Jean-Luc Godard began his career in the 1950s with the inspired idea of bringing French cinema into a new era; in the direction of becoming a higher art form. He was born in Switzerland but grew up in Paris where he developed a major interest in the films of his adopted country. The early years of cinema was dominated by Hollywood, the station of American cinematic culture, and it was inescapable for Godard, as a young impressionable, to be majorly influenced by the films of major Hollywood players such as Douglas Fairbanks, Howard Hawks and John Huston. But at the same time, the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood had amalgamated with a direct European influence as well and Godard’s acknowledgement of this is clear to see in many of his films.
With the the rise of fascism and the onset of World War II in Europe in the late 1930s, many of the great directors, or would-be-great directors, either fled or escaped to Hollywood for work and thus provided a recognisable ‘continental flair’ to the films they came to direct there – the German Fritz Lang (Scarlett Street) and the Hungarian Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) being prime examples. In many cases, the sophistication was too much for American audiences and the films did not do very well – Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach, for example, lost $600,000 at the box office. However, the lasting effects were clearly seen on Hollywood films in the preceding decades. Lang’s simmering and edgy noir, as seen in The Big Heat (established from his early days working in the German expressionist genre), paid huge dividends to the likes of Hitchcock’s late 1950s/early 1960s masterpieces. Actually, I can easily venture to say that the best films from the failing Hollywood studios in the 1950s were either directed by displaced Europeans (Austrian Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.) or else were shot on location in Europe (John Huston’s Beat the Devil).
But back to France. By the time Godard was getting involved in the film industry in the early 1950s, the influence of Hollywood was collapsing and the Golden Age of studio movies were losing profits and lacking any significant finance. The industry looked to Europe for a new audience, as well as ideas. France, or Paris in particular, was the first port of call since it was here that the perceived societal foundation of sophistication and glamour lay – two things that went hand in hand with the doctrine of movie-making. Also, France had been the second-most profitable country in the world for film production in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks to the movies of Renoir, Marcel Carné, Jean Vigo and Julien Duvivier.
With the shackles slowly falling off society and people’s minds after the devastation of World War II, and with political relations between the US and France closely aligned, the film industry there began to open up and share some commonalities with the phenomenon of cinema across the water. The groundbreaking and popular New Wave (known as the Nouvelle Vague) was a result of this, coming as it did in the late 1950s. Andre Bazin’s magazine Cahiers du Cinema sowed the seeds for the Nouvelle Vague by publishing a manifesto that outlined a new approach to film-making that heavily criticised the impact of American cinematic culture on the world. Despite this, it was this very culture that would deeply underlay the films from the Nouvelle Vague’s chief protagonists: Claude Chabrol, Jaques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut and, as I will demonstrate, Jean-Luc Godard.
In the beginning, the New Wave directors worked individually, under severe budgetary constraints and within the conventions of a studio genre that previous French directors had established but as the popularity soared, chiefly due to the global excitement over Godard’s À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) in 1959, the films became more established and better funded. The Wave was defined by a self-referential expression that was friendly with the idea that life, and human existence in particular, was absurd and everyone’s obsession with themselves was equally as absurd. Technically, the films were shot cheaply and improvised on-the-fly, earmarked by several long takes and deliberately amateur-looking tracking shots. They were as far removed from studio films as you could get. Generally unknown and relatively untrained actors with a charm and faux-sophistication were employed, which gave the films an endearing, slightly comical, off-the-cuff style that sat well with the rest of the Wave’s premise. The new aesthetic unearthed in the French Nouvelle Vague allowed it to enter the zeitgeist as a important cultural movement and thus sit alongside Hollywood in terms of popularity and financial success. In many ways, popular cinema in the late 1950s/early 1960s can be simplified as thus: with the Western genre running out of ideas, Hollywood was boring, repetitive and plain, while French films were fresh, clever, innovative and unpredictable.
