Jean-Luc Godard, like many famous, groundbreaking artists in their lifetimes, is best known for the work that first brought him to public attention. In Godard’s case it’s his first feature film, Breathless (1959). The director’s legend was certainly enhanced, especially among cinephiles, by the astounding series of masterpieces, such as My Life to Live, Alphaville and Contempt, which he churned out subsequently in the 1960s, but Breathless was by far the most popular and profitable, and many still regard it as his peak achievement. Later, Godard lost nearly all his supporters upon his shift, in the early ’70s, to filmmaking in the service of communist ideology, and to video experimentation. He’s regained only a few appreciators in his later period (since the early ’80s) of gorgeous-looking, more conventionally narrative films that, nevertheless, remain as politically and intellectually adventurous as ever.
Richard Brody, a New Yorker editor and film critic, whose first book this is, contends that the late-period films are magisterial culminations of Godard’s lifelong dedication to cinema. Brody is right. Godard is the most accomplished and the most serious filmmaker alive, and no one else even comes close. This biography is worthy of him. It’s well-written and exhaustively researched, giving as coherent as imaginable a picture of its complicated subject.
The book’s conception and structure reproduce its essential insight that Godard, the archetypal intellectual, is also an artist whose immediate emotional and sexual life is the direct basis for his movies. Brody follows the director movie by movie, chronologically, and we see that, whether a film appears to be about Hollywood-genre film tropes, colonialist politics, prostitution, alienation in consumer societies or the oppressive worldwide influence of the U.S.A., it’s Godard’s most intimate personal experience that’s actually being expressed and dissected. This is not to say that the book is sensationalistic, that it vulgarly reduces Godard’s ideas to his neuroses or to bedroom exposé, but simply that (surprisingly and movingly) this other comprehensive dimension exists in films that are already so complex. It’s a demonstration of how the political is personal, and of how rigorously Godard has lived his life—which is his work by another name—in accordance with his ideas and moral standards (as well as his thirst for beauty), no matter how difficult or dangerous doing so might be, or how much denigration it draws.
For Godard, yes, his life is film; “everything is cinema,” he says. Godard asserts that “it may be true that one has to choose between ethics and aesthetics, but it is no less true that whichever one chooses, one will always find the other at the end of the road. For the very definition of the human condition should be in the mise-en-scène itself.” Lenin (actually Gorky, according to Godard) is approvingly quoted by the protagonist of Godard’s second feature film, Le petit soldat (1960), as saying: “Ethics are the aesthetics of the future.” This character, photographer and right-wing government agent Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), falls in love with Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina) just as Godard fell in love with Karina during the filming.
Another revelation of the biography is that Godard is not actually the radical leftist that a cursory look at the arc of his filmography might indicate. He was born in 1930 into a wealthy, cultured family that included extreme conservatives; he has continued to have right-wing friends in his adulthood. As Bruno in Le petit soldat adds momentarily, “What do people on the right and left think about? What’s the point of revolution today? As soon as a reactionary government comes to power, it applies a leftist policy and the other way around. As for me, I win or I lose, but I fight alone.” Ultimately, one deduces that Godard’s political inclinations are more libertarian/provocateur-anarchist than they are socialist/communist. This does seem consistent with his working methods and personality. Godard always insists on his right to behave without constraint. It’s funny and fascinating to read Brody’s descriptions of how the director, on the sets of his later films, sincerely begs his crew and cast to discuss with him and contribute, collaboratively (communistically), to every aspect of a given movie only, most often, to become furiously frustrated with their timidity and/or incompetence and, as always, end up doing everything as he originally intended.
Godard’s movies are lived poems, the borders between art and life erased. This works in both directions. Not only are the movies essences and mappings of what he’s living, as well as his life’s arena and laboratory, but his life—as is true of most artists and intellectuals—is largely made of art to begin with. It’s not a pose or a pretense for him to put the words of Rimbaud or Malraux or Duras in a character’s mouth or use them in a voiceover, nor is it to include shots and scenes that derive from Griffith or Ray or Renoir. Godard’s life has been spent in books and movies as much as it has been spent in bed or cafés or on movie sets with Karina or Wiazemsky or Miéville, and so his movies reflect this.
Godard, the consummate intellectual, wants to destroy dualities (those fundamental products of intellect, of consciousness): art/life and political right/left for sure, but also documentary/fiction, criminal/victim, life/death, boring/exciting, etc. (and trinities: poem/story/essay—his “Pierrot Mon Ami,” a short riff in words on his own film Pierrot le fou (1965), is one of the great poems—incidentally in the form of prose—of its century). He’s a lyrical intellectual humanist tyrant esthete of infinite soul and pessimism.
There is one “scandalous” revelation in the book. Brody doesn’t give it undue weight, but it must stand out as the most distasteful trait exposed: the director has a vein of anti-Semitism. The evidence is sparse—and some of it open to interpretation—but it’s convincing. I was sorry to learn this, but it didn’t seriously alter my appreciation of him. It’s also certain that Godard profoundly opposes race/ethnic prejudice. Nearly everybody harbors some unjust tendencies; one hopes to be able to refrain from acting on them. In the later films especially, he also does tend to leer at girls (and sex itself), including underage ones. I don’t hold it against him. In fact, I admire him for acknowledging all that he acknowledges in human behavior. He is incessantly and broadly self-critical, and it’s inevitable that, when artists hide nothing, even the most innocent (and Godard is not the most innocent) will be seen to have dubious impulses. “Nobody’s perfect,” as Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond said.
Richard Hell is a New York-based artist. He is the author of the novels Godlike (2005) and Go Now (1996).