Believe it or not, Jean-Luc Godard is still alive and today is his eighty-third birthday. For the most part, Godard now exclusively directs shorts and documentaries, but, once upon a time, his films were as robust and deranged as life itself. Fortunately, there are signs of Godard returning to his traditional enfant terrible ways with the upcoming film, Goodbye to Language in, ahem, 3D (something you would expect Godard to turn his nose up at, much like other of his contemporaries). Nonetheless, it will always be his 1960s offerings that ultimately prove 1) He was at his innovative zenith and 2) You shouldn’t fall in love if you want to maintain a modicum of sanity.
Of course, it all began in 1960 with the now classic À bout de souffle (Breathless). Jarring on a visual and emotional level, the world of cinema had never seen anything like it. Emphasizing the use of jump cuts and long bouts of dialogue, Breathless was intended to call attention to the fact that you were watching a movie. His second feature, A Woman Is A Woman (Une femme est une femme) showcased his fondness for exploring the nature of gender politics, a topic especially resonant during the 60s. The film also signaled the beginning of Godard’s glorious partnership with Anna Karina, who, incidentally, married the director in 1961, the year A Woman Is A Woman came out.
The next notable Godard film was 1963’s Le Mépris (Contempt), upping the ante on Godard’s love of all things self-referential and meta. The plot highlights the difficulty of novelist and playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) as he tries to adapt the screenplay for Homer’s The Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself). His struggle with writing the script is magnified by his bombshell of a wife’s (Brigitte Bardot) attraction to the producer of the film, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). Mirroring Godard’s own issues with his wife, Karina, who had a dalliance with famed film distributor Joseph E. Levine, there is something to be said of Godard’s innate ability to use film as catharsis.
With 1964 came arguably Godard’s most iconic movie, Bande à Parte (which Tarantino can attest to being a source of constant inspiration). Once again starring Karina, Band of Outsiders is not your traditional robbery movie, and yet it pioneered the genre in many ways. Exploring the beloved French themes of love triangles and the notion that money is the root of all evil, Band of Outsiders saw Godard reach one of his artistic peaks.
The other three most remarkable Godard movies came in rapid succession from 1965 to 1966. Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou and Masculin Féminin serve as Godard’s holy trinity. Each focuses on a particular brand of disaffection, whether through the lens of sci-fi or a bombastic, dynamite-induced suicide. In 1967, Godard released his last truly avante-garde, eyebrow-raising work, titled simply Week End. A full-fledged attack on bourgeois life, Week End is the only movie in cinema history that features a traffic jam for the majority of the plot.
Godard’s most famous quote is perhaps: “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” If only he had taken this advice more seriously after 1967. But they say with age comes wisdom, so maybe Goodbye to Language will be his sagest film yet.