Jean-Luc Godard, director of ‘Breathless,’ dies at 91
The iconic “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave revolutionized popular cinema starting in 1960. A family statement gave assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland where the filmmaker resided, as the cause of his death.
GENEVA — Jean-Luc Godard, the iconic “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his first feature, “Breathless,” and stood for years among the film world’s most influential directors, died Tuesday. He was 91.
Godard died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement. The statement gave assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland, as the cause of death.
A medical report recently revealed the director had “multiple invalidating pathologies,” according to the family statement, which did not specify the conditions.
Over a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic, Godard was perhaps the most boundary-breaking director among New Wave filmmakers who rewrote the rules for camera, sound and narrative — rebelling against an earlier tradition of more formulaic storytelling.
For the low-budget “Breathless,” Godard relied on a mobile, lightweight camera to capture street scenes and reach moviegoers in a new way.
He dispensed with contrived backdrops and the “artifice” of Hollywood cinema of the time, said one film expert. The impact was immediate — “Breathless” arrived like a cinematic thunderclap when it was released in 1960 — and lasting.
“There’s a bit of Godard in nearly all films today,” said Frederic Maire, president of the Swiss Cinematheque. “Nearly all directors who have gone to film school today, or learned movie-making at cinematheques, have seen Godard’s films — and were amazed, jolted and shocked by his way of telling stories.”
French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute, saying: “We have lost a national treasure, the eye of a genius.”
Godard worked with some of the best-known actors in French cinema, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, who was propelled to stardom through the director’s films, and Brigitte Bardot, who starred in his acclaimed 1963 work “Contempt.”
Beyond that, he profiled the early Rolling Stones, gave a voice to Marxist, leftist and 1960s-era Black Power politics, and his controversial modern nativity play “Hail Mary” grabbed headlines when Pope John Paul II denounced it in 1985.
While many of his works were lauded, Godard also made a string of films that were politically charged and experimental, and pleased few outside a small circle of fans, while frustrating many critics who saw them as filled with overblown intellectualism.
Cannes Film Festival Director Thierry Fremaux said by phone he was “sad, sad — immensely so” at the news of Godard’s death.
Born into a wealthy French-Swiss family on Dec. 3, 1930 in Paris, Godard grew up in Nyon, Switzerland, and studied ethnology at the Sorbonne, where he was increasingly drawn to the cultural scene that flourished in the Latin Quarter “cine-club” after World War II.
He became friends with future big-name directors Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, and in 1950 founded the short-lived Gazette du Cinema. By 1952 he had begun writing for the prestigious movie magazine Cahiers du Cinema.
After working on two films by Rivette and Rohmer in 1951, Godard tried to direct his first movie while traveling through North and South America with his father, but never finished it.
Back in Europe, he took a job in Switzerland as a construction worker on a dam project. He used the pay to finance his first complete film, the 1954 “Operation Concrete,” a 20-minute documentary about the building of the dam.
Returning to Paris, Godard worked as spokesman for an artists’ agency and continued to hone his writing.
He also began work on “Breathless,” based on a story by Truffaut.
The movie stars Belmondo as a penniless young thief who models himself on Hollywood movie gangsters and who, after he shoots a police officer, goes on the run with his American girlfriend, played by Jean Seberg.
Godard’s cinematic creations were suffused with the gritty, sassy tones of a resurgent postwar France — known domestically as the “Glorious 30” years through to the late 1970s — and they served up some of the most poignant images and lines from what was then a rich, avant-garde heyday of French filmmaking.
The images in “Breathless” of an ingenue Seberg traipsing along Paris’ Champs-Elysées loudly hawking “New York Herald Tribune” newspapers in a tight T-shirt, and close-ups of a cigarette-smoking, fedora-wearing Belmondo running a thumb methodically, pensively across his lips could be enshrined among the most memorable images of French cinema.
Along with Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” released in 1959, Godard’s film set a new tone for French movie aesthetics. Godard rejected conventional narrative style and instead used frequent jump-cuts that mingled philosophical discussions with action scenes. He spiced it all up with references to Hollywood gangster movies and nods to literature and visual art.
Godard also launched what was to be a career-long participation in collective film projects, contributing scenes to “The Seven Deadly Sins” along with directors such as Claude Chabrol and Roger Vadim. He also worked with Ugo Gregoretti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini on the Italian movie “Let’s Have a Brainwash,” with Godard’s scenes portraying a disturbing post-Apocalypse world.
He also directed the Rolling stones in the 1968 documentary film “Sympathy for The Devil,” filmed primarily in color.
Godard, who was later to gain a reputation for his uncompromising left-wing political views, had a first brush with French authorities in 1960 when he made “The Little Soldier.” The movie, filled with references to France’s colonial war in Algeria, was not released until 1963, a year after the conflict ended.
His work turned more starkly political by the late 1960s. In “Weekend,” his characters lampoon hypocrisy in bourgeois society even as they demonstrate the comic futility of violent class war. It came out a year before popular anger at the establishment shook France, culminating in the iconic but short-lived student unrest of May 1968.
Godard harbored a life-long sympathy for various forms of socialism depicted in films from the early 1970s to the 1990s.
Some of global cinema’s greatest directors counted Godard’s boundary-breaking work as an influence, including Quentin Tarantino, Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme.
“Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky tweeted: “learned a lot from my vhs copy of breathless… thank you maestro.”
Godard took potshots at Hollywood over the years.
He remained home in Switzerland rather than travel to Hollywood to receive an honorary Oscar at a private ceremony in November 2010 alongside film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, director-producer Francis Ford Coppola and actor Eli Wallach.
His lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian cause also brought him repeated accusations of antisemitism, despite his insistence that he sympathized with the Jewish people and their plight in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Though the academy received some complaints about Godard being selected to receive the award, academy President Tom Sherak said the director was recognized solely “for his contributions to film in the New Wave era.”
Godard married Danish-born model and actress Anna Karina in 1961. She appeared in a string of movies he made during the remainder of the 1960s, all of them seen as New Wave landmarks. Notable among them were “My Life to Live,” “Alphaville” and “Crazy Pete” — which also starred Belmondo and was rumored to have been shot without a script. Godard and Karina divorced in 1965.
Godard married his second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, in 1967. He later started a relationship with Swiss filmmaker Anne-Marie Mieville. Godard divorced Wiazemsky in 1979, after he had moved with Mieville to Rolle, where he lived with her for the rest of his life.