(I do concede that this comment is a bit unfair, considering that between 1959 and 1965, Hollywood did produce the likes of Touch of Evil, Psycho, The Apartment and Dr. Strangelove but the fact is that the balance was with France and the rest of Europe in terms of creative works of art. This was indeed the period of Fellini, Antonioni, Buñuel, Visconti, Truffaut and Resnias at the height of their powers after all.)
The irony though, was that American culture was still very much at the fore-front of the Nouvelle Vague, specifically referenced to in Godard’s films. Godard spent his youthful life working in Paris and he could not escape the increasing globalisation and commercialisation of the city that had been expedited by the influence of American culture through a succession of World Wars. His films make a ripe attempt at communicating his disdain for this silent global acculturation, while at the same time his obsession with it too. ‘Americaness’ was seen as the future by many European people in the 1950s and Godard set out to deconstruct its apparent value and see exactly if it was a good thing or not. His product appears to be ambiguous.
À Bout de Souffle was ‘dedicated’ to Monogram Pictures, a silent-era Hollywood studio that released low-budget action and adventure films and incorporated novel techniques to get around expending money for a better shot or a top performance from its actors. As Godard did not have the budget to play with, his film is straight out of this way of operating. It was more nuanced however, and more importantly, it had sounds. He utilised hand-held cameras and open sets on the busy, bustling streets of Paris to give his film a natural feel and to capture the life of his characters. Then-unknowns Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, are given little direction to play their characters, instead adapting an improvised approach that focuses more on who they are rather on what they say. There is a remarkable flair and spontaneity to the way in which À Bout develops. It breathes originality, even if it is slightly over-rated, but you can certainly approve of its importance in the history of cinema – this is the point where European and American culture collide (Seberg was deliberately cast as an American to reflect this coming together of cultures).
Godard found success with À Bout de Souffle in 1960 after its worldwide release and thus embarked upon building that success in the following years with a whole host of films – La Petit Soldat (1960), Une femme est une femme (1961), Vivre sa Vie (1962), Les Carabiniers (1963), Le Mepris (1964), Bande à part (1964), Une femme mariée (1964), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965) and Masculin Féminin (1966). These still remained close to the Nouvelle Vague premise but at the same time they moved further away from the low budget and into the mainstream. While the films helped establish the careers of Belmondo, Anna Karina, Michel Subor and Jean-Pierre Léaud (the kid in The 400 Blows), Godard did occasionally call upon major commercial commodities to play roles in his films – Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang himself and of course, Brigitte Bardot and her famous naked bum all starred in Le Mepris (Contempt), while Eddie Constantine played the lead in Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution. Godard was obviously very intrigued by the idea of stardom and examined it quite closely.
While Hollywood had its idols in John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, France established their own pillars of cinema in Jean Gabin, the prince of poetic realism, and in Brigitte Bardot, the ‘sex kitten’ of 1950s romantic comedies*. Godard knowingly borrowed the likes of these stars to make his films more appealing to the public, but there is a difference in the way they are utilised here than they would have been in a typical Hollywood production. Their representation is meant to be ironic and personifies a criticism of American culture.
In À Bout, the character played by Belmondo stares into a movie poster of Bogart and imitates his pose, whispering the words ‘…Bogie…’. Throughout the film, the character wants to play it fast and act cool all the time, just like his Hollywood idols in Bogart or James Dean. In Belmondo’s mind, he is in a movie and he acts his life out as if everything is a scene set up by a director. His downfall as a result of this is the film’s tragedy and it transposes Godard’s mindfulness that this is a major problem with modern culture. Le Mepris similarly deals with the faults of modern culture by casting its eye over the impossible relationship between artistic expression and commercial exploitation. Masculin Feminin innocently questions the concept of love in the modern world and Vivre sa Vie inhabits a supposedly murky world of prostitution and violence and asks if this is acceptable or not. However, when watching a Godard film, it is impossible to ignore the playfulness and lack of serious intent in which he approaches the underlying material. His approach is often arrogant and casual and sometimes you find yourself asking whether we should be laughing or nodding in disapproval (and not in a Farrelly Brothers movie way!).
