Jean-Luc Godard: Critic as Artist and Vice Versa
Godard’s metatextual film reflects his own cinephilia and completes the full circle of theory to practice. In fact, Breathless peaks in terms of Godard’s panoptic study of cinema.
Jean-Luc Godard is arguably one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, and this isn’t just proven by his extensive and innovative filmography, but the reasons can also be found in his roots of starting as a film critic. As Richard Road (1986, p. 7) noted that Godard was the most significant critic of his time and there was no doubt that he would become one of the most celebrated directors of the art form.
After his foray into feature films, he was famously quoted saying “Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in a novel form, or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them” (Godard, 1986, p. 9). Perhaps, he was as much of a cinema theorist as a cinephile, and as much of a critic as an artist, often blurring the lines between art and art criticism by giving them a singular treatment.
Godard, born in Paris on 3 December 1930, founded La Gazette du cinéma along with Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette in the early 1950s after getting interested in the film culture. He sometimes used the pseudonym Hans Lucas in his critical reviews at this outing. Later on, he wrote several criticisms for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, which formed the genesis of the French New Wave. The critical writings also established Godard as one of cinema’s finest critics.
“Godard was above all a polemical critic. He was unkind, unfair, and unreasonable. And yet one can say that this kind of cavalier criticism, as obscure as it was outrageous, has done more for cinema than all our careful weighing of the evidence, our scruples, above all, our attempted fairness” (Road, 1986, p. 7). When writing one of his early criticisms, Godard noted the effectiveness of cutting a long shot into four different shots, which in itself is a diabolical thought in the 50’s considering the heavy influence of Hollywood films on early French cinema. But when Godard made My Life to Live (1962) and he used the same shot-breaking technique, making it his aesthetic and also making a point. There are several stylistic choices that he made in his career as a filmmaker, that often broke boundaries of the cinema as it was, and that can be traced back to his early body of critical writing.
“Look long enough at his criticism and virtually every departure in Godard’s films will be theoretically justified; study the films with enough scrutiny, and even the most outrageous reviews will start to make sense” (Rosenbaum, 2021). His fierce imagination and wit can be found in his essays such as Montage my Fine Care (Godard, 1986) where he goes into an extensive study of the use of montages in films. He often made references to the Hollywood cinema he liked, primarily Alfred Hitchcock, and he used to draw cinematic parallels with great painters and sculptors, philosophers and thinkers, etc.
He often kept his contemporaries in the same ranks as the greats and didn’t just consider filmmaking as an act of picking up a camera and rolling it. “There are several ways of making films. Like Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson, who make music. Like Sergei Eisenstein who paints. Like Stroheim, who wrote sound novels in the silent era. Like Alain Resnais, who sculpts” (Godard, 1986). Sergei Eisenstein and Alain Resnais, also established and remarkable filmmakers of the French cinema were considered painters and sculptors by Godard and not just filmmakers. He tried to connect the literature with motion pictures and paintings with cinematography. He succeeded by analysing and critiquing a film through a lens of extreme creative realms rather than just consuming it.
“Then, but only then, everything pleases in this displeasing film. Everything rings true in this totally false film. Everything is illuminated in this obscure film. For he who leaps into the void owes no explanations to those who watch” (Godard, 1986). Godard’s use of diptych writing in his early reviews shows a master thinker already at work. This excerpt is how he ended the review of Montparnasse 19 (Les Amants de Montparnasse, 1958), directed by Jacques Becker. He presses to bring out the dichotomy in all art forms. The extreme brevity, the imagination, and the use of oxymorons to talk about a film, and still be able to make sense of it, was Godard’s genius. The use of the diptych device continued in his narrative styles too, more brazenly in his documentary essay film on the Vietnam war, Camera Eye (1967).
