His Life to Live

Andrew Hultkrans on Richard Brody's biography of Jean-Luc Godard

Left: Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless, 1960, still from a film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). (Photo: Criterion Collection) Right: The cover of Everything Is Cinema.

IN THE OCTOBER 1950 ISSUE of La Gazette du cinema, a young Jean-Luc Godard, writing pseudonymously, penned a sentence that serves, for biographer Richard Brody, as a skeleton key to the legendary director’s often-inscrutable inner workings: “At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought.” Brody, a film critic and editor at the New Yorker, uses this key throughout his rigorous yet readable biographical study, as dauntingly massive as it is helpfully clarifying, to unlock the intensely personal and political influences that shaped the work of an artist as pivotal to the evolution of his chosen medium as Picasso and Bob Dylan were to theirs. Like Picasso, Godard is an artist of many phases, each with enough revolutionary singularity to have sustained the reputation of any other director; like Dylan, he was a meteoric phenomenon of the 1960s who suffered a motorcycle accident and retreated to domestic isolation in the ’70s, then slowly returned to cultural prominence in the intervening years.

For those who have seen only a fraction of the films, out of order, without any supplementary reading or cultural context, Everything Is Cinema is a revelatory, satisfying feast. What lingers is the realization that Godard, the ultimate auteur, whose oblique cinematic experiments pushed the medium forward and seemed aggressively, at times perversely, sui generis, is far more a receiver and a conductor than a generator—a deeply, often insecurely impressionable man who allowed the women and political currents in his life to inspire and guide his every artistic move.

Godard enjoyed a pampered, upper-class childhood in Switzerland. As a boy, during the war, he listened to Vichy radio and rooted for the Nazi armies from the idyllic sanctuary of a neutral country, all under the influence of his right-wing, anti-Semitic maternal grandfather, Julien Monod. Godard’s higher education was abortive, and his years as a young man found him drifting into and out of Paris, working odd jobs, and occasionally supporting himself by stealing and selling first editions from the literary archive of Paul Valéry, which was in the trust of his mother’s family.

A bohemian autodidact, Godard fell under the sway of Sartre’s writings and obsessively frequented Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque and the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin, founded by Frédéric Froeschel, where he would meet and befriend his future compatriots—Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and others. Several of Godard’s friends during this period, including, to varying degrees, the nascent Cahiers du cinéma crowd, expressed right-wing, occasionally fascist leanings. Brody characterizes this as a “willful association with evil, a punk-like overturning of values,” and indeed, the gang’s “right-wing stunts and sympathies” seem more akin to the staged public outrages of the Situationists or the profusion of swastikas in late-’70s punk London than a serious political program. It also signified a desperation for the attention of the French film industry.

Its reams of critical provocation brought the group renown, but the French New Wave really began with the films. The Cahiers crowd arrived with the premiere of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows at the 1959 Cannes festival, which won Truffaut the award for best direction. Godard’s Breathless (1960), the film for which he is still best remembered, came next and ensured that the New Wave would go down in history. As Brody writes, “If The 400 Blows was the February revolution, Breathless was October.”

A low-budget, unclassifiable palimpsest of a film, Breathless is perhaps the lightest, most romantic piece of entertainment that can also be called a cornerstone of postmodernism. For “the story of a boy who thinks about death and that of a girl who doesn’t,” as Godard put it, the young director mingled high and low references with impunity, creatively legitimized the jump cut, blatantly quoted other films (trashy and sublime) while also invoking high literature and fine art, broke the fourth wall by revealing the filmmaking apparatus, and made virtues of mistakes, all with a vibrant, hectic, jazzlike rhythm. Breathless is also, as Brody maintains, the root code for the working methods of Godard’s entire career, however disparate the various films appear to the moviegoer:

Godard’s obsessive quotation, his past thievery, and his passive reaction to actors and circumstances . . . all appear as part of the same phenomenon: parasitism, literally, feeding on the side, nourishing oneself from another’s product or earnings. . . . Godard as an original creator existed independently not at all. Breathless was . . . a work of existential engagement with the world . . . made by a thinker who did not think but was thought.

Left: Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders, 1964, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 97 minutes. Odile (Anna Karina). (Photo: Criterion Collection) Right: Richard Brody.

