The legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, one of the fathers of the Nouvelle Vague, died this Tuesday at the age of 91, by means of an assisted suicide, at his home in the small town of Rolle in Switzerland. “Jean-Luc Godard passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by his loved ones. He will be cremated, ”said the brief statement from the family transmitted to AFP.
The author of classics such as “Breathless” (1960) or “Contempt” (1963) resorted “to legal assistance in Switzerland for a voluntary death, as a result of ‘multiple invalidating pathologies,'” explained Patrick Jeanneret, a counselor at the filmmaker. Godard lived in the last five years of his life secluded in his town on the shores of Lake Geneva. Lover of provocation but jealous of his intimacy, his death was an example of that secrecy.
The announcement of the death should have been made within “two days”, Patrick Jeanneret explained to AFP. But the statement had to be written in a hurry as a result of the leak in the press of the information. The cremation will take place “two days from now, perhaps tomorrow” Wednesday, added the counselor, specifying that “the ashes will remain with his wife,” Anne-Marie Miéville.
“It was like an appearance in the French cinema. (…) Jean-Luc Godard, the most iconoclastic of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, had invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art. We are losing a national treasure,” French President Emmanuel Macron reacted on Twitter.
“JLG”, as he was also known in France, refused honors, which were many in his long career: awards at the main film competitions in the world, and honorary awards from the Academy of the Oscars, the French Academy or the Film Festival. Cannes. He had lived for years in the town of Rolle, on the shores of Lake Leman, in the company of his wife.
He is the author of immortal phrases, such as “cinema does not escape the passing of time. Cinema is the passage of time” and fascinating shots, such as Brigitte Bardot talking naked on the bed. Or Jean-Paul Belmondo walking with Jean Seberg on the Champs Elysées.
Born on December 3, 1930, Godard started out as a film critic for the famous magazine “Cahiers du Cinéma”. When he took up the camera, he already had clear ideas: the classicism that had once again flooded French cinema after the Second World War had to be put an end to.
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“Breathless”, the 1960 film that elevated him, used tracking shots and music in an innovative way. It was his first work and with it he won a prize at the Berlin Festival. But that was just the beginning, along with other young directors like François Truffaut. “Godard is the greatest filmmaker” assured the latter. “He is not the only one who films how he breathes, but he is the one who breathes the best.”
He inspired generations of directors, such as the American Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company “Bande à Part”. But until the death of him “JLG” he always sought provocation and experimentation, without seeking unanimity. He alternated expert films with blockbusters. “The history of cinema turns a page (…). Thank you, Jean-Luc, for the beautiful memories you left us,” actor Alain Delon told AFP. “Jean-Luc Godard is the Picasso of cinema,” added Gilles Jacob, former president of the Cannes Festival.
Starting in the 1980s, secrecy won him over, and his last works, such as the monumental “Historia(s) del cine”, presented in four volumes and a film, were more like collages of images and sounds. He was an artist who managed to cancel a festival (Cannes) to join the riot in the streets (in 1968), which he filmed and then edited without following any advice.
His political commitments left a heavy legacy of misunderstanding, such as his adherence to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which caused millions of deaths in the 1960s. That decade was his most fertile time. He made blockbuster movies like “Fool Pierrot,” but also short three-minute shorts that are propaganda pamphlets.
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An exalted supporter of the Palestinian cause, he made, with Anne-Marie Miéville, “Here and elsewhere” (1976), a documentary in which he compares the Jews with the Nazis, causing scandal. Then he will anger Pope John Paul II with “I greet you, Mary” (1984), in which the Virgin appears nude on screen. Beginning in the 1980s, Godard isolated himself in Switzerland.
Godard thus returned to the landscapes he experienced as a child. He was from a wealthy family, but his parents divorced and he had a difficult adolescence in Lausanne. He ran away as soon as he could to Paris, where he lived as a bohemian before entering the cinema. At the end of his life, in 2018, Cannes awarded him a “special” Palme d’Or that he did not go to collect. As neither did he with other awards. On one occasion he left his epitaph said: “Jean-Luc Godard, on the contrary.”
Among the dozens of films that Jean-Luc Godard (JLG) shot, three entered the history of cinema in a dazzling way, “Breathless”, “Contempt” and “Pierrot the madman”, all of them filmed in the 1960s.
– “Breathless” (1960) –
It is Godard’s first film, shot on a very small budget. The film follows the itinerary of a petty thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who has just stolen a car and killed a policeman. Pursued by law enforcement, he tries to convince his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) to go to Italy.
“A crazy experience: there were no lights, no make-up, no sound (professional)” recalls Jean Seberg years later. “But it was so contrary to the Hollywood way of working that it came off very naturally,” he adds. The film becomes the banner of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) of cinema. And it is quite a declaration of Godard’s principles. A film full of cultural references, with a choppy montage, repetitive music, bars, cars, hotels…
Belmondo and Seberg’s walk down the Champs-Elysées, she a saleswoman for the New York Herald Tribune, he with a cigarette between his lips, is an anthological scene. The film received the Jean-Vigo award in 1960. And Godard won the Silver Bear at the Berlin festival that same year.
– “Contempt” (1963) –
The wife (Brigitte Bardot) of a screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) distances herself from her husband and confesses her contempt for him during the preparations for a film, in which the film director Fritz Lang also participates, playing himself. This is the sixth film by Jean-Luc Godard and his greatest success, largely thanks to the erotic charge of the star of the moment, Brigitte Bardot.
During the filming of “El Desprecio”, “BB” is harassed by the paparazzi. Producers want anything that comes out naked. JLG ends up giving in, in part. He adds to the film a sequence that became another icon in the history of cinema. Bardot, lying on the bed, asks her husband about which part of her anatomy she prefers. “And my ass, do you like my ass?”
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Alberto Moravia, and is set in Casa Malaparte, which the writer Curzio Malaparte had built on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Capri. According to Piccoli, it is a resoundingly autobiographical work. Godard was married at the time to actress Anna Karina. They broke up in 1965.
– “Pierrot the Mad” (1965) –
JLG directs Anna Karina for the sixth time. The New Wave phenomenon is already beginning to decline, and Godard, freer than ever, shoots a film of sparkling colors, a veritable festival of fireworks. Pierrot (Belmondo again) is a man who abandons everything to run away with Marianne (Anna Karina), an old friend who crosses again by chance.
The film is a “road movie” in which arms trafficking, great conversations about love are mixed, all filmed with insolence, mixing wide-angle shots and surreal conversations. The film was banned for those under 18 in France for “intellectual and moral anarchism.” Decades later, directors like Quentin Tarantino or Leos Carax recognized the influence of the film on their work.
Jean-Luc Godard shot 125 films, including feature films and short films, works of fiction and documentaries. Other notable films are “The Little Soldier” (1963), “Living His Life” (1962), “Alphaville” (1965), “Ave Maria” (1984). This last film, a modern vision of the virginity of Mary, caused controversy in countries like Spain, where ultra-Catholic sectors organized protests before the cinemas where it was shown.