90 Minutes of Silence

The Meaningless Films of Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard is one of France’s most respected – and typical – filmmakers, academic, intellectual and political. So why is he box-office poison around the world?

The classic French ‘art film’ that so many trendy fleapits and state broadcasting channels still play wall-to-wall is the invention of one man. Almost singlehandedly, he created all its conventions from clumsy jump-cut collages to moodily anorexic heroines to brain-ache dialogue composed mostly of non sequiturs. That man is Jean-Luc Godard. What he invented were films that deliberately cut out the audience. As a result, he has got himself a Chevalier of the French National Order of Merit, a César Award (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and a place on Entertainment Weekly’s list of The Greatest Directors Of All Time by (he’s No. 31).

Most ordinary filmgoers will never have heard of Godard or the extraordinarily influential school of film-making, la Nouvelle Vague (the New Wave), that he and like-minded French directors invented in the Sixties. This is because, of his hundred or so films, only one, À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), ever came close to being a popular success (grossing just over $200,000 in its US run; by comparison Psycho, which came out in the same year, made $32,000,000).

In a career spanning nearly fifty years, Godard has become the Yoko Ono of cinema, building a career out of his “anti-image” films. His movies, he pronounces, are “truth twenty-four times per second”. What this means is an extreme kind of naturalistic film-making, formless in terms of story and crude, even amateurish in cinematic technique. What the viewer gets on screen are long, very long, home movies, shot clumsily. Because Godard has a reputation for not using scripts, ordering actors to tear up screenplays and ad-lib on the day of shooting, the films are endlessly talky. Because he is ‘political’ (Godard, like many French intellectuals of his time, has dallied with hardline Maoism), most of the talk is about the political aspects of everything from love to the workings of sausage factories. 

“A film”, he has been quoted as saying, “should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” His Éloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love, 2001) is a good example. The first section deals with an author discussing a forthcoming work on love while the second part, set three years earlier, focuses on an elderly couple discussing a contract to sell their wartime experiences to an American film company. "It is divided into two parts," Anthony Lane, the New Yorker’s film critic, observed. "How they fit together, Godard only knows.”

His visual motif is shaky hand held photography, a signature he originated in À bout de souffle when he placed his cameraman in a wheelchair and pushed him along Paris streets behind Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. "Tracking shots are a question of morality”, he has said. He perfected his style in Week End (1967), the story of a couple driving into the countryside to collect a dead grandparent’s legacy, whose crowning visual is a ten-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam. 

Often, and in fact usually, Godard’s crew gets itself into these shots by mistake. In Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), a searing attack on soulless Hollywood film-makers, the American critic Pauline Kael counted thirteen instances in which camera equipment or operators appear in shot, reflected against mirror or as wall shadows. Godard describes such goofs as illustrating his work’s “essential honesty”.

For all this, stars ranging from Brigitte Bardot to Gerard Depardieu eagerly volunteer to work in his films, not always to critical advantage. Depardieu’s role in Hélas pour moi (Alas for Me, 1993), as a man who find that parts of his body are becoming possessed by God, was written off with the comment ‘Hélas pour nous’ (‘Alas for us’) by the film reviewer of Le Figaro. He is “a teacher, an artist”, remembered famous French actor Yves Montand “and a very angry god all in one”.

Naturally, Godard despised the stars with whom he is ‘forced’ to work. Montand appeared opposite Jane Fonda in Tout va bien (Everything’s OK, 1972), in which a professional couple become radicalised after being trapped overnight in a sausage factory on strike. Godard obviously did not consider ‘Hanoi Jane’ radicalised enough because he then released another film which contains a single shot, a photograph of Fonda with some Vietnamese peasants and nothing else except ninety-seven minutes of Godard and a buddy talking in voice-over abut what a hypocrite she is. The avant-garde feminist film critic, Laura Mulvey, judges that the film is a classic of Godard's ‘always interesting’ misogyny.

This is where Godard’s uniquely French touch comes in. France was the birthplace of conceptual art (of which many date from 1917, when Marcel Duchamp exhibited a ready-made porcelain urinal under the title ‘Fountain’; the ‘piece’, currently housed in Paris’ Pompidou Centre, is now valued at some $3.5 million). Before Godard, many directors could have been called artists of the cinema; Godard was the first conceptual artist of the cinema. In other words, art is whatever the artist calls art, not what the viewer might think. As such, he has become the patron saint of the deadly serious goatee-sprouting, beret-sporting student film-makers everywhere. 

