Jean-Luc Godard died on September 13, 2022, and the news in the world of cinema and culture was received as confirmation that cinema itself was dead. Godard had a remarkable influence on cinema in the ’60s, but his fame went beyond that. He replaced the aged Sartre as the public figure of the anti-bourgeois, Marxist intellectual, the figure of culture, the public voice opposing the regime. In that decade, he seemed to be speaking to and for and about the youth, mostly about its passions, and always threatening his audience with the announcement of nihilism overwhelming the social order. The events of ’68 confirmed his prophetic quality, yet he was partly to blame for them and had a mad enthusiasm for the student revolt.
For those of us who are not Progressives, therefore, it is very difficult to make sense of Godard’s fame; we are tempted to put everything down to madness, possibly to youthful passion, and ignore Godard’s unusual talent for cinema. Two things get in our way. First, Godard was 30 by the time he made his debut and had been a movie critic for a decade previously; he was not young, nor untutored—there was something of deliberation and conviction in his art. Secondly, Godard saw much more clearly than most people of good sense the coming madness of the young generation.
In the 1960s, indisputably the greatest man in France was De Gaulle, who saved the republic and installed a regime that has lasted since 1958. The greatest political thinker was Raymond Aron, a liberal of conviction, elegance, erudition, and great public spirit, as university professor and columnist. Both were stunned and deeply disappointed by the events of May ’68, which threatened everything that made France free—that is, prosperous and decent—for which they had worked for so long. There may be something, therefore, for us to learn from the mad artist Godard, who, far from being surprised, was investigating the developments among students with elation. Needless to say, American intellectuals and politicians were not any better at predicting or dealing with our own student madness in 1968, but the American way of life was much stronger, better established, and uncontested politically since the Civil War, and that made a great difference.
Godard’s talent, which was somewhat prophetic, makes him a necessary resource for us, given the enormous influence the moving image has in our society and the part cinema has come to play in our memory of the 20th century and perhaps the past more broadly. His debut, Breathless (1960, a Silver Bear winner in Berlin), was seen by more than two million Frenchmen in its first run in theaters and led artists, critics, and intellectuals to speculate in the press that one cinema was dead and another was aborning, the French New Wave. Godard spent the rest of the decade trying to prove these rumors true, to revolutionize art and society, with some notable successes before the inevitable failure that comes to all revolutionaries.
Breathless is a nihilistic vision of a young man, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who murders a policeman on his way to Paris, where he hopes to find love with an American girl, played by Jean Seberg. Of course, he eventually finds death instead, but not because justice must be done: Justice is the least concern in the story—here we have instead what is vaguely called existentialism, which may be understood as falling in love with death, or at least rejecting all calls to moderation as a living death, or inauthenticity. This passionate rejection of civilization is the core of Godard’s cinema and, while its appeal to youth is obvious, its power over youth is not so easy to understand, since it’s a style.
The style Godard adapted to his purpose alternates boredom and urgency, long interior scenes where love fails to give wings and jump cuts that follow our eager protagonist on his race to meet his destiny. The photography is beautiful, France seems beautiful in passing (given the speed with which Godard edits), and much of the movie takes place in cars. Yet throughout there is a cold assurance that the desire that adventure excites in us is a deception. There is much humor in the moviemaking, partly the boyish cleverness of defeating the expectations of viewers educated by cinema, partly the delight in the possibilities of cinema to charm, but there is no humor at the core of the story. The style seems to be as much a preparation for nihilism as an intended reward for those who would embrace it.
The beautiful protagonists are also part of the style; they are what had already become popular to call cool—that is, they are indifferent to or even contemptuous of what ordinary people desire or admire. Although they themselves are desirable, they cannot fulfill the desire of the audience to enact a fantasy of love or happiness; they can only reveal, to the extent to which the audience admires them, that there is nothing human beings can achieve that lives up to that admiration. For one moment Belmondo and Seberg seem to find solace from a world they cannot love in each other’s affection, not merely enjoy the charm of modern, somewhat witty people who don’t care much about morality. But that moment must pass and the law return as executioner, making our young murderer almost a martyr, if one can speak of martyrs to nihilism.
The movie reminds us that the revolution of May ’68 started with students complaining that the law barred young men’s access to young women’s dormitories at night. Not a decade after Breathless, the law lost, a mad vision of love won, and the youthful nihilism Godard announced and beautified became an ideology, a cause, a revolution, celebrated without even the need for martyrdom or any kind of sacrifice. I’ve thought on occasion that, had serious people noticed Godard’s sociological analysis of his times, we might have been spared much turmoil; we could have seen the madness coming and prepared a defense.
Godard, for his part, was proud of this barbarism, of this preference for the young over the old, for what art and society might become and might achieve over what they had been, ultimately for a willful chasing after desire as opposed to the law. Like all such barbarians, he was ill-educated, but unlike most he had the kind of talent a modern democracy needs to identify and educate, lest it become corrupted. He had the eagerness of the hunter on the scent, poking his nose everywhere, barking at a gallop, eloquent in his desire for prey. Since France rejected him, he wanted to take his revenge through his anti-bourgeois cinema, and at the same time he could claim to be as French as anyone, given the Revolution. He could play the snob in the name of egalitarianism, swear enmity to hypocrisy while despising honest people.
His spiritedness always showed him visions of French youth, beautiful and agonized about impossible love, in A Woman Is a Woman (1961), To Live Her Life (1962), Contempt (1963), Band of Outsiders (1964), Pierrot le Fou (1965), that he lacked the discipline to pursue to perfection, and we may be better for it. It spurred Godard to make movies that excited the admiration of most of the honored masters of the art, from Akira Kurosawa to Michelangelo Antonioni, from Orson Welles to Fritz Lang. One hesitates to say how important his influence was over his successors. He even received an honorary Oscar in 2010, in recognition of his career. Since we have had Godard, it is necessary to learn from his talent if cinema is to be any good, and to learn from what he saw in the young if barbarism is to be in any way defeated.