing, and while some will defend him until their last breath, some will despise his every creative decision. All I can really say is try him out yourself, because like him or not, there really isn’t anyone else like him.