Jean-Luc Godard, the filmmaker who changed cinema’s grammar and syntax

Godard “destroyed” cinema and created it, every time he made a new film

September 23, 2022 04:57 am | Updated 12:01 pm IST

Godard pushing cameraman Raoul Coutard (on a wheelchair for a tracking shot) during the shooting of Breathless

Godard pushing cameraman Raoul Coutard (on a wheelchair for a tracking shot) during the shooting of Breathless

Jean-Luc Godard was an iconoclast. He “destroyed” cinema and created it, every time he made a new film. He was not bound by any rules or conventions hitherto religiously practised by generations of filmmakers before him.

Scion of an upper-class Swiss family, he discovered to his shame and horror that his paternal grandfather was a close ally of the Nazis. It made him leave home in protest and fend for himself. A fascination for cinema had entered his fertile imagination very early in his life. As a teenager, he went to a dam site under construction and worked there as a helper. The money earned was put into the making of a documentary on the construction of the dam and also a couple of short fiction films.

As a student in Paris, he came close to several of the aspiring young men who had been bitten by the cinema bug. The Cinematheque in Paris had already established itself as the Mecca of cinema and was the natural destination for the seekers. Its illustrious director, Henri Langlois, was all help, mentoring and guiding the young aspirants.

At the age of 19, Godard wrote his first review of a film which was noted for its mature views and an unrelenting passion for cinema.

The post-war period saw a France shaken and shattered economically. The situation was even worse socially and culturally. A monopolistic Hollywood kept on dumping its mindless potboilers on France, filling the cinemas with escapist fare. The native industry too took to the easy way, churning out similar stuff in docile imitation.

Intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre became vocal in their anger and frustration in condemning the capitalist design to drive a highly evolved culture like France’s into a captive status and demoralise it. Sartre condemned even a celebrated film like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as an exercise in futility as it remained wholly oblivious of the day-to-day life lived by ordinary people.

Well-known critic and theoretician Andre Bazin took exception to this argument against Citizen Kane and went on to defend it in an article titled “The technique of Citizen Kane”. He stressed that as a work of art, Citizen Kane was flawless, and it had indeed redeemed cinema from the depths of degeneration it had been condemned to.

He saw lengthy shots and deep focus as elements adding to the authenticity of the truth portrayed without leaving any scope for interference or manipulation. It had, in his opinion, enhanced the authenticity and relevance of the content.

In a sequel response, Maurice Schroeder, an influential teacher and critic of cinema, held out a view that was different from both. In a three-part piece for the journal La review du Cinema, he attempted to define cinema and pared it down to its essentials. He wrote: “It is neither the length of the shot nor the clarity of vision that determines the identity of cinema. On the contrary, it is the nature of the content in terms of the actors and the objects the artist packs into the visuals that is decisive. With the actors’ performance and dialogue and the placement of objects within the frame the visuals take on a life.”

Novelty of ideas, clarity of thinking

Impressed and attracted by the ingenuity of this argument, Godard went on to join the Cine Club run by Schroeder in the Latin Quarter. Schroeder would invariably introduce every film before its screening. And an open discussion, presided over by him, would follow at the end.

In 1949, Schroeder adopted the pen name, Eric Rohmer, and started a film magazine titled de Gazette du Cinema. Only five issues could be brought out before it was folded up. An article by Godard was featured in each of those issues. They were noted for their novelty of ideas and clarity of thinking and above all, a strong passion for the new faith that was cinema.

In the article “Towards a political cinema”, the one idea he was emphatically underscoring was that cinema was not merely copying reality, but was itself a part of reality.

Godard and his friends were not content with just watching films and writing about them. They were itching to make their own films. Practical training started with assisting Eric Rohmer and Jack Rivet who were making their debut films.