Fair to say, some excellent cinema did come out of France’s Nouvelle Vague. Directors Francis Truffaut (an eventual Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film) and Bernardo Bertolucci, director of the sumptuous Last Emperor (1987), both started off alongside Godard. However, their technical and stylistic skills developed and they soon left their mentor far behind. Godard responded naturally by denouncing them for selling out in every magazine and lecture hall he could find. (Truffaut suggests that working relationships with Godard were never easy. When asked in a press interview what might be a good title for Godard’s biography, he suggested; “Once A Shit, Always A Shit”. Bertoluci obviously felt even more strongly. In his film. 'The Conformist' (1970), an assassin is given the contact details of a target he is supposed to murder. The address and phone number given out onscreen are of Godard’s flat in Paris). 

Godard himself never did sell out because it was rare that people would buy what he was selling. That is not to say he did not try. “I once told Godard that he had something I wanted – freedom”, Hollywood producer Don Siegel once recalled. ‘He said, “You have something I want - money!”’. He snapped up contracts for commercial projects when they were offered. Trendy young execs at French and Italian TV stations have all commissioned his work and then rejected what was turned in. Even the BBC, which will screen just about anything, rejected the ‘anti-image’ film British Sounds (See You At Mao) (1969), as “unbroadcastable”.

Today he is France’s most highly respected and influential film-maker never to trouble the box office. Perhaps that has begun to mean something to him. In a recent visit to New York, he was asked at customs whether he was visiting the country for “business or pleasure”. “Neither”, he replied, becoming at last his own best critic. “I make unsuccessful films.”


À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) 

The Plot: Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a thug modelling himself on Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and shoots a policeman. On the run, he turns to his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), a student and tries to persuade her to run away to Italy. After long discussions, she refuses and causes his tragic end.

The Critics: “What can I say about a French film known as a classic to many without offending them? Quite a lot... but I would prefer to keep it limited. This film has neither a sense of filmic style so as to be art nor a narrative which is just as much owed to the audience who are sat waiting for a plot to appear.” The Guardian

Le Mepris (Contempt, 1960) 

The Plot: In Rome, a mopey screenwriter, depresses his wife (Brigitte Bardot) as he tries to set a film of the Odyssey with a monstrously philistine American producer (Jack Palance).

The Critics: “Portentous without having anything to say, improvisatory without imagination, full of esoteric references without relevance and in group allusions without interest.” John Simon, New York Magazine.

Week End (1967) 

The Plot: A couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) drive into the country, get caught in a traffic jam. Tempers rise, fights break out, motorists fight, riot and descend into cannibalism. 

The Critics: "Godard pushes his Brechtian didactics to the limit, his exhilarating modernism giving him free rein to draw on Freud, Marx, Lewis Carroll and James Bond.” Thomas Delapa, Boulder Weekly film critic and teacher of undergraduate film at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Denver.

Vladimir et Rosa (1970)

The Plot: Godard's free interpretation of the Chicago Eight trial, Judge Hoffman becomes Judge Himmler (who doodles notes on Playboy centrefolds), the Chicago Eight become microcosms of French revolutionary society, and Godard himself plays Lenin, discussing politics and how to show them through the cinema.

The Critics: “What is not untrue is dull; what is not dull is clumsy; what is not clumsy is irrelevant.” Le Monde

For Ever Mozart (1996)

The Plot: A French theatre troupe attempt to put on a play in Sarajevo but are captured and held in a POW camp, and they call for help from their friends and relations in France. Godard seems to be asking how one can make art while atrocities like those in Bosnia are taking place. Includes, somewhat disjointedly, a strong critique of the European Union.

The Critics: “Its stories sometimes seem to form a whole and at other times the links among them are unclear. One gets the impression that in each episode Godard attempts to start a film only to come to the conclusion that it is impossible to continue. It features some of the most beautiful shots of tanks in the cinema.” Louis Schwartz, All Movie Guide

King Lear (1987)

The Plot: After Chernobyl, most of the world’s great works of art have been lost. It is up to people like William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth (Peter Sellars) to restore them. He finds enough odd goings-on at a resort to remind him of all the lines.

The Critics: “Sheer nonsense doodled by the director with someone else’s money.”. Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide


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