More significant here is Godard’s portrayal of women. The glare of his camera is rarely focused on anything other than the female form. But while the rendering of up-close shots of female stars’ faces became the norm in Hollywood movies in the first half of the 20th century, the French Nouvelle Vague had set out to peer a little closer into the conscience of the female star. Truffaut was a better master than most at this (the character of Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim is a fascinating character for example) but unfortunately Godard had severe troubles when dealing with the subject. You could argue that Godard’s glare did not peer closer at women but rather it reverted backwards to expose more views of the naked body and leave the conscience locked up!
Lets be frank, the success of the Nouvelle Vague had everything to do with one thing…that thing being sex. Whatever way you catogorise the films of the movement, you cannot avoid the deep sexual undertones in the material. A short few minutes into in Le Mepris, for example, and we have a shot of Bardot laying fully naked on a bed. All of Godard’s films mentioned above lingers on the idea of female beauty for large parts, while Truffaut’s work from the time was no different, intermingling aspects of love with burgeoning sexual desires.
Godard worked under the philosophy that ‘to make a movie, all you needed was a girl and a gun’. Both of these ‘objects’ had long been seen to represent sexual freedom (mostly for men) in movies, particularly in Hollywood noir films from the 1930s/1940s, made under the restrictive Motion Picture Production or Hays Code. By the time the 1950s had ended, the Nouvelle Vague had introduced a whole new way of representing sex on screen and this was probably its most important contribution to the history of cinema.
Godard employed the Norwegian actress Anna Karina in many of his films post-À Bout, mainly, it would appear, to embody that very sexual freedom and desire. Unquestionably a beautiful presence in all of his films, she came to be the prominent feature in the greatest period of Godard’s work. Indeed, she was ‘his own’ ingénue during that period, having become his lover after he had snapped her up during her tenure as a model for television commercials. His plan for female representation in his films was very much controlled and deliberate it must be said and Karina was not the only actress to be subjected to his philosophy of a woman’s image being crucial to the success of a movie. In his films, Godard always attempted to add a flavour of ‘Frenchness’ to the ‘Americaness’ he had grown up with when watching movies. For example, with Jean Seberg, an American, in À Bout he has her dressed in a non-American way – short hair, striped jumper, cigarette as accessory, looking very avant-garde, ‘je ne sais quoi’ and different.
However, this nuanced approach to femininity on-screen did nothing to address the seriously flawed process of objectification of women in the wider society. In fact it propelled the process into a more difficult place I reckon. You could say that Godard was attempting to take ownership of female sexuality on behalf of his country and continent. Furthermore, you can understand then that this new lease of sexual life that proved so popular in the movie world at the time had prompted Hollywood to take stock and follow suit. From the 1960s onward, Hollywood films become more gratuitously violent and showed an increase in scenes of female nudity. Not that female nudity is bad. Far from it! It is, however, the disturbing intermingling of violence and female objectification that has happened way too often in films directed exclusively for entertainment ever since that period that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Godard, along with countless other male directors, I believe has a lot to answer for in that regard.
So in conclusion, Godard might have been too cool for school but even as he pursued a sense of newness to present to the world at large, he was caught, like everyone else at the time, in a paradigm where nationalism and the idea of cultural identity was evolving and an attempt to incorporate traditional values with sexual mores and freedoms was seeping in. Countries in Europe were pulling themselves out of the post-war debris with the helping hand of a gregarious giant in the form of the US (who themselves were a little perplexed by the new world order too). France was establishing themselves as the drivers behind a new cultural endevour, which would sit on a par with the so-called superpower that functioned in the background. Godard, Truffaut et al. produced some memorable works as a result but like with all endevours, there were deep flaws left behind and there were many questions unanswered. In the end, if it is coherence you are looking for in film, it is probably best you move on in time and see what the Germans got up to in the 1970s or even what the likes of Hungarian and Romanian cinema is up to these days. It can be seen as an evolution of what the Nouvelle Vague had begun i.e the cultural relationship of Europe and America.
That or you should build a nuclear shelter and go underground!
*This was the term that magazines gave Bardot at the time. I do not endorse this description of any woman.