Film studies: Sit down, child, and I'll tell you all about Jean- Luc Godard

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The Independent Culture
If you are 35 or less, even if you've heard of Jean-Luc Godard, you won't appreciate the aura he had in the early 1960s. In those days, you might have overheard teenagers on the Piccadilly Line's packed sway between South Ken and Knightsbridge: "Quite honestly, Reg, it's all a bit Godardian." And the other nodded solemnly, the nail having been hit on the head.

I remember the Vivre sa vie press screening at the l962 London Film Festival. That was the first Godard film I loved straightaway. When Anna Karina danced round the pool table, it was the Hollywood musical rendered as cinema verite; it was Cyd Charisse done by your girlfriend, but with a casualness Cyd never possessed. Perfect, I thought: the first modern film, and the last I ever see - because the screening fell in those two weeks when Cuba was itching to go off. Then it was Dallas in November '63, and then the beginning of Vietnam, so by Pierrot le Fou (1965), you understood the paranoia and the comic-book politics of the film. Godard was his best self in dangerous times.

People got angry over the films you liked then. There was a critical war between Sight & Sound and a new magazine called Movie. The battleground was classic American cinema, and the ecstatic and often crazy sloganising over it in Cahiers du Cinema. So Sight & Sound admired Ingmar Bergman, Andrzej Wajda and Satyajit Ray (the humanist tradition), while Cahiers and Movie raved over Hawks, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Nick Ray, Sam Fuller and so on (the visual-excitement tradition).

Then the tables turned: the voices that had cried out such things as "And the cinema is Nicholas Ray," (Godard, Cahiers, l958), suddenly began to make their own films. They were Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer.

Starting in l959 with Breathless, Godard did Le petit soldat (l960), Une Femme est une femme (l96l), Vivre sa vie (l962), Les Carabiniers (l963), Le Mepris (l963, Bande a Part (l964), Une Femme Mariee (l964), Alphaville (l965), Pierrot le Fou (l965), Masculin Feminine (l966), Made in USA (l966), Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d'Elle (l966). They make a headlong encyclopedia of film past and a bristling Cubist collage of film future. He shot Pierrot in the June and July of l965 - a summer film, going south, into the sun, murder and betrayal - and opened it at Venice at the end of August. There was never a script, just notes on paper and the momentum of being on location. As well as the realisation that it was all over between Godard and his actress, Anna Karina. She stared into his once adoring lens, flooding it with thundery alienation.

I'm stressing Pierrot le Fou because it's one of the best, and because it plays next week in FilmFour's Godard season. It is also an ideal introduction to Godard, for it shows his love of (and mounting suspicion of) American culture and genre movies struggling with the disruptive urge to make new, fragmented forms. So there's a kind of mythic American set-up, in which the guy (Jean- Paul Belmondo) and the baby-sitter (Karina) go on the run, in and out of love, and towards death. But at the same time, Godard the editor or recomposer, is savagely taking classic scenes apart, and leaving something as bright and dangerous as broken glass.

That may sound arduous or pretentious - and Godard was always a sucker for humourless lecture. He did not stroke us (the audience, I mean); he was so wary of being an entertainer. He wanted to teach the history of seeing as a way of showing how warped society had become. Because he knew so much about film, it took a while for his ignorance of life (of women especially) to show through. But in l965, he could not prevent his own eye being ravished by sunlight, colour, movement and the stealthy wistfulness of Karina (his then-wife, and seven times his star). So Pierrot is the end of a romantic's dream. Godard was 35 himself when he made it, but it's actually like the crash of a teenage romance - an 18-year-old Humbert, all words and reflection, trying to keep up with a Lo who prefers action, singing and breathing.

Those films Godard did in the early 1960s may be the last great explosion of vital work in film history. That does not bode well. Still, no one, I think, has surpassed Godard in relating the grace of classic movies to the flux of TV. And no one has since made a love story - full of love for the medium, and for a woman - so piercing.

If all this seems ancient and dry, let me quote David Newman and Robert Benton, young writers in the 1960s. They had a very American script - outlaws on the run, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow - but they wanted it to have that New Wave excitement. They offered it to Truffaut. He passed it on to Godard, who liked it. The writers were delighted: "We had seen and endlessly discussed all his films, which had been coming out at the rate of every other month, it seemed. Each one a revelation, each one a redefinition of the limits of cinema ... " Godard said he'd do their script - in three weeks' time, for next to nothing. That alarmed producers and in the end, Bonnie and Clyde found its "proper", sensible form - it was startling, yet tidy. Godard went back to France and made his own version - Pierrot le Fou - with the frenzy of a painter who must finish before his paint dries.

'Pierrot le Fou': Thursday, FilmFour.