While Brody arranges his chapters chronologically by film, the vast remainder of Godard’s multidecade, post-Breathless output can be broken down into four long, partly overlapping periods, each the result of an overwhelming influence, whether personal or political, in the director’s life. The first, stretching from A Woman Is a Woman (1961) to Anticipation, a short commissioned for the compilation film The World’s Oldest Profession (1967), and including many of his justly famous films—My Life to Live (1962), Contempt (1963), Band of Outsiders (1964), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965), and Masculine-Feminine (1966)—is revealed to be a rolling, obsessive commentary on his tempestuous marriage and subsequent breakup with his first wife, the hauntingly beautiful Danish-born actress Anna Karina, who stars in many of the films. The casual Godard viewer may find this unbelievable, given the radical stylistic leaps between the films and their apparently diverse concerns, yet Brody makes a convincing case that Karina’s influence on the director’s heart and mind was all-consuming and that each of these films was, in some way, a letter to his spouse.

Godard’s second phase is inaugurated by the final break with Karina and the concurrent radicalization of left-wing Parisian youth that he had begun to explore in Masculine-Feminine. As a type of idealized Maoism took hold of the student left in France in the wake of China’s 1966 Cultural Revolution, Godard fell in love with one of these students, Anne Wiazemsky, and, soon afterward, befriended a leftist literary critic for Le Monde, Jean-Pierre Gorin. Through his love for Wiazemsky, the influence of Gorin, and the political groundswells in Paris at the time, Godard himself became radicalized, adopting a doctrinaire Maoism that would guide his films for years to come. The best of these are the first two: La Chinoise (1967), a Brechtian pseudo-documentary about the antics of a student Maoist cell whose members discuss and commit acts of terrorism, and Weekend (1967), a savage, Beckettian satire of modern life and consumer society that terminates with a title card reading END OF CINEMA. It was, in many ways, the end of Godard as well: In the wake of the May ’68 uprising that La Chinoise may have helped inspire, Godard retreated from public life, collaborated with Gorin on several rigidly political films, had a terrible motorcycle accident, and generally reduced himself—and his cinema—to zero.

What followed this could be called Godard’s “home movies,” signified by his love-work partnership with filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville and her daughter from a previous union; their domestic isolation first in Grenoble, then in rural Switzerland; Godard’s newfound dedication to the video medium and the home studio; and his increasing tendency toward autobiography. Roughly spanning the films Number Two (1975) through Keep Your Right Up (1987), this period finds Godard creating a new cinematic language through video effects—superimposition, dissolves, freeze-framing (or “decomposition”)—and becoming increasingly interested in classical myths, stories, and pre-republican aristocracies as his leftist disgust with modern urban life takes a culturally conservative turn. Despite the narrow commercial appeal and, at times, frankly disturbing aspects of this series of films, Godard found himself drawn back to the center of French cinematic and public life as the soixante-huitards assumed power in the halls of government.

The phase that brings Godard to the present includes his multivolume Histoire(s) du cinema (1988–98), a highly subjective, strikingly original video series on film history and Godard’s place in it, narrative films of varying degrees of success, and a self-portrait (JLG/JLG [1995]). Its guiding obsessions are the cinema, the Holocaust, and the Jews. After seeing Claude Lanzmann’s much-lauded documentary Shoah in 1985, which reconstructed the events of the Holocaust through present-day testimony, Godard became fixated on the absence of wartime footage from the concentration camps. For Godard, this filmic lacuna signifies nothing less than the death of European cinema—the moment when the spectacular triumphed over the documentary and America began its cultural conquest of the globe.

Godard kneads this theory in different, ambiguous ways. At best, he exhibits a sympathy for the victims of the ultimate horror, a horror that his preferred medium for representing reality hasn’t fully documented. At worst, particularly in the 2004 film Our Music and in public statements from the late ’80s to the present, Godard conflates the postwar victory of the spectacular American cinema over its European counterpart with Israeli repression of the Palestinians and a general plot by the American Jewish “gangsters” who invented Hollywood to take over the world. Brody is fair but unsparing regarding Godard’s anti-Semitism, inculcated during his youth and perhaps merely suppressed during his Maoist period. Nevertheless, it is another wrinkle in Godard’s already maddeningly complex persona.

With Everything Is Cinema, Brody has done both Godard fanatics and budding film students a great service, producing an encyclopedic overview of one of the few directors absolutely indispensable to the medium in which he toils. While it is nearly impossible to imagine the cinema without Godard, his work often seems intimidating and unapproachable to the novice. Brody gives us a clear map that honors its subject’s complexity without sacrificing narrative drive or human insight.