Jean-Luc Godard: The New Wave director who always put cinema first

In his latter years, Jean-Luc Godard became more and more like the Prospero of world cinema. The director – who died today aged 91 – lived as a recluse in Rolle in Switzerland with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville and didn’t stay in touch with old colleagues and friends. All his contemporaries from the golden period of the 1960s, when the French New Wave revolutionised world cinema, had pre-deceased him. In truth, he had long ago turned his back on most of them anyway. His work had become increasingly experimental and self-reflexive, veering ever further from the mainstream. It’s debatable how much he means to younger cinemagoers today. Nonetheless, Godard is a monumental figure in cinema history, every bit as influential in his own way as Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin or Sergei Eisenstein.

Godard lived for and through cinema. On a human level, that was a problem. His relationships often foundered because he always put movies first. Collaborators such as his muse and former wife Anna Karina – who starred in one of his greatest early films Vivre Sa Vie (1962) – always said that they got on far better while they were shooting films than when they were off duty, trying actually to live together. He fell out badly with his old brother-in-arms, François Truffaut, who called him “a piece of shit on a pedestal” because of Godard’s appalling treatment of their friends and collaborators. However, in his work, he never compromised. He never worried about popularity either…and he never stopped. Asked once why he made quite so many films, he replied that he was like the “soldiers in the Russian war who kept marching and marching…they knew that if they laid down, they wouldn’t get back up”.

Breathless (1960) is still probably his best-known feature. With its jump cuts, swaggering star Jean-Paul Belmondo, gamine-like female lead Jean Seberg, and reckless, anarchic energy, it was arresting and very stylish. Godard’s one-liners – “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” and “the cinema is truth 24 frames per second” – quickly passed into movie lore.

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