“Film and literary criticism in France during the 1950s and 1960s interlocked to such a degree that they became inextricable” (Ostrowska, 2008, p. 8). Such critical writing barely existed in reviews before the 1950s as cinema was still evolving and was in a cold war with literature. But Godard and several others, including François Truffaut, with their stylistic approaches to analysing a frame, pushed cinema closer to where it is today. The bridge between language and image was constructed in the 1950s and the main architects behind it were the visionaries of the French New Wave movement. Nevertheless, various film festivals and literature festivals still discuss the need, the common ground, and the philosophy between the two mediums.
“The Cahiers critics developed a particular style of writing which reflected their literary education” (Ostrowska, 2008, p. 10). Harsh critics of the film form, who happened to be in the favour of literature, thought that this kind of criticism was paradoxical because, in the end, the new wave critics drew most of their terminologies from the literary arts. But this didn’t stop Godard or his contemporaries from reading between the lines of a scene and seeking deeper, more critical meaning out of the moving image. For Godard, all art remained inclusive and cinema acted as the prime medium through which he explored his interactions with himself, the world, the politics, and art itself.
Godard as an artist — after making his first feature film Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) — is like a critic having fun with the art. In his own words, his films are criticism. “Breathless is one and the same as film criticism. Godard’s film criticism and Breathless share a corresponding function in critical expression, regardless of their belonging to two different mediums, literature and film” (Proud, 2014). Breathless, along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1960), acted as the product of rebellious craftsmanship that further resulted in the revolution of world cinema. The challenging narrative techniques, the rugged realism of France, use of incidental lighting, experimental camera shots, etc, weren’t just by chance. But all these aspects of filmmaking surfaced in the critical writings of Godard. Breathless follows the story of a thief, Michel, who is on the run after killing a policeman. He then finds a recluse in the apartment of an American Journalist called Patricia.
Just the premise explains Godard’s relationship with Hollywood as Patricia is the personification of the torment that surfaced in Godard’s earlier critical writings. The film was also heavily influenced by the Hollywood that he liked and the stylistic approaches he preferred rather than what had become a norm.
“Godard’s metatextual film reflects his own cinephilia and completes the full circle of theory to practice. In fact, Breathless peaks in terms of Godard’s panoptic study of cinema” (Proud, 2014). Apart from being genre-inspired, the film is full of references to the films and directors he has admired in a decade-long career as a film critic. “Track forward until she is framed in close-up by the mouth of the barrel. Next shot: they are in a kiss” (Godard, 1986). He wrote this review of Forty Guns (1957) directed by Sam Fuller while being completely enchanted by the film. Three years later, in the directorial debut Breathless, there’s a POV shot that is shown through a barrel of a gun which cuts to a fantastic shot of a couple kissing. Godard’s criticism found a place in his films and his films found a place in other criticisms.
He includes several other references such as Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), directed by Otto Preminger, a film he cherished for a long time and a filmmaker he has revered for the longest. He (Godard, 1960) took Jean Seberg’s character from Bonjour Tristesse (1958), directed by Otto Preminger, and famously said that Patricia is a continuation of that character, which gives Patricia a backstory, but unofficially.
“Imitation is not the erosion of originality; it is the condition of originality. History proves as much. The popular culture of the past half-century has been a self-propelling machine for the production of novelty that turns almost instantly into nostalgia” (Scott, 2016, p. 20). Although Scott here talks about the cinema after Godard’s most busy years, the 1960s to 1970s, it certainly stands true for his films. Godard breathed cinema and its theory, and one of the ways he seeped in nostalgia was by referencing his favourite films in his films.
“Godard is an exceptional figure, of course, but also, for just that reason, an exemplary one. There has perhaps never been a filmmaker so completely and compulsively obsessed with cinema — as a record of history, a tool for thought, a playpen, and a field of battle” (Scott, 2016). Godard’s roots as a film critic gave him more ways to experiment with the camera. His absolute geekiness towards cinema led him to explore the subjectivity in the films. The characters in his film would often break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience in a way to make them aware of the experience of watching a film. If not the monologue, then he would place the camera in a way that the characters directly looked at the audience, almost breaking the line between the secondary character and the audience.
