Film will forever be grateful for the courageous and bold Jean-Luc Godard.

The French-Swiss director embodied a break from convention that came with the revolutionary nature of the 1960s. His intellectual playfulness challenged film’s style and content, innovating his way as one of the titans of twentieth-century culture.

Godard took the language of film from the shadows and made it front and centre, untethered by the traditional rules of continuity and editing, using his camera much like a pen to a writer.

His death by assisted suicide at the age of 91 in September led to tributes framing his legacy as someone who had never read the film rulebook. It’s a misconception that Godard didn’t know the rules, but rather that he saw the rules as indicative of society’s limited scope. His mission was never to destroy film – it was to expand and legitimise it.

Godard’s 60-year career produced over a hundred features, short films, and video works. As such it’s difficult to only select a few, but we can still ascertain trends and ideas that give weight to his importance and influence through certain films.

There will probably never be another Godard. The constructs of commercial filmmaking get increasingly smaller, and the space for a genuinely modern, forward-looking cinema falls further out of grasp. Godard’s ideas may now be an accepted part of film vernacular, but his creative nature and how he executed it remains irreplicable.

The Herald:

Breathless (1960)

Breathless was arguably the most impactful French New Wave film, becoming a staple of film school curriculums and endless retrospective pondering.

It seems quaint now, yet the film’s deconstruction of Hollywood linearity gave way to the type of stylised filmmaking taken for granted today. It doesn’t require conventional story beats, images don’t always fluidly follow one another – in fact, they can happily be in direct opposition.

Breathless culturally ignited the spark of coolness and sophistication the French New Wave took the mantle of in the minds of Parisian tastemakers and intellectuals. Additionally, Jean Seberg’s androgyny and free-spirited nature played against Jean-Paul Belmondo’s stern masculinity made her an icon of an era.

These aren’t characters that have a purpose or conflict that requires resolution by the end of the film, they exist out with the frame, the viewer only being privy to a slice of a far broader and nuanced reality. A fitting diversion from the plastic façade of the 1950s that saw rejection in the new decade.

Godard’s debut was a catalyst for taking on the inauthenticity that lingered in commercial film, having enough confidence in the language of film to avoid hiding behind literary conventions and deliver a work that’s cinematic and true to form.

The Herald:

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

In Pierrot le Fou, a man escapes his meaningless middle-class life and runs away with a wanted woman. Loosely using genre, this time with the road adventure movie, Godard paints a sharp critique of bourgeois shallowness. Ferdinand (played by regular Jean-Paul Belmondo) breaks into a fantasy world that represents what he imagined the excitement of life to be until he accepted the orthodoxic desires of his privilege.

The high stylisation illustrates Godard’s intertextuality – film language shouldn’t repeat the language of the other arts, but that doesn’t mean it’s excluded from the broader conversation. Characters cite literary passages, are framed conveniently in front of paintings and look straight into the camera and address the audience in a Brechtian fashion.

Pierrot le Fou always makes it clear to the viewer they are watching a film, breaking the idea that cinema is supposed to be an immersive break from reality. In fact, film can comment on reality, using the tools of the medium to become part of it.

The Herald:

Weekend (1967)

Weekend is ostensibly a piece of pulp fiction, a colourful misadventure with characters stripped down to caricature. Its ruminations on the inevitable dissent that would fuel the 1968 protests are shown through an over-the-top, almost mocking flatness.

One of Godard’s more idiosyncratic scenes resides here in the almost ten-minute tracking shot that follows the chaos of a traffic jam in the rural countryside. Different iterations of middle-class travellers show their frustration at the flow of traffic only to finally arrive at the cause of the delay: the carnage of a car crash, with the bodies of an entire family splayed out across the grass.

It’s an incredibly striking sequence, proving the show don’t tell spirit that film language has not given itself enough credit for.

The Herald:

Wind from the East (1970)

Godard’s philosophy on the capabilities of cinema began to mutate in the 1970s, dismayed at the lack of revolutionary progress in the wake of the 1968 protests, where a coalition of workers, activists and students effectively halted France’s economy.

As the establishment turned inward to protect itself, so too did the left wing. The 1970s was a period of radical action, gravitating towards attention-grabbing stunts such as the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst and the Dawson’s Field plane hijackings.

As political groups failed to realise social gains from working within the system, Godard reacted by redefining his practice, using this period to erase the authorship of his work. The Dziga Vertov Group collectivised the filmmaking process, attempting to reimagine the collaborative nature of film and how images can maintain meaning in the face of an overarching capitalist structure for art's creation.

Wind from the East is a dense and interesting piece of Marxist cinema but it certainly limited Godard’s audience, ending an era of huge influence and presence in the winds of the cultural vanguard.

The Herald:

Hail Mary (1985)

The 1980s was certainly the decade of the individual, and this extended to politically active filmmakers who had given up on seeing cinema as a genuine tool of revolution. Instead their film eye moved towards personal experience and subjective reality, basking in the notion that the revolution starts from a realisation of the self.

Hail Mary highlights Godard’s ‘humanist’ era, where the conflict is not material but internal. Using a curious religious analogy, the film places the virgin birth through the perspective of a girl living in modern society. 

While Godard was previously concrete in his filmmaking philosophy, in this period he seems to be reaching for a different kind of purpose with his work. Hail Mary is impenetrable yet remains a beautiful portrait. It takes its theme seriously, yet the use of nudity in line with its Christian story caused controversy in the conservative sweep of the 1980s.

The Herald:

Goodbye to Language (2014)

Godard was always a proponent of the video essay format, far ahead of the curve when one looks at the proliferation of video essays on all sorts of subjects that populate YouTube and Vimeo.

The eight-part Histoire(s) du cinema series attempted to examine cinema’s role as the great art form of the twentieth century, with video works beginning to fill his filmography as far back as the mid-70s.

Taking advantage of modified 3D technology, Goodbye to Language blends these ideas into a split narrative that reflects the left-right optical illusion. Often just a studio gimmick, Godard shapes the use of 3D into something that makes viewers conscious of its deployment. Even this late in his life, convention still needed to be challenged, and film language was still desperate for new meaning.

Godard would end his filmmaking journey with another video essay, 2018’s The Image Book, but Goodbye to Language sneakily feels like a finale. The consummation of a fascinating life and mind, endlessly creating and never faltering with his confidence in the visual image. A giant of cinema and twentieth-century culture has certainly earned his rest.