For American Filmmakers, Godard Is Not Dead

Richard Brody must be Jean-Luc Godard’s biggest fan in the United States. The Francophile film critic and New Yorker writer has published a number of articles about his work, as well as a landmark biography, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. Four months after the passing of the French-Swiss director, we asked him about Godard’s 70-year career, his enduring popularity in America, and the time the two met in Switzerland.
Jean-Luc Godard, 2001. © Christophe d’Yvoire/Sygma/Getty Images

France-Amérique: When Jean-Luc Godard passed away in September 2022, you hailed his work as “the most crucial in the modern cinema – past, present, and, yes, future.” Why do you think Godard holds such a position?

Richard Brody: From the start of his career, Godard was reconceiving the cinema – challenging its conventions, questioning its techniques, innovating at the level of the image, the soundtrack, the very nature of performance, of the viewer’s psychological relationship to the movie – all the while telling immediately dramatic stories and satisfying the emotional demands of popular movies. What’s more, he did this not as arm’s-length experimentation but from a personal sense of urgency, a need to see, and, even more, a need to personalize the very stuff of cinema, because he personally identified his consciousness, himself, with the cinema. That identification of his artistic efforts and the ongoing history of the cinema led to a mythology of himself, as a public persona, who was something like the cinema’s embodiment and its martyr – as his credit in Band of Outsiders reads, “Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard.” No filmmaker has so comprehensively revised the very concept of filmmaking, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, over such a long period of time and in so many dimensions – or has so manifestly symbolized the art.

What was your introduction to Godard’s filmmaking?

October 1975, first year of college: A new friend who was also a precocious cinephile – which I wasn’t, I just went to movies on Saturday nights, socially – told me, “There’s a movie playing tonight at the college film society and I think you’d like it.” It was Breathless; I went in the company of three other friends, who witnessed something like my molecular transformation. I knew immediately, upon seeing the film, that the rest of my life would have something to do with movies. The film felt like a combination of the two arts that I was most passionate about at the time, jazz and philosophy. It also felt like a single artist addressing the viewer, addressing me, personally and directly, as in a novel or an essay.

Were you influenced by Godard’s writings as well?

Not long thereafter, as I was passing through Manhattan, I stopped at a bookstore – a great one, the Coliseum, on 57th Street, long gone – to look for a book about Godard. I found one called Godard on Godard and figured it was just what I needed. Imagine my surprise at discovering that it wasn’t an autobiography, but was mostly film criticism. I was captivated by his voice, his style, and his ideas from the very outset, the combination of conversational journalistic flair, far-reaching theoretical analyses, and passionate enthusiasms and dislikes. He talked about movies I’d never heard of, filmmakers whose names were unfamiliar to me, and, above all, about a category of films I was utterly indifferent to, even dismissive of – classic, or, as they seemed to me, “old” Hollywood movies. I took the book as a guide. I started watching the movies he discussed, and his writings opened the door to what I later learned was a premise of the enduring significance of Cahiers du Cinéma: the recognition that some directors working in Hollywood were artists of the same caliber as any others, anywhere.

Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Seberg, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and cinematographer Raoul Coutard on the set of Breathless, 1960. © Raymond Cauchetier
Chantal Goya and cinematographer Willy Kurant on the set of Masculine Feminine, 1965. © Philippe Le Tellier/Getty Images

Which of his films is your favorite?

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I saw Masculine Feminine about 25 or 30 times. It was a vision of a romantic and political and artistic young man of his time out of step with his time. It felt like a reconstruction, like a new way to do movies both personally and imaginatively, with a technique that appeared crafted for first-person reflection along with the documentary-based observational ardor for visually grasping the world around oneself, the life of the city. But in terms of astonished delight from beginning to end at the work of an artist at the height of power, imagination, insight, and audacity, I’d say King Lear.

How do you explain the enduring popularity of the French New Wave in the United States?