In what is considered to be one of his best works, Pierrot le Fou (1966), he broke the illusion of the film by having one of the characters talk about the audience in a scene. It is a story about an unhappy man in an unhappy marriage; who flees away with his ex-girlfriend. In one of the exterior shots taken from the back of the car, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character turns behind, amidst the conversation, and makes a funny remark at Anna Karina’s character. She asks him who is he talking to? Jean-Paul replies: to the audience (Godard, 1986). Godard critiques the essential nature of film form by breaking the fourth wall. He is evidently giving signs to the audience that the thing they are watching isn’t real, it is made up and fictional.
“Novels and stories that examine, experiment with, or poke fun at the conventions of fiction itself can all be classified as metafiction” (Kennedy, 2017). Metafiction is a form of criticism. It criticises the medium through which art is being explored. Godard loved making films about films and wrote the characters of film directors, producers and actors. Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963) is essentially a film about filmmaking. The story is about a French playwright, Paul, who accepts an offer to write an adapted screenplay of Odyssey (Homer, 1614/1970). Fritz Lang, the German director, plays himself in the film. It follows Paul’s girlfriend’s doubts about his intentions, concluding it with a catastrophic end.
“From the inside, Contempt was about a certain death of a certain type of filmmaking: high budget, conservative motion pictures, a sort of analytical deliberation on the hegemonic Hollywood institution” (Lanzoni, 2015, p. 230). In a way, it was a direct metaphor for the death of the cinema when Paul’s girlfriend and the posh and fancy American film producer, Jeremy, died in a car accident in the end. Godard, almost comically, constructs a scene where interpretation of Homer’s work becomes difficult for the characters who had different native languages. Thus, in a way, it forms the criticism of his previous work, mainly Breathless, and the controversy surrounding the ending. In Breathless’s ending, Michel’s last words give several meanings when interpreted and translated into English.
“Godard was asked to make a short piece on Vietnam as part of an omnibus film called ‘Far From Vietnam’ that was being edited by the great experimental filmmaker Chris Marker. He was unable to actually go there so he used film clips and shot himself looking through a 35mm camera” (Cima, 2013). Godard was obsessed with the genre of metafiction. He didn’t just use films to talk about humanity, politics, and culture, but a lot of his films give an insight into his different personalities, fears, past, and juxtapositions. It is safe to say that Camera Eye (1967) was another of Godard’s brilliant attempts at a self-portrait, while also talking about the Vietnam war, his relationship with the people of France, and his relationship with cinema.
“Godard uses the first- person enunciation for the first time in Camera-Eye, his participation in the collective feature film Loin du Vietnam” (Ibáñez, 2021). He wasn’t allowed to go to Vietnam to film, so he uses this information in the monologue and syncs it with the shots of his previous film La Chinoise (1965), thus making a commentary on his own work in his new work. The self-criticism occurs later in the 11-minute documentary essay film when Godard compares the isolation he feels with the working class of France who doesn’t watch his films and the isolation he has with the Vietnamese people. The critical thought here is clearly the filmmaker’s distance from the subject of the film. The diptych device can also be noticed when Godard makes the comparison between the two experiences and gives it a singularity by making an emotional connection.
“The films of Jean-Luc Godard reflect this very different strain of Marxism, He, too, as a filmmaker, is a vocal proponent of Marxist ideology, but for Godard, that means working against the established ideological framework, rather than within it” (Kiernan, 1990). Soon after his initial success, Godard’s films started becoming more and more political. He would use his own techniques to talk about Marx’s political philosophy.
In Camera Eye, as sophisticated as it was in terms of experimentation, he expressed his thoughts on the Vietnam war. In his other feature-length films, he would burn up cars in an attempt to show his disgust towards the consumer culture. He invited the audience into his fantasy of a world that he thought was true, both politically and philosophically. Talking about Masculin Féminin (1966), Nadav Lapid (2019) wrote, “Godard said the film could have been called “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” which makes it seem very historical”. The film was Godard’s love letter to the youth. Through his characters, he talks about the Vietnam war, Bob Dylan, and the role of counter-culture in the political spectrum, which was on the rise in the 1960s.
