There could hardly be a more fascinating, or exasperating, film-maker than Jean-Luc Godard. His work, spanning 40 years, has been enormously influential. Yet, though he was once popular, he is now hopeless at the box office. Not that he seems to mind. He’s been two-fingering us for some considerable time.
He has made a huge number of films, so we may as well start at his extraordinary beginning: A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). It reached us like a clap of thunder in 1960, immediately establishing an international reputation for itself and introducing us to a new kind of paradoxical hero who has been copied, usually badly, ever since. “Squealers squeal, burglars burgle, killers kill, lovers love,” he says to his American girlfriend. In other words, what we are determines what we do.
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a killer. He’s just murdered a policeman and goes to Paris to collect enough money to leave the country, trying to persuade his girl (Jean Seberg) to go with him. She, however, is playing at being the American intellectual in Paris and betrays him to the police. That’s the narrative – but Godard is not interested in telling us a story. Instead, he relies on a free-wheeling camera style, rambling conversations, incongruous incidents, jump-cuts and iconic bows to the American cinema he loved and hated.
Michel thinks he’s Bogart; Seberg’s Patricia is like the Seberg of Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse but more phoney. Godard himself mimics the Sam Fuller of Forty Guns at one point. The film is at once playful and deadly serious. Playful because Godard can never resist teasing parody; serious because he was making an earnest statement about deconstructing film forms. Images and sounds create meaning but not in the order they are usually manufactured.
We also learn from the film that you can construct an image of contemporary life not just with location shooting but with a kind of cultural collage of movie posters, art reproductions, magazines and books. This is old hat now. But it was new when Godard first put it on, rendering the film puzzling even to those who admired its liveliness, irony and pawky humour.
The film was romantic too, contrasting the honesty of Michel with the girl’s lack of commitment to anything, even him. “C’est vraiment degueulasse [You really are a little bitch],” are his last words to her as he lies dying in the street from a police bullet. “Qu’est-ce que c’est, degueulasse?” she replies.
After A Bout de Souffle, the fragmentation of narrative became more audacious and the films, though frequently brilliant, like Vivre sa Vie, Alphaville or Pierrot le Fou, less capable of being analysed in a conventional way. They’ve been described as mosaics gone mad. Later still they became more political, more determined to deny art and, with the failure of Marxism, more pessimistic.
Is Godard the great director we once thought? Many of his later films make it difficult to believe he is. But he has spent his life confronting issues central to the future of cinema and, in general, to the world we live in. Besides, A Bout de Souffle and its successors will live longer than most.