By the early 1950s, Cahiers du Cinema had already started publication under the editorship of Bazin. It attracted some of the best young minds on its editorial board as well as its list of contributors. Bazin himself was their leader and agent provocateur. Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Godard and other like-minded anti-establishment left-wing critics found for themselves a forum to vent their views in Cahiers du Cinema that was soon to become the springboard of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave).

Shots of shorter duration

Godard, in his 1956 article “Montage, my fine care”, propounded a view diametrically opposite to the editor, Bazin. As opposed to Bazin’s view that lengthy shots without cuts or interruptions would lend authenticity to cinema, Godard argued that shots of shorter duration should carry the impact better.

While being critical about Hollywood films in general, directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Ford, Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray and a few others were lauded by Godard. The problem with the run-of-the-mill Hollywood productions was that they were driven by sheer monetary considerations leaving little space for freedom of expression.

About the time, from neighbourhood Italy, neorealism was making a big splash internationally. Critics like Bazin were quick to respond and exhort the young and serious to imbibe its spirit in their work. Films like Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves were discussed, analysed and written about in all earnestness. The new awareness and exposure might have caught the imagination of the would-be filmmakers.

The situation should be looked up in the context of the seminal document by filmmaker-critic Alexandre Astruc who famously called upon the professionals to make sure that the camera becomes the pen in their hands (la camera stylo), sowing the seed of a revolution in filmmaking.

The argument was further crystallised by Francois Truffaut when he proposed the concept of auteur cinema, naming the filmmaker as the author of cinema. And the dictum truly found fruition in the work of Godard over and again, through his career.

The story of a thief

In the 1950s, the whole of France was agog with the news of the adventurous and dangerous life of a small-time thief and his hopeless flight from law.

Michel Poiccard, in his desperate bid to get away from the police, commits the big mistake of killing a policeman who had been chasing him on a motorbike. He takes his girlfriend, Patricia, an American girl selling the New York Herald Tribune on the boulevards of Paris, with him. In the end, she turns him to the police in an act of treachery and he gets shot to death. Truffaut was very much interested in adapting the news story for a film. And he started working on a script in collaboration with Claude Chabrol. They had many sessions of discussion too. But after a time they lost interest in the subject.

Godard continued to have an interest in the story and he sought and got Truffaut’s permission to make his first feature on the subject. What got him interested in the film was the strange twist in the story — of Patricia giving up Michel to the police.

In Truffaut’s story, it is owing to poverty that the boy turns to stealing cars and gets involved in petty crimes. Godard’s Michel is someone who is an outsider to social norms and the rule of law and he has only contempt for orderly life. He is a hardened derelict. It was Truffaut who arranged a producer for him. Through the producer’s contact, he got a distributor who agreed to advance some money for the production. The shooting was done without the usual paraphernalia of film production.

Raoul Coutard, the cameraman, carried the camera himself and shot all the scenes on real locations hand-held. He would walk and run with the artists in tandem. Wherever a tracking shot was required, the cameraman would be seated on a wheelchair and Godard would push it. Lightweight sound equipment made it possible to record sounds as well in the same fashion. Godard used a bare minimum crew for the shoot.

At the time of editing, no effort was made to start a scene with establishing shot and then go on to mid, semi-mid, close shots, and so on. All such conventions were broken. A scene would start with a close view and then continue without establishing either physical or internal connection. In fact, the very idea of smooth transition either by match cut or opticals such as fade-in, fade-out, mix, and so on was all done away with. The idea was to make the audience aware that they were watching cinema and not entering it. Thus, cinema discovered a new terminology — the jump cut. (Satyajit Ray told me once jokingly, Godard has made our lives easier by sparing us the trouble to match shots and seek smooth transitions.)

A bout de soufflé (Breathless) all on a sudden changed cinema’s grammar and syntax. A series of films crossing 100 in number were to follow.

Even at 91, Godard was dreaming of cinema, but the body wouldn’t match his mind. It was as if it’s not worth living when you cannot act out your wishes. The undying spirit of cinema lives on.

(Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a veteran filmmaker)

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