Last week, legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard passed away at the age of 91. Though I personally have such a big blindspot on his work, it’s hard to deny that he’s a master of cinema as the father of the French New Wave. I was first introduced to his work when I participated in the BlindSpot blog-a-thon a number of years ago, and of course, I picked one of his most popular films, Breathless (À bout de souffle).
I really enjoyed Breathless and Godard’s visual style, showcasing the beauty of the City of Light. Love the iconic pairing of Jean Seberg in her adorable pixie cut and cat-like eyeliner and Jean-Paul Belmondo with his cool rebellious swagger. I love films set in Parisian streets and watching these characters roam around the city felt like I was viewing the city through their eyes, strolling past Paris landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Elysées, and café terraces.
So in celebration of Godard’s work, I turn to my classic-film contributor Vince Caro, who’s much more well-versed in his work. So here are his picks of eight Godard classics.
I took an Intro to Film class when I was at university and was introduced to Jean-Luc Godard as a primer to the French New Wave. Three decades later, his originality, unique sense of pacing, and editing are still being referenced by today’s contemporary filmmakers, including greats like Tarantino, Scorsese, Lynch, and Soderbergh (I mean the list is endless).
But one thing that has remained untouched in his legacy is his overwhelming sense of cool. No one looked better in Ray-Bans. He absolutely defined the French New Wave which influenced countless films generations later.
While I’m no Godard expert, here is a list of 8 films that floored me on first – even up to the 15th viewing – always finding something new in what seemed primitive, analog, or (dare I say it) simple productions; marking the defining moment where the golden age of Hollywood ended and the nouvelle vague began.
Disclaimer: Almost all of these films star Anna Karina, one of my favorite actresses of all time.
Godard’s first feature has it all: His signature narratives, jarring jump-cuts, and intriguing scenes where we feel to be in the same room invading Jean Seberg’s personal space. Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s romantic charisma just oozes from the screen. This film (as well as its stars) influenced the look of the 60s new wave and the 60s in general and never looked back.
A Woman Is A Woman (1961)
Filmed in stunning CinemaScope, this colorful French rom-com is in fact a musical, written and directed by Godard and starring his new wife and muse of his 60s period, the great Anna Karina. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Claude Brialy co-star. The film, according to insiders, has a semi-autobiographical context. Karina is stunning here and you get a sense of her wide range of talent with dance and song. Music by Michel Legrand.
Vivre sa vie (1962)
Shot by frequent collaborator Raoul Coutard, this neo-realist version of Godard is one of a kind.
Anna Karina is mesmerizing as an aspiring actress who has turned to prostitution to make ends meet. It’s a beautiful film showcasing Karina’s tremendous dramatic edge as well as a focused commentary on the social and artistic ambitions of Parisian life. While more contemporary feeling, Vivre sa vie also showcases unique stylistic shots not seen in Godard’s previous films. It won the Grand Jury that year.
Le Petit Soldat (1963)
Initially banned until 1963, this film was actually made in 1960, technically Godard’s 2nd feature and first with future wife Anna Karina. Set during the Algerian war, Bruno (Michel Subor) is recruited by French terrorists to carry out an assassination in Geneva. Karina plays Veronica Dreyer, who is an informant on the other side. This political thriller addresses the subject of interrogation and was censored because of its violent depiction of torture. But to enthusiasts, this film is notable as Karina’s first collaboration with Godard. They reportedly fell in love on set and the rest is film history.
Probably one of the great films about the making of films. Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, Brigitte Bardot plays the wife of a recently successful playwright played by Michel Piccoli. Both travel to Rome at the behest of American producer Jeremy Prokosch (creepily and expertly played by Jack Palance) to rewrite a screenplay for a film adaptation of the Odyssey to be directed by Fritz Lang. The film’s subplot involves the breakdown of a marriage, mirroring Godard’s separation from Karina in real life. It’s also a subdued condemnation of the Hollywood system and still resonates to this day. Fritz Lang is cast as himself and Godard makes a cameo as his assistant.
Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964)
My personal favorite, this one stars the memorable trio of Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur. Two small-time hoods manipulate a young girl into helping them commit a robbery. The film boasts a classic dance scene (the Madison) that’s been recreated several times in other films. Karina is perfect as the innocent Odile. Music by Michel Legrand. Not to be missed.
Dark and brooding, this dystopian science fiction film could be the grandaddy of Blade Runner. Starring Eddie Constantin as a hard-edged secret agent in a fascist society, Alphaville is both sci-fi and film noir all at once. Cheaply but beautifully shot on location by Coutard in Paris using futuristic-looking buildings and locales, it’s effective nevertheless and quite gripping as a stylish if not sometimes offbeat thriller.
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Many consider it a masterpiece with its pop art flavor and innovative breaking of the fourth wall. Jean-Paul Belmondo is the titular character, a bored bourgeois who leaves his family to take up with the gorgeous Karina who’s been involved with gangsters. Trouble ensues when they go on the run. The ending is classic Godard. Like Kubrick, the film is filled with memorable stills, at once recognizable as if painted by the masters.
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Well, there you have it. Obviously, these choices don’t even reflect his post-60s political work, some of which are classics in their own right – a lot I admittedly haven’t seen. But in tribute to his recent passing, I hope this meager list of personal Godard favorites intrigues you enough to explore his work, post-new wave or not. Godard was a true artist, daring, innovative, and uncompromising.
So what are some of your favorite Godard films?