Jean-Luc Godard shouldn’t be looked at as a filmmaker who also wrote political film theory but the other way around. Godard was a political film theorist first and last and his films, at least in his early period, can be seen as visual demonstrations of his broad-ranging critical thought. Godard’s name is inextricably linked to the Cahiers du Cinema posse and most would argue that he has been the most long-lasting influential member of the Nouvelle Vague.
In one sense, it is self-evident why Godard is so synonymous with this group as he more than anyone encapsulated the spirit of the Nouvelle Vague. In his self-training, he took himself back to cinema’s roots, the silent era, he watched and re-watched the classics, he zoomed in on the tiniest devices and functions of filmmaking and analysed them with meticulous precision and all to break them apart, to reimagine them and, finally, to create films that captured the very essence of filmmaking.
In his early phase, it is evident that Godard’s films come from a place of love, passion and fascination with the medium of cinema itself – and this wonderment and joy was something he had a remarkable talent in passing over to his audience. His trademark was drawing attention to the editing process, first in Le Petit Soldat – the much quoted; “Cinema is truth; twenty four times a second. This trait would become more explicit as he grew in confidence, famously in Vivre sa Vie and Une femme est un femme. In Bande a Parte, one of his most playful films he draws constant attention not only to the devices utilised in creating films but also the genres and influence of classic Hollywood in a French setting. This is Godard at his most creative and innovative, fusing French traditions of comedy and drama with distinctly American slapstick and pulp fiction.
The early phases are characterised by happiness and farce with a slippery undertone of melancholy and tragedy. The overriding sense the viewer comes away with is that the film was a creation of love, and the audience loved him for it.
But of course, his close association with the Nouvelle Vague has its limitations. In fact, by the time he began to make his first feature A Bout de Souffle he had already split from Bazin in an intellectual sense, and by Le Petit Soldat he had gone his own entirely. Of course, then he decided very publicly that cinema was awful, bourgeois shit made by awful, bourgeois shits for an awful, bourgeois shitty audience, which marks the intellectual break between himself and the great cinephiles of the Nouvelle Vague quite clearly.
Godard had a much closer creative relationship with the now obscure socialist-idealist filmmaking collective, the Dziga Vertov group. This period marks what is referred to as his second phase of work. Alain Badiou, fellow French Maoist, has written that when he became part of this group he submerged into the collective, essentially losing what was Godard. This analysis makes sense, and presumably was precisely the point. The Dziga Vertov group’s collective was to scorn on individual authorship which is clearly at odds with the tradition of the auteur. Godard’s films in this period are not so poor that they could have been made by any sanctimonious ass who could point a camera. That said, they are not so good that many could be bothered to wade through all the vented spleen to find a nugget of Godarian brilliance. Correspondingly, his popularly waned in relation to his political engagement.
There is an argument to be made that Godard fell victim to what could be referred to as the curse of the écrivain engagé summarised, both practically and metaphorically, by Jean-Paul Sartre in his manifesto Literature and Existentialism. In this book, Sartre advocates political engagement as the only true purpose of prose, scorning lyricism and poetry and demanding lucid, plain and furious condemnation of social injustice. The pomposity, self-righteous and hideous lack of imagination in Sartre’s manifesto was only surpassed by the literature it inspired. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with French literature knows, as they knew themselves, that writers such as Malraux and Gide were phenomenal talents before they started slabbering on about Communism all the bloody day. They didn’t care, they just wanted to engage. And so it came to pass that the Left Bank group left biographies infinitely more fascinating than their novels. Perhaps Godard is their cinematic heir?
Perhaps in his second phase, this is true, but his third phase does not slot perfectly into this category. His most recent phase of work is characterised by an unusual sense of boredom and fruitless searching for something. Godard rarely watches cinema nowadays, or so he says, and what he does see he hates. Yet, he is unable to create cinema these days that reaches the current darlings, not least cinema that surpasses himself at his peak. A Histoire du Cinema can be interpreted as Godard’s attempt to go back to where he was when he began his career – closely examining the stuff of cinema, hiving it for inspiration in a bid to push beyond what is already there. His early cinema was such a labour of love, that everything that is himself as an artist is contained in them. And he was so successful, that his influence now pervades contemporary cinema. When Godard himself tries to redefine cinema now, he is tasking himself with redefining the parameters of his own artistic individuality. This task is not Herculean but Sisyphean.
The Jean-Luc Godard Essential Blu-Ray Collection is released on 25th January by Studio Canal.