I wasn’t prepared for Jean-Luc Godard; I doubt that anyone ever was. And now that he’s gone it feels impossible to articulate the enormity of his impact on cinema, an art that he changed more than most. His influence was profound, so much so that even after his work fell out of favor and was reflexively dismissed by the lazy, and even as he himself faded (he died by assisted suicide on Tuesday at age 91), vestiges of this vexing giant, the cool guy with the dark sunglasses and cigar, remained. He was a phantom of cinema long before his death, and he will haunt us.
When we speak of adored artists, we often flash on the first time we encountered their work, a tendency that evokes first love. I was in college when I saw my first Godard film, “Every Man for Himself” (1980), widely considered a return to form. I can’t remember now what I thought of it then. I only remember the sensations that it produced as I reeled from the Bleecker Street Cinema and walked home in a fog, dazed. I thought that I understood movies, but I didn’t understand this one. What I also didn’t understand is that I had just watched another way of making — and seeing — film.
Early on, Hollywood made movies easy for us. It taught us how to understand its sense of time and space, and it turned sights and sounds into stories. It invited us in with a smile and instructed us to enjoy the show, and then come back for more of the same the next week. Godard didn’t make it easy, or not always. He insisted that we come to him, that we navigate the densities of his thought, decipher his epigrams and learn a new language: his. If we couldn’t or wouldn’t, too bad — for us. We were the ones impoverished for not seeing that cinema can be more than laughter and tears, dollars and awards.
That movies can also be more than moneymaking machines, anything other than corporate brands, sounds quaint in the age of Marvel — terribly old-fashioned, naïve. It’s striking and instructive that now when a new movie arrives that genuinely excites people, there may be some chatter about its representations and whether it conforms to established ideas about correct politics and entertainment. Invariably, though, the greatest focus will be on its box office potential and concomitant Oscar chances. Turning movies into commodities is the other way that Hollywood made it easy for us.
It could be so much more, as Godard showed decade after decade. Cinema is art — or can be — and it’s political, as he also insisted. That was clear from the beginning of his movie life first as a critic and then an artist. But there was such joy and youthful romanticism in the earlier work that it was simpler to vibe on its pleasures than contend with its complexities. The reason I fell in love with his 1966 film “Masculin Féminin” when I first saw it wasn’t because he described his characters as “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” — I fell in love because I too was young and it was beautiful and it broke my heart.
In time, I learned how to watch Godard, though in truth, I think he taught me how to watch. An early exposure to avant-garde cinema helped me in this simply because by the time I started digging into Godard’s work, I already knew that movies didn’t necessarily have to be obvious. Sometimes, you needed to puzzle through them; sometimes, you need to get lost. There’s immense pleasure in getting lost in movies, in letting the at times excitingly, bafflingly unfamiliar wash over you, letting the images and sounds sink into your body as your mind tries to comprehend what’s happening.
And, from his first feature, “Breathless” (1960), Godard invited us to open our minds and hearts as he pushed cinema past its industrial parameters, stretching narrative, exploring realism and navigating the space between classicism and modernism. He inserted reams of text in his work, added babbles of voices, stopped and started the flow, inundated the soundtrack with music, flooded the screen with color. As he pushed and pulled, he challenged viewers and occasionally assaulted them. Trying to explain his latest offering — much less write a pithy synopsis of it — became more difficult, one reason, I think, many critics expressed hostility toward him.
He returned the hostility, certainly, both in interviews and in his movies. Over time, he made boring, infuriating, aggressively anti-pleasure polemics, and his language became more insular, private and cryptic. He became a gnostic voice of cinema and a pariah, at least in mainstream circles. He repeatedly insulted the United States, repeatedly addressed the Holocaust, and repeatedly harped on Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, sometimes to the point of discomfort and, for some observers, to the point of overt antisemitism. I think that what he was often doing, sometimes clumsily and unartfully, was grappling with history, memory and civilization.
One of the things I find most moving about Godard is that even as movies changed, he did, too. He worked in television before it was acceptable for serious filmmakers to do so, and when the movies went digital, he did, as well, finding new and shocking beauty with it. He smeared colors and made them pop, playing with his new media tool kit with the giddy inventiveness of someone just discovering his own brilliance. In his 2014 movie “Goodbye to Language,” he dabbled in 3-D, showing me images I had never seen and haven’t seen since. Watching it at Cannes, where attendees cheered and nearly levitated out of their seats, remains one of the great experiences of my moviegoing life.
Godard became disgracefully marginalized, relegated to the festival circuit and negligible theatrical releases. And, in contrast to his longtime compatriot, Agnès Varda, who became more celebrated as she aged, he receded from public view. Their relationship plays a role in Varda’s 2017 essay film, “Faces Places,” a meander through history and memory that she made with the artist JR. At the end of the movie, Varda and JR show up at Godard’s house in Rolle, Switzerland. It’s been years since she has seen him but Godard refuses to come to the door or even acknowledge their presence, causing her to weep.
I’ve always thought the real reason Godard didn’t come out to say hello to Varda was that he didn’t like or respect JR. JR helped Varda enormously but his work isn’t on the same plane as either hers or Godard’s. Even so, the old man could have come out to say hello to his friend. He could have whispered a simple bonjour through the door in his distinctive gravel. But Godard clearly wasn’t interested, and unlike Varda, who charmed admirers who too often mistook her for a cute old lady, he didn’t play the game.
He didn’t have to. Varda was a woman in a man’s world and she learned how to work the room, a habit — and burden — that wasn’t necessary for Godard, the onetime enfant terrible, the former bad-boy genius of cinema who faded into a caricature of himself, almost Lear-like: “A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.” Godard played with that image of the gruff, cranky, cigar-chomping guru of cinema’s past while in reality he remained a prophet for its still-unrealized future. Despite his reputation and all the scandals, the cynical aperçus and stinging air of pessimism, he was an astonishing optimist.
A few years back, a friend sent me some Google map coordinates, excitedly telling me that if you clicked on them you could see Godard walking along some Rolle streets with Anne-Marie Miéville, his third wife and frequent collaborator. I clicked on the link excitedly, and there he was, caught midstride, his face blurred yet distinct and recognizable in the bright sun-filled images. He was wearing dark clothes and carrying a light-colored plastic bag. At one point, they appear next to a red car and I flashed on all the cars and colors in his movies. It was so ordinary yet so extraordinary. I like to think that he and Miéville had just gone out shopping. I hoped that they were happy. In one way, I had found Godard, but, really, my search will never end.