“Photography is truth,” Michel Subor’s young draft-dodger announces in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, “And cinema is truth 24 frames per second.” Though that statement is often misattributed to the French filmmaker himself rather than to his character, the sentiment seems to hold true enough for Godard. On the strength of his wide-ranging, by turns playful and socially committed, and equal parts aesthetically and politically revolutionary filmography, one might even say that Godard’s life’s work has been dedicated to elevating the cinema to the esteemed status in which philosophers hold first principles like truth.
That effort to haul the cinema out of its infancy and into a kind of artistic maturity is the subject of TIFF Cinematheque’s newest and fullest retrospective in some time, a two-season programme entitled Godard Forever, which is intended to span the length of the filmmaker’s remarkable, varied career—from the jazz-infused improvisation of Breathless to the Marxist montage of recent work like Film Socialisme. The first half of that retrospective, a fifteen-film programme dedicated to what most consider Godard’s golden age—the period from 1960’s Breathless to 1967’s apocalyptic, decade-capping Weekend—runs this season, highlighting the period in which Godard famously moulded existing genres like Hollywood gangster pictures and musicals into his own unique creations.
Godard is widely heralded as the father of modern cinema and the single filmmaker most responsible for bringing the formal innovation and complexity of modernism into the medium at the time when France’s commercial cinema was full of stodgy historical dramas. In that context, Breathless, the opening salvo of what came to be called the French New Wave, was something of a system shock: a scruffy, low-budget, comic noir filmed on the fly (via a wheelchair subbing as a dolly, as legend has it) and assembled without regard for the storytelling conventions of continuity editing. Rather than hiding the construction of the film, as per tradition, the jump cuts we now associate with Breathless call attention to their abruptness, never letting you forget that you’re watching a film somebody shot, cut, and projected.
While Breathless is still impossibly cool over five decades into its life—perhaps as much because of its leads, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, as of Godard’s devil-may-care aesthetic—the purest and most enjoyable expression of the New Wave sensibility may be found in 1961’s Une femme est une femme. Even more steeped in American culture than its predecessor (after the relative departure of Le Petit Soldat later in 1960), the film, which tells the story of a young woman (Anna Karina) who wants to get pregnant, is refused by her boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy), and turns to his best friend (Belmondo), is a colourful, puckish, widescreen musical with a critical difference. As in Breathless, Godard exposes the mechanics of the film’s production and post-production, emphasizing the glaring artificiality of the immaculately lit sets by triggering any number of lens flares (before Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams ever got around to it), conspicuously alternating between direct sound recorded on set and non-diagetic music layered into the mix, and playing with onscreen text as a way of structuring time.
Une femme est une femme also marks the proper arrival of Godard’s most recognizable star in the period: his then-wife Karina. The film’s portrait of her as a naive shopgirl turned cabaret performer seems in retrospect a loving if somewhat condescending characterization of the actress as much as the character, but Karina would go on to star in a number of Godard’s more substantial films in this period, most prominently in Vivre Sa Vie. Structured as a biography told in twelve tableaux (announced with an intertitle and brief synopsis at the start of each section), the film is an existentialist essay about a young Parisian woman who strives to become an actress before succumbing to money problems and becoming a sex worker, with tragic (and deliberately melodramatic) results. Though Vivre Sa Vie is obviously indebted to the principles of Bertolt Brecht’s theatre of alienation and estrangement, which was all the rage in Europe at the time, Godard’s version of that hyper-stylized form of tragedy is infinitely more accessible, thanks both to his gorgeous on-location shooting of everyday life in Paris and to Karina’s emotionally rich performance.
Though Vivre Sa Vie is more or less a one woman show, Karina also starred in a number of Godard’s ensembles (Bande à part, Alphaville), as well as Pierrot le Fou, perhaps Godard’s finest relationship drama in the period, made late in their marriage. A doomed romance about a cynical novelist (Belmondo) and the babysitter he runs away with (Karina), the film is one of Godard’s boldest aesthetic experiments—mingling musical numbers with violent shootouts, and pushing the vivid colour palette of Une femme est une femme into the realm of comic books and pop art. It’s also one of his angriest, bordering at times on an anarchist polemic, and slagging the American entanglement in Vietnam in ways that anticipate the searing anti-capitalist and anti-American critique of 1967’s Weekend.
Though Weekend is often read as the close of this fruitful period in Godard’s oeuvre—for good reason, given that the final caption cheerfully announces the end not just of the film, but of the cinema itself—and a transition into a more political art, as Pierrot le Fou shows, one doesn’t have to look far to find politics in this early phase. Formal innovator or no, Godard has always been an engaged artist, whether in his more expressly ideological work (La Chinoise, Two or Three Things I Know About Her) or in self-reflexive films like Contempt, a portrait of the disintegrating relationship between a screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) and his wife (Brigitte Bardot) that’s further tested by his decision to sell out his principles to work on a lavish production backed by American money—a production not unlike Contempt itself. What most impresses about this programme, taken as a whole, might be precisely Godard’s fusion of those seemingly contradictory impulses to reinvent the cinema by freeing it from simply recording mundane reality and to stay committed to the material world that comprises everything from bad American advertising to the faces of his cherished actors.
For more information on part one of Godard Forever, visit TIFF’s website.