“Godard’s Histoires is a grand anomaly and also the apotheosis of a familiar genre, the movie about movies” (Scott, 2016, p. 21). Camera Eye served as one of many successful attempts made by Godard to weave a non-narrative film. But he continued it in a much grander vision with Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988). It was to Godard what Starry Night (Gogh, 1889) was to Van Gogh. Through Histoire(s), Godard was able to paint the history of world cinema, released in eight- part series over ten years.
“It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom” (Scott, 2016, p. 13). In a way, nobody in the film world understood the importance of critical thought more than Godard and several others involved in the French New Wave movement. He, along with his contemporaries, brought a more sophisticated language to understand cinema in ways that could liberate the artist as well as the audience.
When Godard said that his films are criticism, he wasn’t wrong. He masterfully developed the skill of intertwining the language and the image and vice versa. The theoretical knowledge that he acquired by watching, re-watching, and metaphorically living inside a film, makes him one of the few successful critics who had an enormous career as an artist. Jean-Luc Godard has made his mark on the critical reception of cinema and has liberated it from the chains of anti-intellectualism, rigid conventions, and un- imaginative criticism.
À bout de souffle (Breathless). 1960. [film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Les Films Impéria.
Bonjour Tristesse. 1958. [film] Directed by Otto Preminger. United Kingdom: Columbia Pictures. Camera Eye. 1967. [film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Chris Marker.
Cima, A. (2013) ‘Camera Eye: 1967 Film on Vietnam by Jean Luc Godard’, Candlelight Stories. Available at: https://www.candlelightstories.com/2013/03/12/camera-eye-1967-film-on-vietnam-by- jean-luc-godard/
Forty Guns. 1957. [film] Directed by Samuel Fuller. United States: 20th Century Fox. Godard, J. -L., Narboni, J., Milne, T., Roud, R., & Michelson, A. (1986).
Godard on Godard: critical writings by Jean-Luc Godard. Da Capo Press: New York, N. Y. 10013
Gogh, V. (1889) The Starry Night [Oil on canvas]. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Histoire(s) du cinéma. 1988. [film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Gaumont.
Homer, & Rieu, E. V. (1970). The Odyssey. Baltimore, Penguin Books.
Ibáñez, L., 2021. Jean-Luc Godard’s diptychs. Rethinking cinema through the essay film. HAL
Open Science, p.4. Kiernan, M., 1990. Making Films Politically: Marxism in Eisenstein and Godard. Alif: Journal of
Comparative Poetics, 10, p.105. Kennedy, P., (2017) An Introduction to Metafiction. Thoughtco. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/metafiction-2207827
Lanzoni, R. F., (2018). French Cinema: From its beginnings to the present. 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury, p.230.
Lapid, N., 2019. The Body Talk in Masculin féminin. The Criterion Collection, [online] Available at: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6660-the-body-talk-in-masculin-f-minin [Accessed 8 April 2022].
La Chinoise. 1967. [film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Athos Films.
Le Mépris (Contempt). 1963. [film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Cocinor-Marceau.
Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows). 1959. [film] Directed by François Truffaut. France: Cocinor.
Les Amants de Montparnasse (Montparnasse 19). 1958. [film] Directed by Jacques Becker. France: Les Acacias.
Masculin Féminin. 1966. [film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Columbia Films S.A.
Ostrowska, D., 2022. Reading the French New Wave. 1st ed. London: Wallflower Press.
Pierrot le Fou. 1965. [film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC).
Proud, A. (2014). Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: The revelation of filmmaking as cinephilia. Available at: https://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses_hons/121
Rosenbaum, J., 2021. Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard. [Blog] Available at: https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2021/07/theory-and-practice-the-criticism-of-jean-luc-godard [Accessed 9 April 2022].
Scott, A. O., 2016. Better Living Through Criticism. 1st ed. New York: Penguin Press.
Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live). 1962. [film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Panthéon Distribution.
Where the Sidewalk Ends. 1950. [film] Directed by Otto Preminger. United States: 20th Century fox.