As one of the pioneers of the French New Wave in the 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard has left an indelible mark on the world of cinema and generations of filmmakers who followed him. And so, despite a career spent breaking the rules and challenging convention, the revolutionary filmmaker earned a spot in cinema's pantheon of directors, alongside names like Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Bergman, and Fellini.
But for those same reasons (that Godard made films that rejected traditional narratives and style), his work may not be as familiar to mainstream audiences as to hardcore cinephiles. With the TIFF Bell Lightbox beginning a two-part retrospective on Godard on January 23, however, now's the perfect time to rectify that oversight. So, to help get you prepped to discover (or re-discover) Godard's work, here's a primer on who the French director is and why he's such an influential figure in the film world.
Who is he?
Like many of his contemporaries (including François Truffaut), Godard started out as a film critic, writing for the seminal French film magazine "Cahiers du cinéma." Out of that, the French New Wave was born, and beginning with his 1960 debut "Breathless," Godard became one of the movement's biggest stars, with films that captured the attention of the filmmaking community in Europe and Hollywood even as they challenged many of their long-standing conventions. His most famous period, and the subject of Part One of TIFF's retrospective Godard Forever, is the director's so-called "Golden Age," which spanned from his 1954 short films to 1967's "Weekend" (which famously ended by declaring "Fin de cinema"). But even now at age 83, it's far from the end for Godard; his latest effort "Goodbye to Language," shot in 3D, will be his 39th feature film.
What influenced Godard?
In short? Pretty much everything, from French literature to American B-movies (in particular, film noir), Marxist politics, his fellow New Wave directors, even advertising slogans. Famous for irreverently juxtaposing his pop culture influences with high-minded literary references, Godard was just as likely to name-drop T.S. Eliot as Humphrey Bogart. In "Band of Outsiders," for instance, he mixes the language of 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud with that of American gangster movies. Often layered on top of one another, such references frequently pop up in Godard's dialogue, character names, and images, representing a thoroughly modern break from traditional French cinema at the time.
Who has Godard influenced?
Again, pretty much everything and everyone. "There is cinema before Godard and after Godard," Truffaut once said. So even if you haven't seen any of his films, you've likely felt Godard's influence in the works of the generations of directors he inspired, from Martin Scorsese to Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh. Take the iconic dance scene in "Pulp Fiction" -- that was a direct homage to the Madison dance sequence in "Band of Outsiders" (a film Quentin Tarantino liked so much, he named his production company after it). But Godard's fingerprints go beyond just self-reflexive movie references; modern-day directors like Tarantino owe a huge debt to the director's innovative experiments with narrative and visual style as well.
What are some of his trademarks?
Godard famously said, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." And while many of his films followed that general formula, he would frequently mix a hard-boiled pulp premise with a more sprawling story structure, creating cinematic essays more than traditional narratives. For Godard, breaking the rules was the rule, whether he was playing around with his films' soundtracks or peppering them with intentionally obtrusive editing and characters who break the fourth wall. He frequently worked with his one-time muse (and first wife) Anna Karina, and was endlessly intrigued by the problems of language and consumerism, but his most enduring directorial trademark is likely the jump cut, a violation of classic editing practices that went from being seen as amateurish to becoming a standard technique for modern directors.
Why should you know him?
In 2010, the French filmmaker was given an honourary Oscar for his 50-year career as "one of the seminal modernists in the history of cinema," which ought to be reason enough for anyone who considers themselves an aspiring movie buff looking to expand their horizons. And while his films may seem inaccessible to mainstream audiences at first, you'll be surprised to discover just how much the modern cinematic landscape and some of your favourite filmmakers owe to the influential Frenchman.
Where should you start?
If you're looking to dive into Godard for the first time, I'd recommend concentrating on his "Golden Age," starting with "Breathless," the director's feature debut and still one of his most iconic and enduring, influential movies. This initial phase of Godard's career lasted until 1967's "Weekend," and spanned a number of classic films, from the aforementioned "Band of Outsiders" to "Contempt," which saw the director working with a bigger budget, big movie stars like Brigitte Bardot, and a more personal story. But really, no matter where you start, you're in for a serious film education, not to mention a chance to see what all the fuss is about for yourself.
"Godard Forever" runs from January 23 - February 13 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.