Godard’s Invisible Cinema: The Neglected Genius of Late-Period Godard
By ignoring or outright dismissing Jean-Luc Godard's post-New Wave work, we’re denying the cinema the opportunity for advancement that he alone can provide.
If it seems odd to accuse the critical establishment of neglecting or rejecting the films of Jean-Luc Godard, a figure whose stature within the contemporary cultural canon does indeed persist undiminished -- the status of his rakish debut Breathless (1960) as perennial classic still uncontested, his name as a result emblazoned permanently in the annals of cinematic history -- consider that this legacy, however firmly ensconced in the popular imagination or film-school curricula worldwide, extends only to those films produced within his first decade as a filmmaker. Godard’s career, contrary to what film history suggests, now spans a little more than five decades. And it has not yet concluded: Film Socialisme, a film few have seen and fewer still care about has, like so many of the films Godard has labored to produce across the last several decades, yet to even receive a proper North American release, nor is it likely to anytime in the near future. Of course, this new work’s very existence has helped illicit, if not the siren call of distributors, the usual sighs and chortles from Godard’s vocal dissidents -- those influential mainstream critics for whom the arrival of a new Godard think-piece heralds an opportunity for nostalgia, for riffing romantically on their longing for “the old Godard”, rather than for going to the trouble of engaging with the present.
The latest wave of critics issuing sweeping dismissals and unfair sniping, occasioned both by the presentation of Film Socialisme at Cannes last May and by his having recently been given an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement (which he naturally declined to accept), approaches the ‘issue’ of Godard’s stubborn persistence in continuing to produce new, ever more challenging work in precisely the same manner critics have approached Godard's work for nearly half a century: basing their evaluations, as Jim Emerson observes in an analysis of five decades’ worth of Godard press coverage in the New York Times, “on assumptions that Godard means to communicate something but is either too damned perverse or inept to do so”, his detractors betray their frustration -- incited by confusion but masked by cultivated distaste -- in poses as predictable as they are misguided. The pervading sentiment, seemingly intensified with the release of each new picture, is one bordering on hostility -- though a hostility often couched in the rhetoric of deep criticism.
Whether the films themselves are artistically successful or unsuccessful seems largely irrelevant, because for many of those people whose responsibility it is engage with works of art, however confrontational or challenging those works may be, it is much easier to dismiss the challenge outright. Thus Roger Ebert, having long-since given up on Godard by the time In Praise Of Love showed up on American soil in late 2002, rejects it is a film of “old tricks” and “facile name-calling”, declaring what he perceives as its anti-American tendencies “painful” and “unfair”. That In Praise Of Love is in actuality both stunningly beautiful and deeply compassionate, and that its sophisticated and considered arguments against the American appropriation of cultural and historical memory reveals in its very willingness to explore such painful emotional and political territory a bravery that represents, to my mind, the very height of fairness...well, that doesn’t seem to matter to those critics for whom seething rejection is the path of least resistance.
Not all of the critical evaluations of his late-period output exude such malice, and in fact some of these films were received quite warmly. But one gets the general sense that Godard's post-'60s work is considered by almost everyone to be at best irrelevant and at worst outright worthless. And so, rather ironically, the man most directly responsible for the popularization of the auteur theory -- a theory which, among other things, posits the notion that a director's body of work should be considered and valued as an interconnected whole -- continually fails to receive proper critical exegesis through precisely that lens. Godard is an artist whose output has continued to develop and evolve as his career has moved forward, whose later body of films greatly surpasses his earlier, more canonical work in both the sophistication of their ideas and the formal ingenuity with which those ideas are articulated. This is not to say that Godard’s 60s films are without value; Contempt (1963), Pierrot Le Fou (1965), and Week End (1967), in particular, are truly great. But their value has been so inflated by the arbiters of cinematic history, their individual virtues magnified by their significance within the greater scope of the French New Wave, that all of Godard’s later work, lacking that same weight of cultural legacy, are necessarily undervalued by comparison.
It’s evident, after even a cursory examination of the general reception of Godard’s later films, that Godard himself has been relegated to the status of a second-class has-been. His early greatness, of course, goes unquestioned, but somewhere along the way -- maybe around the time Vincent Canby declared, after seeing the stately but obscure Nouvelle Vague (1990), that “the party’s over” for fans of his earlier, more coherent work, but possibly even earlier than that -- a narrative designed to explain (but also to informally ratify) Godard’s fall from greatness was imposed upon him. The narrative, now almost universally accepted, states essentially this: Godard was a precocious genius who produced a slew of culturally significant ‘classics’ throughout the 1960s, but who, after falling into radical leftist politics during the politically tumultuous atmosphere surrounding the ‘68 French student riots, withdrew from the standard practices of the mainstream film industry while his projects grew increasingly difficult and he himself grew increasingly deranged. (“Something came loose”, Ebert notes of Godard’s career trajectory; “Maybe a screw”.) Such a tidy history, however reductive or misleading, makes it very easy to assail anything Godard may now produce with nothing more than casual, flippant disdain. In reviewing any Godard film made after Week End, one need only cite the jazz-like cool of Breathless, lament Godard’s deviation from the path on which he should have remained, and forgo engaging with the work on any kind of serious critical or intellectual level.
