December 3rd would have been Jean Luc Godard’s 92nd birthday. There was a time in my life of artistic fandom where I knew the birthdays of all my favorite directors and actors. Those days were an excuse for overconsumption of their filmography — a sort of cathartic devoutism. It had been years since I performed this ritual for any filmmaker, but this year felt different. Since JLG’s passing a few months ago, my mind has been full of his films, his characters, his scores, his humor.
I didn’t know that I didn’t know how to live until I saw my first Jean Luc Godard film. Everything changed after that point, so much so that his movies would materially affect certain life decisions of mine. At twenty years old, I tried to figure out how to spend the rest of my life, the way one does at twenty — with the utmost gravity. I was majoring in politics and as my senior year of college begrudgingly approached, I clicked in and out of a Fulbright application. Godard forever changed that.
I awoke the day after seeing Le Petit Soldat on 35mm at Film Forum, to a massive 27x40 film poster hanging above my bed. Michel Subor aimed a gun at me whilst clutching Anna Karina. I enrolled in a Master’s in French Studies at NYU and proceeded to spend a year watching Godard’s films and writing about Anna Karina. Until that point, I felt as if the course of my life had been mostly predetermined or influenced in some manner. Parents, teachers, and advisors all pushing me into the traditional paths of life. Stability, job security in a world post 2008 financial crisis, was the MO. What more Godardian than to reject everything you’ve been told, to forge your own path?
Godard’s films were about the sorts of people and conversations happening amongst the youth of France during the 1960s-70s. There was change in the air and Godard knew he had to capture that change. I had never seen cinema like this before, comprised of simple snapshots of a moment in people’s lives. Where was the plot? Why was a plot needed anyways? He blurred the line between reality and narration so much so that he famously didn’t pre-write his scripts until the morning of or even during filming. He was the Hollywood antihero, uninterested in building elaborate film sets and producing box office hits. His films were about the people for the people. Some things made sense, others didn’t, much like life itself.
But Godard didn’t limit himself to the quotidienne or romanticize the lives of his characters. In fact, much of his most celebrated films such as Vivre Sa Vie or Le Mépris end in tragedy. Others like Masculin Féminin or La Chinoise are steeped in political tension. They way Godard dealt with politics was the way the average person dealt with politics. He never strayed too far from capturing the essence of the time.
On the surface, a film like Masculin Féminin appears to be a delightful tale of young love, but in fact it’s about a writer who is tasked with writing about the youth of his period. Lines like, “This film could be called the ‘Children of Marx and Coca Cola’” pair with, “Today in Paris, what do young women dream about?” La Chinoise portrays an intimate portrait of young Marxists protesting the Vietnam War, while simultaneously tiptoeing around their failing romantic relationships. Le Petit Soldat centers around an Algerian War vet (Subor) in an underground antiwar effort who is throw off track by a woman (Karina) who is working for the anti-revolutionary movement. “I love the way she moves her hair and smokes her cigarettes” devolves into a handcuffed kidnapping.
Perhaps what captured me the most about Godard, was his acute ability to explore the inner emotions of his female characters. Many of his films center around the female gaze. Especially in the films that do involve women in traditional roles of wives, Godard dives deep into their struggles, perpetually questioning what it means to exist as a woman in contemporary society. Irrespective of his personal relationships with women, (Karina, Anne Wiazemsky) or maybe as a result of them, he had the gift of crafting female roles that tackled very real emotions we as women feel.
“You look at me with eyes but I look at you with feelings” says Karina to Jean Paul Belmondo in Pierrot le Fou. Everything you need to know about their relationship is captured in that sentence. Karina desires to live remotely in “domestic bliss” with Belmondo, but when faced with that reality, realizes that he doesn’t have the emotional depth she needs from him. Chilling for a seemingly cheery tale overlaid with Charles Trenet’s La Mer. Une Femme est Une Femme, accessorized with musical notes and blue eyeshadow, centers around the domestic troubles of Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy. She wants a child and home; he wants a career and freedom. Only when Brialy realizes their relationship is at risk by the lurking Belmondo, he snaps out of it. And then there is Le Mépris, an epic of utmost proportions. Set against the Capri backdrop, Godard tells the cautionary tale of the subtle actions that can swiftly push a relationship from being intertwined within the bedsheets to fatal contempt.
As a revolutionary filmmaker, he threw away old practices and operated on instinct. He played with colored lighting and ran after the car chase scene in À Bout de Soufle through the streets of Paris. He gave his actors the space to be actors. Or were they always just playing themselves? He made fun of the bourgeoisie and praised the youth, fighting to change the rules. Nothing was off limits for Godard. He continued to make cinema and push boundaries into his 80s, playing with iPhones and 3D cameras. It was his perpetual, persistent curiosity and je m’en fous attitude that made him the filmmaker that changed the definition of filmmaking.
For the past 11 years, I’ve carried the lessons from his films. Ways to live, ways to think, ways to exist. Life isn’t black and white, much of relationships are about the little things. Those moments of watching the way someone combs their hair or folds their sweaters. The moments passed at cafes and cinemas. The things that are said and not said and how they impact the dynamic of our co-existence with the other. To me, that is power of cinema and that forever will be, the power of Godard.
Bonne anniversaire JLG, merci pours les films.