It would be a mad rush to try to list the best films by Jean-Luc Godard, who died at the age of ninety-one earlier this week. Godard himself was an enthusiastic lister when he was a working-class critic and, until the end, he was a formidable thrower of value judgments, even with regard to the greats of the cinema. But the opportunity for such a list is false. Just days after his passing, this is not the time for remote reviews but for candid emotion, prompting me to share something like my favorites from his movies, refracted through the touchstone of experience . It was Godard’s films that kind of carried me away, the ones that most often come to mind, on their own. As a prodigious nineteen-year-old critic, Godard said: “In the cinema, we don’t think, we are thought”. In the majestic video series of his last years, “Histoire(s) du Cinéma”, his submission to the power of cinema is rendered as a transfiguring passion, in the religious sense. The films I recommend showing are those by Godard which have thought me most deeply; I didn’t choose them, they chose me.
This list should have been longer. But not all of the Godard films that most strongly imprinted on my limbic system are available for streaming. The one I miss the most is “In Praise of Love”, from 2001, which I saw ten times the week it opened in Paris, and not out of duty, but rather out of constraint. It’s one of the great cinematic love stories, set amid the exploration of political history and film history, involving World War II and the Holocaust and the current politics of poverty and inequality, and it gives rise to some of Godard’s greatest stories. original dramaturgy and the most delightful images. It is also his most advanced and accomplished work with actors and represents something like his own ideal of cinematic performance. The critical failure of this film, which should have put Godard back in the limelight and at the forefront of modern cinema, is a lasting stain on the profession.
Also missing is the video series “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” by Godard, produced between 1989 and 1999. Here, the analysis and laboratory work he carried out with Jean-Pierre Gorin at the end of the sixties and early seventies came to fruition: an approach to stock footage that sets the definitive standard for visual analysis and intellectual autobiography through aesthetic intervention. And there’s “Keep Your Right Up” (1987), a comedy, starring Godard, about cinema, politics and death, which features the only scene, in any film I’ve seen n anywhere by anyone, which inevitably brings tears to my eyes every time I look at it. It’s a scene involving André Malraux’s diary entry, describing how he wrote about a suicide in his novel “Man’s Fate.” In light of Godard’s death by assisted suicide, it is all the more painful.
There are many other things that I do not mention here. Writing about a Godard retrospective in 2013, I recommended “Hail Mary,” Godard’s modern take on the relationship between Mary (who works at a gas station) and Joseph (who drives a taxi), which has resulted in numerous protests, calls for bans, and even violence, on the grounds of its apparent profanity. I was also enthusiastic about “Each for Himself”, an innovative and almost autobiographical vision of a couple of Swiss filmmakers imbued with the spirit of a generation of young actors (Isabelle Huppert, Nathalie Baye and Jacques Dutronc) as well as of the extraordinary presence of Marguerite Duras. I wrote the booklet essay for the Criterion release of “Pierrot le foustarring Anna Karina (who had been married to Godard) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (who rose to fame in Godard’s Breathless), in which Godard adapts a pulp fiction novel into a film noir fractured in color about cinematic ambition and ecstatic romance, political violence and intimate betrayal, commercial culture and high art, love and death. And I wrote, on The New Yorker Website, about “Le Petit Soldat”, Godard’s second feature, starring Karina and Michel Subor, a romantic thriller centered on espionage and the practice of torture during the Algerian war in France, which was purely and simply banned by the French government for three years.
Breathless, which changed my life (permanently and for the better) when I was seventeen, doesn’t need my recommendation. Neither is “Contempt”, which comes as close as possible to transferring Godard’s art to the big-budget areas of Hollywood (with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance under the influence of his direction). My list below also does not include other great famous Godard films, especially those from his blossoming years of stardom in the sixties. Of course, I “recommend” them (“Vivre Sa Vie”, “2 or 3 things I know about her”, “La Chinoise”, “Weekend” and many others); there is no right place to start and no best entry point. But the main finding of my lifelong obsession with Godard’s films is that they have improved – his sense of composition has become more complex, his use of cinematic technology has become more sophisticated, his self-awareness concerning the history of cinema and his own place in it grew more acute. As exciting and contemporary as his films of the sixties, his films of the eighties and beyond realize what he only mentioned earlier: the connection of his work with the great art and the classical culture in which he was. raised.
“A married woman”
One of Godard’s crucial achievements in the sixties was to unite the heights of high culture with the media milieu of Hollywood films, and in 1964’s “A Married Woman” he extends this achievement into a third dimension. Godard was obsessed with Beethoven’s string quartets, and here he unifies Beethoven and genre cinema with the seductive, mind-bending brilliance of modern media, stark graphics and the hectic rhetoric of advertising, in the interest of a subtle reimagining of the very nature of cinema. realism.
The story, which takes place in Paris, is a classic triangle: a woman, her husband, Pierre, and her lover. Still, the story isn’t exactly about real people. Despite the recognizable settings, filming location, and extensive grounding of the action in current affairs and pop culture of the moment, the film is a sociological x-ray—a bodily set of abstractions that flips its characters to dramatize the l atmosphere and the effect of the media culture that informs and even shapes them. The film is both an effervescent collection of joyous, bouncy, commercial- and fashion-centric pop culture and a derisive condemnation of it. Godard adds Beethoven and other elements of high art to stand outside the media immersion of its protagonists and subject it to a rigorous and sad moral analysis. (Godard and Karina, his then-wife, were to divorce at the end of 1964, following her affair with an actor. I didn’t know that until decades after I first saw the film, but that clarifies the hyperbolic energy behind the film. furies.)
The film’s visual and stylistic inventiveness is astounding. The film is implicitly sexually explicit – its sex scenes are visual metaphors, with the actors’ bodies fragmented and their gestures stylized against white or blank backgrounds. Godard features long monologue or interview scenes with various characters, which implants the feel of the documentary into the drama. This part of documentary extends to authentic documents: posters and street billboards, advertising leaflets, magazines and newspapers; a single extended edit, set to a sentimental pop record, fills the screen with jazz from a polyphony of typefaces and illustrations, slogans and puns. Godard includes subtitles for remarks heard in public: a riff on the drama of the 17th century, an extract from a novel by Céline, a script reading of the dialogues of a play by Racine, a segment centered on the trial of Frankfurt of those who served as officials at Auschwitz, and an excerpt from Alain Resnais’ seminal Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog”. This heartbreaking media collage distills both a bitter vision of mass indoctrination and a compassionate vision of freedom. Its exemplary image is that of the titular married woman, rushing from a date but changing taxis en route for fear of being followed by a private detective, while a Beethoven quartet on the soundtrack imparts in its flight a classical greatness.