That Film Socialisme, a highly abstract work about the proliferation of images and our diminished historical consciousness, has been largely dismissed for all the usual reasons late Godard films have been comes as no real surprise. But specific to the case of this film’s critical reception, though perhaps owing as well to the Academy’s decision to grant Godard an honorary Oscar, is the particularly intense derision directed toward several beliefs allegedly held and statements long-ago made by Godard personally. Widespread allegations of anti-Semitism, fueled in part by comments exhumed rather selectively from Richard Brody’s biography Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard, have somewhat inexplicably come to form the basis of practically every recent press notice related to Godard, despite the specific comments cited having originated more than twenty-five years ago. Brody, responding in his New Yorker blog to the media’s sudden use of these remarks “as fodder to question whether it’s fitting to award Godard an honorary Oscar”, counters that Godard “has approached the Holocaust with the greatest moral seriousness”, treating it “as the central political and even aesthetic crisis of the time”. But in the same way that the media has always favored dismissive posturing over engaged analysis when approaching Godard’s work, so to do they favor unambiguous moralizing and out-of-hand rejection over deep readings of a complex figure.
On his personal blog, esteemed critic Jonathan Rosenbaum observes a similar pattern in the otherwise typically dismissive reviews of Film Socialisme, this time regarding “an offensive statement Godard made to the American press 40 years ago”, one in which he expresses “his hope that the three astronauts on Apollo 13 would die in outer space”. A reprehensible comment, to be sure, but what are we to make of the fact that, as Rosenbaum notes, the comment is “now used simply as a way of dismissing anything Godard might possibly do or say today”? Leaving aside the question of whether one can be justified in rejecting the work of an artist if one disagrees personally with the beliefs or actions of that artist, the notion of such remarks worming their way into nearly every conversation about Godard generally and Film Socialisme particularly raises a more specific question: why are critics so committed to confronting every aspect of Godard’s life and work except the content of the work itself?
That also leaves those of us who genuinely admire Godard’s later work, those brave few who have dared to engage seriously with his most accomplished films and have found that they are, far from being repulsive or incoherent disasters, some of the most original and moving works of art the cinema has ever produced, in a necessarily defensive position. Godard’s greatest films -- in my estimation, Sauve Que Peut (La Vie) (1979), King Lear (1987), In Praise of Love, and, yes, Film Socialisme -- are also, for the most part, those of his films most notorious for obliqueness or difficulty. (Actually, Sauve Que Peut is quite accessible even by Hollywood standards, while Godard’s most legitimately abrasive films -- arguably British Sounds (1970) and A Film Like The Others (1968), both produced at the height of his obsession with Maoism -- are, I feel, undermined by their extreme obscurity.)
Regardless of the rewards they offer, to declare your sincere admiration for films as reputably abstract or oblique as these is to risk being accused of pretension or pedantry, much as Godard is accused of the same for having produced them -- which, though perhaps not problematic for individual viewers with confidence in their tastes and inclinations, may still be an unfair impediment to their being enjoyed by a wider audience. When irreverence remains fashionable, difficulty in and of itself comes to be perceived as an affront, and thus those films regarded as self-consciously difficult become themselves objects of scorn. If Film Socialisme goes unseen because audiences assume it to be too demanding, that will be our loss: the film demands nothing of you more than your willingness to take it as it is. It is us, its audience, which has demands; we come to it, as we do all films, demanding that it match our expectations of what a film should be, more or less arbitrary but nevertheless rigid expectations derived from a lifetime of watching other movies. That Godard’s later films are almost always fail to meet this expectation is cause for many to assume that they fail more generally, but they only fail in so far as they are so drastically unlike other films.
If standard cinematic practice remains confined within the limitations imposed upon it by the necessity of narrative, Godard’s approach -- which in its indifference to classical narrative structure more closely resembles music than it does other films -- can be seen less as an act of subversion than of artistic liberation. Indeed, this liberation extends outward from the film itself, which must no longer adhere to rote machinations of standard cinematic fare, onto us, the audience, upon whom Godard confers the freedom to engage with ideas and feelings in a wholly new way. What we make of this freedom is for us to decide. We can find it disconcerting, rejecting or dismissing the free-form image pastiche of Film Socialisme or the reconstruction project of King Lear as pretentious and incoherent. Most critics are content to respond to the work this way. The alternative, of course, is to embrace the freedom offered by Godard’s approach, to recognize it as the formal revolution it truly is.
The new modes of representation posited by Godard's later work should be as important to the advancement of contemporary cinematic grammar as Eisenstein's montage was to the classical model. That Godard's most superficial formal invention, the jump-cut introduced in Breathless and pretty much abandoned by him since, has been his most enduring and pervasive formal contribution to cinematic history, while his legitimately revelatory practices languish in an obscurity that denies them any influence over a medium they have the power to recreate, is not just disappointing or unfortunate -- it's tragic. As long as this body of work is being ignored not simply by mainstream audiences, whose dismissal of a major but difficult intellectual figure is at least understandable, but more crucially by the critics whose opinion can realistically make or break an artistic legacy, we’re denying the cinema the opportunity for advancement Godard alone can provide. The cinema needs the revelation of Godard’s late work; the first step is paying attention.