Jean-Luc Godard, Daring Director Who Shaped the French New Wave, Dies at 91

Dave Kehr and Jonathan Kandell write about the trajectory of on Jean-Luc Godard, who died today, for The New York Times: “The Franco-Swiss filmmaker and provocateur radically rethought motion pictures and left a lasting influence on the medium.”

Jean-Luc Godard, the daringly innovative director and provocateur whose unconventional camera work, disjointed narrative style and penchant for radical politics changed the course of filmmaking in the 1960s, leaving a lasting influence on it, died on Tuesday at his home in Rolle, Switzerland. He was 91.

His longtime legal adviser, Patrick Jeanneret, said Mr. Godard died by assisted suicide, having suffered from “multiple disabling pathologies.

“He could not live like you and me, so he decided with a great lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, ‘Now, it’s enough,’” Mr. Jeanneret said in a phone interview. Mr. Godard wanted to die with dignity, Mr. Jeanneret said, and “that was exactly what he did.”

A master of epigrams as well as of movies, Mr. Godard once observed, “A film consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.”

In practice he seldom scrambled the timeline of his films, preferring instead to leap forward through his narratives by means like the elliptical “jump cut,” which he did much to make into a widely accepted tool. But he never tired of taking apart established forms and reassembling them in ways that were invariably fresh, frequently witty, sometimes abstruse but consistently stimulating.

As a young critic in the 1950s, Mr. Godard was one of several iconoclastic writers who helped turn a new publication called Cahiers du Cinéma into a critical force that swept away the old guard of the European art cinema and replaced it with new heroes largely drawn from the ranks of the American commercial cinema — directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

When his first feature-length film as a director, “Breathless” (“À Bout de Souffle”), was released in 1960, Mr. Godard joined several of his Cahiers colleagues in a movement that the French press soon labeled la Nouvelle Vague — the New Wave.

For Mr. Godard, as well as for New Wave friends and associates like François TruffautClaude ChabrolJacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, the “tradition of quality” represented by the established French cinema was an aesthetic dead end. To them it was strangled by literary influences and empty displays of craftsmanship that had to be vanquished to make room for a new cinema, one that sprang from the personality and predilections of the director.

Although “Breathless” was not the first New Wave film (both Mr. Chabrol’s 1958 “Beau Serge” and Mr. Truffaut’s 1959 “400 Blows” preceded it), it became representative of the movement. Mr. Godard unapologetically juxtaposed plot devices and characters inherited from genre films and emotional material dredged up, in almost diarylike form, from the filmmaker’s personal life.

The film tells the story of a small-time Parisian crook (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as he commits muggings to collect enough money to run off to Rome with an American student (Jean Seberg), who seems indifferent to his romancing despite being pregnant by him.

“Breathless” is an artistic hybrid that seemed to capture the discontinuities and conflicts of modern life, half in the artificial public world created by the media and half in the deepest recesses of consciousness. In Mr. Godard’s later, more radical phase, he came to suggest that there was no real distinction between the two realms.

“After ‘Breathless,’ anything artistic appeared possible in the cinema,” the critic Richard Brody wrote in “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.” “The film moved at the speed of the mind and seemed, unlike anything that preceded it, a live recording of one person thinking in real time.

“It was also a great success, a watershed phenomenon. More than any other event of its times, ‘Breathless’ inspired other directors to make films in a new way and sparked young people’s desire to make films. It instantly launched cinema as the primary art form of a new generation.” [. . .]

[1) Jean-Luc Godard in 1964. “I have always confused cinema with life,” he said. “To me life is just part of films.” Credit: Sam Falk. 2) Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg on the set of “Breathless” in 1959. The movie came to represent the French New Wave. Credit: Raymond Cauchetier.]

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