by Peter Tonguette
To all those who counted on him as a fixture on the international film scene, the news that Jean-Luc Godard died on September 13 at the age of ninety-one must have come as a shock.
But it was not half as shocking as the subsequent confirmation that Godard had availed himself of what was termed “assisted dying,” a practice that finds some support in the law in Switzerland, where he spent his last years, and which is known, in less euphemistic terms, as assisted suicide.
Godard’s suicide astonishes us for two reasons: the filmmaker’s own vitality, measured in the remarkable quantity and variety of his work, from Breathless in 1960 through The Image Book, released only four years ago; and the heroic image most of us have been conditioned to accept of filmmakers generally.
If we agree with Francis Ford Coppola’s assertion that the job of director is “one of the last truly dictatorial posts left in a world getting more and more democratic,” it’s obvious enough that directors, like most despots, usually guard their power jealously. By way of example, countless major directors worked until the end of their natural lives, and some—Orson Welles, John Huston, Stanley Kubrick—worked so near the end that they died before their final projects reached the public. These were swashbuckling men who would do almost anything to continue to ply their trade; in his seventies, Robert Altman concealed his heart transplant from financiers, and Alfred Hitchcock, in increasingly poor health towards the end of his life, considered taking up his friend Peter Bogdanovich’s offer to oversee physically demanding location photography on his never-made last film.
For a director to take his own life, then, is at odds with our understanding of a profession that depends upon projections of strength, virility, and a certain self-confidence, perhaps even bluster. Directors ought to surrender to death, we feel, only as reluctantly as they capitulate to cameramen or succumb to studio bosses—in other words: never.
So what of Godard?
In his prime, few directors were more vividly alive than Godard, who was the most perceptive and provocative among the group of critics affiliated with Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, and, with the debut of his first feature, Breathless, seemed certain to become the defining director of the 1960s. That widely hailed masterpiece ostensibly centers on the dilettante French gangster Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his traitorous American lover, Patricia (Jean Seberg), but its vim and vigor comes from its style: the devil-may-care handheld photography, the casual advertisements for Godard’s cinephilia (the film is dedicated to the cheapo Hollywood studio Monogram Pictures), and, above all, the tone of playfully romantic world-weariness.
For a while, Godard was by and large content to make films after the same pattern as Breathless. Contempt (1963), Band of Outsiders (1964), and Alphaville (1965) were arch, entertaining, rather screwy films in which poetic digressions were indulged but basic filmmaking principles —comprehensible scenarios, generally acceptable acting—were nonetheless honored.
Godard—who once said that all directors owed everything to just two men, D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles—always had a keen sense of film history, but it’s less certain whether his movies were actual advances over those of his predecessors: In Breathless, is Jean Seberg’s corn-fed opacity any more compelling than it is in Otto Preminger’s masterly Seberg vehicle Bonjour Tristesse? In Band of Outsiders, is the scene with Anna Karina and her co-stars dancing the “Madison” any cooler than, say, Joan McCracken and company performing “Pass That Peace Pipe” in Good News? Admitting that Godard added much to his templates, in the way of stylistic innovations and intellectual pretensions, we can also say that his “improvements” were often something less than that.
And less still were Godard’s political views, advanced with increasing aggressiveness starting in the late Sixties: The pleasing daydreams of Breathless and Band of Outsiders receded to make room for the rancid radicalism of La Chinoise (1967), in which the primary visual reference point seems to be that famous red book, Quotations from Mao Tse-tung; Weekend (1967), in which a traffic jam has apocalyptic connotations; and Letter to Jane (1972), in which a still photograph of actress Jane Fonda, in her contemptible anti-Vietnam War mode, is mulled over at great length. Anti-Americanism was the coin of the realm among moviemakers in those days, but Godard adopted the currency with more enthusiasm than most.
“If I can make about five good scenes and not the annoy the audience, it’s an awfully good picture,” the great Howard Hawks once said, but Godard—despite his admiration for the maker of His Girl Friday and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—seemed to set out, as he got on in years, to do nothing but annoy the audience. Hail Mary (1985) flirted with blasphemy, while King Lear (1987)—admittedly hilarious for its inclusion of a real phone conversation between the devilish Godard and the uncomprehending studio boss bankrolling him—was indulgent to the point of irrelevancy. Step up if you have seen, sat through, and emerged edified from Notre musique (2004), Film socialisme (2010), or Goodbye to Language (2014). For Godard, radical chic was not a phase but a calling.
Naturally, late-period Godard, with its disordered images, mumbled soundtracks, and muddy thinking, will always hold a certain appeal to the post-adolescent mind. I was twenty when I saw Godard’s most notable mature film, In Praise of Love, in a theater, and at the time, I permitted myself to follow along with whatever I could discern of the premise and to nod in agreement with harshly critical references to Steven Spielberg. Even then, however, I knew that I was suppressing my true preferences: Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence—the last of these released the same year as In Praise of Love—were infinitely more engaging, enlightening, and aesthetically rich than anything Godard had produced in decades.
Godard also compares unfavorably with his own, now-deceased New Wave chums. Who would not prefer Francois Truffaut’s earthy humanism, Claude Chabrol’s invigorating iciness, or Eric Rohmer’s robust piety?
Whatever anguish or suffering Godard endured cannot be doubted and must be pitied, but, after his death, a nameless source with some connections to the filmmaker’s family perhaps let the cat out of the bag in comments made to Liberation: “He was not sick, he was simply exhausted.” Seen this way, Godard’s awful final act is less of a shock than a tragic culmination. Simply put, Godard had become the purveyor of incomprehensible, occasionally offensive mumbo-jumbo that (assuming it reflected his own scrambled, hectic, inaccessible vision of the world) is as exhausting for audiences as it must have been for the filmmaker.
We should have the courage to see that the obscurantism and obstinacy of Godard’s work and the indifference towards life encouraged by euthanasia are symptoms of the same spiritual rot. May he rest in peace.
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