The reasons are many, and at times even contradictory. First, the New Wave is a personal cinema, formed around the idea that the filmmaker is an artist; it emphasizes individual creation and thus poses a counterweight to the industry-centrism of Hollywood. Second, it’s a youth cinema – it was expressly conceived as such, by a group of twentysomethings who were inspired by Orson Welles to make their first films by the age of 25 and who intended to do so independently, without the long professional apprenticeship that the official French film industry demanded, and to do so personally, in order to reflect the concerns and the passions of youth. Third, because of their discovery of the artistry of Hollywood filmmakers and transformations of Hollywood genres, the New Wave offered aspiring American filmmakers a model for ways to be in the industry yet with a conspicuous personal touch.

You recently wrote that Godard was “cinema’s north star.” What impact did he have on young American filmmakers?

Much of Godard’s influence has become common coin in the modern American cinema – the disruption of the narrative fabric (by way of editing, effects, direct address, etc. without disrupting viewers’ engagement), the graft of documentary into fiction, intertextuality (homages, quotes, references, allusions), self-awareness about the history of cinema – so much so that few feel the need to imitate him, and they’re better off, because he is inimitable. The freedom with which Godard has worked is both an inspiration and a challenge, and few have lived up to it, because originality can’t be willed into being and isn’t achieved through imitation – as many filmmakers have discovered, to their dismay. His spirit endures above all in defiantly urging filmmakers to follow their own ideas – not his.

Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, his future wife, on the set of A Woman Is a Woman, 1960. © Raymond Cauchetier
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Pierrot le Fou, 1965.

What can you tell us about Godard’s travels in the U.S.?

He traveled frequently to the United States in the 1960s to accompany releases, to pursue contacts for production, to introduce his films at the New York Film Festival, and even to make a film – which he shot but didn’t complete. Then, in the late 1970s, he spent much time in California, because he was working with Francis Ford Coppola on a film, The Story, that didn’t get made. In 1992, I saw him speak and take questions at a screening at MoMA as part of a retrospective, but he quickly dropped off the map here, and when, in 2000, I headed to his home in Rolle to interview Godard, people I knew were surprised: They thought he had died! On the other hand, the most interesting visit of his is one that didn’t take place, in 2011. It was announced, in August 2010, that he’d won an honorary lifetime-achievement Oscar but, as per the Academy’s recently-decreed policy, the award wasn’t going to be bestowed as part of the main Oscars ceremony but in a rump event, the so-called Governors Awards ceremony, which, of course, he didn’t attend. If the award were given at the ceremony and he’d get to make a speech to Hollywood’s luminaries in person and on live around-the-world TV like all the other winners, I’d bet that wild horses couldn’t have kept him away.

How would you define Godard’s relationship to America?

He had the relationship of a resident of an occupied country toward the occupier. I think that his benign, even admiring attitude toward the United States – thanks to the Hollywood filmmakers whose films he loved – shifted because of the Vietnam War, which struck him as an outrage. His attitude toward Hollywood shifted, too, as a result of his shifting ideas about movies – his sense that Hollywood methods and styles were no longer current or fruitful, even as Hollywood dominated world cinema even more strongly than in his youth.

You mentioned that you once met Godard at his house in Switzerland. What are your memories of this encounter?

The prime recollection is of generosity and humor. After a three-hour formal interview, Godard showed me some videos of his that hadn’t yet been shown publicly – notably, The Old Place, commissioned by MoMA – and, as we stood around in his studio talking about them afterwards, he invited me to dinner, and suggested his usual haunt, namely, the restaurant connected to the hotel where I was staying. At that dinner, he was lively and funny, talking seriously about the reason why some classic Hollywood directors managed to make films well into their later years and others didn’t (the ones who did, he said, were also the producers of their own films), talking about the virtues of Hitchcock (who’d have known, he said, how to make viewers remember the shirt of the man at a nearby table), speaking critically about Schindler’s List

Finally, are there any French films that you have recently seen and would like to recommend to our readers?

Oh, yes, starting with Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade, Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, and three terrific ones that haven’t been released in the United States yet: Alice Diop’s Saint Omer [the film has since been set for release in U.S. theaters on January 13, 2023], Axelle Ropert’s Petite Solange, and Jean-Pascal Zadi and John Wax’s Tout simplement noir. Film distributors, à bon entendeur!

Interview published in the December 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.