Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, Film Socialisme, is set to premiere in Un Certain Regard at Cannes next month. His first film, the still revolutionary A bout de souffle (Breathless), opened theatrically in Paris on March 16, 1960. A new print just played the inaugural Turner Classics Film festival in Los Angeles and is going to tour the country this spring and summer.Half a century later, we’re still coming to terms with Godard’s meaning, value, tenaciousness and stubbornness. Like Orson Welles, Godard has surrendered a popular audience in order to continuously refine his art. (One year at Cannes, Michael Moore gave a very Republican response to Godard’s criticism of his work, saying essentially because no audience existed for his films he had no right to criticize others.)
No matter how insular or solipsistic that voice becomes, Godard is now, like then, very much a part of the critical discourse. (Jonathan Rosenbaum once said it the best: “I’d rather hear Godard talking to himself than Spielberg speaking to half the planet.”) Besides, the normal parameters and criteria for determining that kind of legitimacy never seemed relevant to Godard.Godard is, astonishingly, on the verge of turning eighty, in December. The excitement, energy and intelligence his current work produces seem very much the product of a younger artist. The recent death of Eric Rohmer leaves only Godard, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol as surviving founders of the French New Wave, or nouvelle vague, the essayists-critics turned filmmakers. (Godard created this beautiful tribute to his friend Rohmer here.)
The nouvelle vague remains the turning point of movie modernism, of contemporary scholarship and of cinephilia—the love and critical reappraisal of Hollywood classicists Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, the deep and abiding appreciation of the maverick outsiders like Ray, Fuller, Aldrich, Boetticher and the insistent defense and affinity with the solitary or loner individual like Welles and Cassavetes.
There was a time, unmistakably, when Godard was a colossus, the most important filmmaker of his era. From March of 1960 to late December of 1967, Godard made an astounding fifteen feature films. He also made at least five shorts preceding Breathless, as well as a series of provocative, fascinating sketch works, as many as six or seven. “Today I’m going to sing the praises of Jean-Luc, who makes films just as I do, except he makes twice as many,” Francois Truffaut marveled in a 1962 essay.