Few names in cinematic history garner as much excitement and critical praise as Jean-Luc Godard. An innovative maverick and intellectual visionary, Godard was a pioneer of the La Nouvelle Vauge, or “New Wave” of the late 1950’s to late 1960’s. At a time when the Hollywood star machine was at it’s apex, Godard’s films were considered a sort of outlaw cinema, undermining all rules on which the traditional Hollywood narrative was perfected.
Born in Paris in 1930, Godard’s interest in film and Marxist philosophy (which would influence much of his work) developed early. In the early 1950’s he began writing for Cashiers Du Cinéma, a French film magazine focusing on theory and criticism, along with future New Wave colleagues François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Godard published many articles denouncing the stagnant state of Hollywood films and directors, claiming their works to be one-dimensional and without any social, political or philosophical importance.
Hollywood was, he claimed, nothing more than an over-milked cash cow, capable of entertaining the masses on a very shallow level. What Godard envisioned for the future of film was to not only entertain the audience, but also make them feel and think on a much deeper level. He desired his audience to not be dazzled by mere spectacle, rather to be pulled into the narrative he presented to them, make them feel the emotions of the complex characters he created, and walk away challenged by his political and philosophical message.
Godard’s filmmaking style is immediately recognizable. His revolutionary use of film techniques, in particular editing, sound, color, lighting and Brechtian Distanciation and the blurred diegesis created high-energy, visually-stunning films unlike anything audiences had ever seen. For Godard, these techniques were not merely means of showing the story, but also telling it. His mastery over each aspect of a film allowed him to speak in silent metaphors and add incredible depth to filmmaking.
Fueled by his love of art and philosophy, Godard also pushed the envelope on audience reception. He believed audiences shouldn’t be mere passive viewers, but have a film-viewing experience filled with total sensory immersion in the story and empathy for each of its characters.
1. À bout de souffle (1960) – Editing
The thought of creating a list focusing on Godard’s innovative film techniques without showcasing Breathless is like having a Catholic mass without communion. Many film critics and theorists have claimed this is not only one of the greatest films of the French New Wave, but its most defining. Daring, exciting and without limits, Breathless changed the rules for what is acceptable in filmmaking.
What Breathless is most commonly known for is Godard’s style of editing, which made the jump cut popular and acceptable. Films at this time were expected to follow a smooth digression of editing, with every cut following a very “logical” pattern. Godard completely did away with this generic formula for storytelling, and instead relied on unexpected, quick jumps in editing.
Only minutes into the film do we see the first jump cuts. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a petty crook who views himself a master criminal. In the first scene, we witness him steal a car from the streets of Paris in broad daylight, and escape with it into the countryside. He in no way tries to make himself inconspicuous and rushes through the narrow country road at top speed.
Godard makes use of the jump cut when Michel passes numerous cars on the road. We’re given a POV shot from Michel’s view on the street, quickly passing car after car. Here Godard is showing the same action over and over again, without fluidity or polish. It’s a disjointed chaos we’re thrown into. The mastery of Godard’s precise cutting not only gives the audience a thrill, but also explicates the character of Michel. He isn’t the mastermind he thinks he is. He isn’t smooth or cautious. He’s reckless and will undoubtedly be arrested before he can reach the heights of crime.
Just a few minutes after, we witness Michel’s mindlessness catch up to him. He’s pulled over by a motorcycle cop for speeding (and possibly car theft). As the police officer begins to apprehend Michel, Michel instinctively pulls out a gun and shoots the cop in the chest, killing him on the spot. Godard shows the death in only four quick shots, and suddenly cuts to Michel sprinting across the countryside. Once again, Godard utilized editing to silently elucidate character. Michel is a man who makes quick, thoughtless decisions, and as our protagonist, we have no idea where he will take us in the story.
Another distinctive feature of Godard’s editing was his abandonment of shot-reverse-shot in scenes of conversation. Instead, Godard preferred to show in the same frame every character who was involved in a discussion, or focus on the face of only one when dialogue became more intimate and focused on that character. For instance, the lengthy dialogue between Patricia and Michel in Patricia’s apartment is carefully edited to keep the audience’s attention on the right character.
Conventional Hollywood films made during the time of The French New Wave would typically focus the camera on whoever was speaking, shifting focus between characters. This is shot-reverse-shot. Godard completely did away with this standard of filming dialogue, and what the audience saw as a result was extraordinary.
When the character who is the subject of conversation is the unbroken focus of the camera, he or she cannot hide. The audience sees his or her initial reactions to the dialogue, typically personal in Godard’s narratives. Without breaking away from the character in question, we are able to see the character in great depth through wordless action and expression.
2. Vivre Sa Vie (1962) – Lighting
In this episodic narrative starring Anna Karina as Nana, a failed actress turned prostitute to pay the rent, Godard utilized dramatic lighting and black and white film to capture the heartache and sadness of this lost young woman. This film was made just a year after his cheerful, Technicolor-drenched comedy A Woman is Woman, also starring Anna Karina as radiant ingénue, Angela.
The stark difference between the two in subject matter, one a visually-dazzling comedy, the other a dark exploration into the life of a woman trying to find her place in this world, is a testament to the depth of Godard’s artistry and Karina’s acting abilities.
What’s especially interesting about this film is how Godard manipulates lighting to show darkness. The illumination or lack of becomes an extension of Nana’s conflicted conscience. In the opening credits, we are introduced to Nana behind the text, her profile veiled by a heavy shadow and low lighting. She sits there in silence, and we can scarcely make out her features or what exactly she is feeling at that moment.
Suddenly, the film cuts to her full face in bright lighting. Nothing can be hidden in this brightness, nothing can be unseen. We see every feature of her pristine face contorted into a deep sadness she conveys simply by looking at us without vocalization. In another cut, she returns to her turned position and shadowy mystique, as if she cannot bare the pain of her past or the shame of her present.
Another powerful use of lighting in the film occurs in a movie theater, where Nana views a film on Joan of Arc. We come in at the end of the film, when Joan learns of the gruesome fate that awaits her as penance for her offenses. We see Nana’s face illuminated by the bright, artificial light of the movie screen, tears streaming down her face and an expression of overwhelming inferiority.
We get the sense that she is projecting her own life onto the screen, desiring to live and die nobly and for a purpose. Nana doesn’t look away or hide from us once, she’s comfortable in the synthetic lighting Godard allows her to rest in.
Minutes later in the film, we see Nana in a completely different setting- being interrogated for theft by the police. Here she is being chastised for her offenses, just as she saw Joan of Arc in the film. However, she realizes her crime is in no way noble, and a criminal sentence would be just. There is no darkness for her to hide in, natural lighting surrounds her. She is so ashamed of herself she can hardly keep her head up for us to see. She tries in vain to hide her face from the audience, and looks guiltier as a result.