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JEAN-LUC GODARD (1930–2022)

Jean-Luc Godard, Paris, October 15, 1998. Photo: Richard Dumas/Agence VU/Redux.

IN HIS FINAL YEARS, Jean-Luc Godard repeatedly pronounced his latest film his last, then made another. He had bidden farewell to cinema countless times throughout his career—famously proclaiming his Week-end the “fin du cinéma” in 1967—even as he fed rumors of new works, including, most recently, films titled Drôles de guerres (Funny Wars) and Scénario (Script), one of them consisting of still images in the manner of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962).

At the end of what was truly his terminal feature, Le livre d’image (The Image Book, 2018), a surging requiem for a world addicted to its own extinction, the director characteristically betrays expectations. The credits suddenly appear, sending bored or bewildered neophytes scurrying for the exits, while Godard’s exegetes sit tight, awaiting the on-screen catalogue of the film’s voluminous literary, musical, and cinematic sources and allusions—a kindness that the director accorded his interpreters in some of his late works, saving these pundits countless hours of detective work. The credits finally end, but the film continues. Godard, his cheroot-cured voice quavering with age, recites over a black screen a quotation from Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975): “And even if nothing would be as we had hoped, it would change nothing of our hopes.” As the conclusion of a film intent on connecting past barbarities with present ones to prove that “time is out of time” and “war is here”—conjoining, for instance, the shattering final sequence of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (1946), in which Nazi soldiers execute Italian partisans and dump their corpses in the Po River, with internet footage of ISIS fighters shoving their victims into a waterway—the statement appears plaintive but oddly sanguine. Though Godard averred in an interview that Weiss’s assertion is “very optimistic and besides it’s what I think,” his recitation tellingly breaks down in an explosive coughing fit on the word “hoped,” as if to obviate any such possibility.

Jean-Luc Godard, Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself), 1980, 35 mm, color, sound, 88 minutes. Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc).

Godard finally arrives at his true finale by appending a lengthy sequence from the movie he once proclaimed the greatest postwar French film, Max Ophüls’s Le plaisir (1952), in which an elderly man who frequents Parisian dance halls in a top hat, tails, and a varnished mask that disguises his age—“like a wax figure from the Musée Grévin,” as Guy de Maupassant describes him in the short story the sequence is derived from—vigorously sways and capers in a crowd of nocturnal celebrants until he collapses on a ballroom floor, seemingly dead. Like the severely cropped detail of a Leonardo painting—an alabaster hand, one finger extended upward as if pointing to heaven—that became Le livre d’image’s signature conceit, this clip greatly truncates the sequence from Ophüls’s film to make it appear that the cavorting gentleman has indeed expired. Rather, in subsequent scenes in Le plaisir, a kindly doctor revives the fallen dancer, takes him home, and discovers from his wife that the former roué has lost his looks and so disguises himself as un beau jeune homme to secure the attention of young women.

 Jean-Luc Godard, Film socialisme, 2010, HD video, color, sound, 102 minutes. Florine (Marine Battaggia).

