In death, as in life, Jean Luc-Godard remained an unconventional and unbending man. Like the films that he made out of his own convictions, the iconic French filmmaker chose to die on his own terms through 'assisted suicide', something that is allowed under the Swiss laws.
In a way, the manner of his death is a synoptic brief of his life and filmmaking wherein he defied rules, brooked no compromise and was unafraid of criticism about his craft or his lifestyle. Obviously, this can come forth only if someone is supremely gifted, courageous and also an unfettered iconoclast. You could like him or hate him but you never could quite ignore Godard.
Godard exasperated as well as dazzled but what always stood out were his convictions and an unflinching faith in his own abilities and values. Doubt if there are many filmmakers who have been as bold in their personal and political beliefs or have taken as many reckless risks as Godard did to convey what was needed to be communicated to audiences.
It is fortunate that Godard strayed from anthropology to cinema, else the world would have lost one genius of an honest storyteller who cared little for diktats of the commercial cinema.
An Ode to an Iconoclast
The sheer quantity of films Godard created is astounding. But what isn’t is how he deciphered the uncanny within the ordinary. A strong critique of the staged, studio productions, Godard, along with Francois Truffaut, heralded a new wave of film making, “Nouvelle Vague”, which looked for inner dimensions of life and a realistic representation of human behaviour and environment.
So right from his first film “Breathless”, instead of elaborate props, constructed set-ups and controlled lights, he filmed in places to which he had access to, with crew members who were enthusiastic and also willing to work with sparse equipment and remuneration.
One of the Last Survivors of the New Wave Cinema
Late Raoul Coutard, cinematographer of “Breathless”, once recounted that the film “was shot in news style, with a hand-held camera in natural lighting.”
This documentary filmmaking style accentuated fiction as 'heightened reality' and while it may have become a standard practice now, it was Godard who pioneered this style where camera became a physical presence in the unfolding narrative to present a sort of audiences’ point of view.
Godard felt that studios prohibited the very realism that a film sought to achieve and believed “there are no good or bad movies, only good or bad directors”.
One of the few renowned directors who gave free reign to creative suggestions or allowed on-the-spot dialogue improvisations by the actors, his philosophy was to capture real, spontaneous moments. That is why his films feature many arresting close-ups and physical gyration to delineate inner conflicts of characters.
Though trashed by partisans of commercial cinema, Godard continued with his frugal methods and shot “Goodbye to Language”, a film as recent as 2014, on small consumer 3D cameras and a Canon 5D loaned to him by Canon! No wonder, Peter Bradshaw, film critic of The Guardian, termed Jean-Luc Godard as “a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it”.
A Cinematic Genius: A Rebel With A Cause
Every Godard film is a visual treat even if someone may not be particularly enthused by the technique or content like the celebrated Swedish director Ingar Bergman who remarked they were “cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring.” But to many others, his haunting passages touch the inner core like the passing of a train and the flying of the woman’s hair in “Every Man For Himself"(1980) or the drawing of the curtain by the woman while the man lies scrawled across the top of television in "First Name: Carmen" (1983) or the vast scenic landscape wherein a man is furtively watching over the couple from behind a tree "Oh, Woe is Me" made a decade later are few of the many of his delectable scenes of unalloyed joy and cinematic triumph.
Film scholar David Sterritt expounds, Godard’s film creation was effective storytelling within a limited budget but with an eye for the profound. He opines, Godard “did not want people to be absorbed by the story by being in it in a psychological way but wanted people to be thinking about the story in an intellectual way.”
Indian Filmmakers on the Movie Maestro
Renowned Telugu film maker Bongu Narsing Rao, whose first film ‘Rangula Kala’ won national award in 1984, informs that like Anurag Kashyap and many others, he too was greatly influenced by Godard’s jump cuts and off beat filmmaking. But not many are aware that Godard’s jump cuts did not stem from an aesthetic or artistic choice but were implemented on the editing table to shorten the running time of the film! And since jump cuts provided a raw, edgy nerve to the story, it became Godard’s go-to technique in future also.
Personal Is Political in Godard’s Films
Many big-wigs may have lambasted him but Godard was one of the foremost filmmakers whose innovation and daring vision challenged the fundamentals of Hollywood-style filmmaking. More admirably, he stood for humane beliefs and had the guts to resist the popular rhetoric of the times in opposing the Vietnam war and defying outlandish policies that chained liberty and justice.
Few filmmakers have built cinematic edifices with as much sincerity or embedded them with their lifelong beliefs and ethics as Godard had. Despite harsh criticism by the Catholic Church and political groups for his support of Palestinian people as also his Marxist ideology, Godard, till his last breath, remained undeterred in his choice of subjects and treatment.
It is common for filmmakers to label critics as 'disgruntled, failed filmmakers' but it is worth remembering that the French New Wave filmmakers like Godard and Francois Truffaut started out as film reviewers before making their own films which not only broke established norms of filmmaking but even rewrote them.
Probably, their endless discussions and reviews made them create some of the best-known products of French cinema and it can be said that in Godard’s case, his temperament defined the auteur. Even death cannot erase the fact that Godard’s films were borne out of his true love for cinema and have impacted audiences the world over.
(Deepak Mahaan is a documentary filmmaker and an eminent author. A specialist on Cinema and Sports, he has published numerous pieces in prestigious publications in India and abroad. He tweets at @mahaanmahan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)