A Genius of Film Is Dead

French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard dies at 91
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 13, 2022 6:07 AM CDT
A Genius of Film Is Dead
Jean-Luc Godard is seen during a press conference in Berlin, June 27, 1966.   (AP Photo/Edwin Reichert, File)

(Newser) – Jean-Luc Godard, the ingenious "enfant terrible" of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his debut feature Breathless and stood for years as one of the world's most vital and provocative directors, has died, French media reported, per the AP. He was 91. Godard defied convention over a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic. He rewrote rules for camera, sound, and narrative. His films propelled Jean-Paul Belmondo to stardom and his controversial modern nativity play "Hail Mary" grabbed headlines when Pope John Paul II denounced it in 1985. But Godard also made a string of films, often politically charged and experimental, which pleased few outside a small circle of fans and frustrated many critics through their purported overblown intellectualism.

Born into a wealthy French-Swiss family on Dec. 3, 1930 in Paris, Godard grew up in Nyon, Switzerland, studied ethnology at the Sorbonne in France's capital, where he was increasingly drawn to the cultural scene that flourished in the Latin Quarter "cine-club" after World War II. He became friends with future big-name directors Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer and in 1950 founded the shortlived Gazette du Cinema. By 1952 he had begun writing for the prestigious movie magazine Cahiers du Cinema. After working on two films by Rivette and Rohmer in 1951, Godard tried to direct his first movie while traveling through North and South America with his father, but never finished it.

Back in Europe, he took a job in Switzerland as a construction worker on a dam project. He used the pay to finance his first complete film, the 1954 Operation Concrete, a 20-minute documentary about the building of the dam. His first feature, All Boys Are Called Patrick, was released in 1959. His first big success was Breathless, released in March 1960 and based on a story by Truffaut. Like Truffaut's The 400 Blows, released in 1959, Godard's film set the new tone for French movie aesthetics. Godard rejected conventional narrative style and instead used frequent jump-cuts that mingled philosophical discussions with action scenes. He spiced it all up with references to Hollywood gangster movies, and nods to literature and visual art.

His work turned more starkly political by the late 1960s. In Week End, his characters lampoon the hypocrisy of bourgeois society even as they demonstrate the comic futility of violent class war. It came out a year before popular anger at the establishment shook France, culminating in the iconic but short-lived student unrests of May 1968. Godard harbored a life-long sympathy for various forms of socialism depicted in films ranging from the early 1970s to early 1990s. In December 2007 he was honored by the European Film Academy with a lifetime achievement award. He also received an honorary Oscar in November 2010 alongside film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, director-producer Francis Ford Coppola, and actor Eli Wallach. (Read more filmmaker stories.)

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