The finality with which Godard leaves the man for dead, withholding any hint of his ensuing revival, much less the loving divulgences of his forbearing wife, evinces the pessimistic mien of the director’s final vision, despite his own indications to the contrary. When Godard returned to what he called “the beautiful land of narrative” with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself) in 1980 after the ideological rigors of his Maoist period and his hermetic experiment in collective filmmaking with the Dziga Vertov Group, he left another man close to death at the end of the movie—his alter ego, a cigar-smoking director called Paul Godard, deserted by his ex-wife and daughter, who walk away from his prostrate body after he is hit by a car, claiming, “This has nothing to do with us.” Some critics inferred from this harsh finale a death wish, others a mere exhibition of self-pity, given the sour self-portrait that precedes it. (Godard had suffered acute injuries from a motorcycle accident earlier in the decade.) Though Sauve qui peut sometimes succumbs to the director’s banked resentment and nurtured bigotry—an early sequence ranks as the most flagrantly homophobic of his entire career—the film announces an important new phase in Godard’s cinema with its rhapsodic paean to the Swiss countryside. The works that followed, especially Prénom Carmen (First Name Carmen, 1983) and Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), amplified the pastoralism of Sauve qui peut <em>into a kind of ecstatic neo-pantheism, accompanied by a burgeoning sense of the sacred quotidian. The director’s early Protestant upbringing seemed to reemerge as a faith in nature and a veneration of the everyday in this so-called transcendental period, which sought the sublime in sunlight and the sea, the yipping incantations of Meredith Monk and the soaring chords of Beethoven’s late string quartets. Many of Godard’s erstwhile champions, adherents of his canonical works of the 1960s, from À bout de souffle </em>(Breathless, 1960) through Week-end, abandoned him as his films became more recondite and allusive. Among the disenchanted were Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael, and Susan Sontag, with Canby declaring, “The party’s over,” when confronted with the proliferating enigmas of one of the director’s greatest works, Nouvelle vague (New Wave, 1990). It did not help that the top billing of Alain Delon promised a conventional narrative or that every line of dialogue was purportedly lifted from a literary source, including Chandler, Dante, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Shakespeare. Godard, who in his youth had alienated friends and family with his compulsive thieving, turned into a different kind of pilferer, a notorious hoarder of texts, images, music, and film clips, which he deployed in his late works with confounding abandon. For his magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98), Godard scoured his immense video archive to pay homage to his forebears, privileging clips from films by Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, while more or less ignoring Andrei Tarkovsky, whose work Godard had the temerity and intelligence to dislike. With Histoire(s), Godard proved to be the greatest montage artist of all time, his dialectical ability to generate profuse new meanings from the simple juxtaposition of images as intuitive as it was astounding.

Godard had fully transformed into what Edward Said called a “lamenting personality,” increasingly prone to requiems and memorials, threnodies and elegies.

Jean-Luc Godard, Prénom Carmen (First Name Carmen), 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 85 minutes. Claire (Myriem Roussel).

Godard returned to this artisanal mode in Le livre d’image, its very title indicating the modest nature of his personal assemblage. By then, he had fully transformed into what Edward Said called a “lamenting personality,” increasingly prone to requiems and memorials, threnodies and elegies. The personal mourning over his own past in his autobiographical JLG/JLG: autoportrait de décembre (JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December, 1994) gradually intensified into a universal anguish over the state of the world and the horrors of history. “More than ever, we’re faced with the void,” a statement from Notre musique (Our Music, 2004), captures the dire tenor of the last works. When not apocalyptic, invoking nuclear conspiracies and the “mass extinction of species,” Godard’s vision could turn baleful or bitter, even as his imagery strove for maximum beauty and animals turned in delightful cameo appearances: a donkey with a television strapped to its back; a bemused llama muzzled in a gas station; two kittens performing a call-and-response karaoke; Godard’s adorable dog Roxy Miéville romping through a forest.

Jean-Luc Godard, Le livre d&#8217;image (The Image Book), 2018, HD video, color, sound, 84 minutes.

In his late masterpiece Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001), a film that renews Godard’s obsession with the legacy of the Holocaust, the director’s sense of political futility and aesthetic impasse seems akin to a suicide note, given the film’s emphasis on self-annihilation and its closing refrain, repeated four times: “Maybe nothing was said.” (Ironically, Éloge perhaps says too much, its dialogue replete with baffling aphorisms and vatic pronouncements.) Film socialisme (2010) resumed Godard’s concern with the destruction of “poor Europe,” its best sequences filmed on the doomed cruise liner Costa Concordia, whose subsequent accident off the Italian coast fulfilled the intent of Godard’s metaphor, wherein a ship of fools represents a continent drifting toward catastrophe. The 3D Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014), a further farewell to Godard’s old nemesis, the word, predicts that “Russia will never be a part of Europe,” delivering a prophecy the director lived to see confirmed with grim certitude. Éloge de l’amour twice quotes Picasso, one of the few figures of the twentieth century who had an effect on his art as total and revolutionary as Godard had on his: “I do not seek, I find.” Godard did the opposite, his films grasping after forms and ideas—they are what Robert Bresson called essais, attempts, with the unfinished quality that implies. The bleakly beautiful Le livre d’image proved to be Godard’s final essai, concluding with a man dancing to his death, or so the director’s sleight of hand makes it seem. The fatality now appears both an augury and a summoning of his own demise.

James Quandt is a film critic and curator based in Toronto and the editor of monographs on Robert Bresson, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.