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French Cinema's Reluctant Genius

Jean-Luc Godard makes incomprehensible films appreciated by tiny audiences, and he has no intention of changing.
Scott Kraft
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

The town of Rolle, on the shores of Lake Geneva, is the kind of stern, no-questions-asked place that makes Switzerland the hideaway of choice for so many people who have been made rich and famous by the movies. The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard makes this his home even though, as it happens, he is neither rich nor famous. Rather, Godard is known. Known and unknown, in fact, but we'll get to that shortly. Here in this quiet village, the reclusive maestro finds his creative space.

With some difficulty, I find the short, featureless apartment building where Godard lives and works. The sun has just set on his narrow street and I grope through a dark foyer to find his door. At my knock, Godard himself answers. The man many regard as the genius of twentieth century French cinema is a slightly built 66-year-old, standing about 5-foot-6 with wild gray hair thinning on top, long sideburns and a day or two's growth of beard. A tweed jacket and large, dark-rimmed glasses give him the air of a college professor. Wordlessly, he leads me up a short flight of stairs to his office and settles behind a wooden desk, bare save for an old green pencil sharpener and a rotary dial telephone.

He holds up a long, slim Cohiba and asks, "Ca vous derange?" (Would it bother you?) Assured that it wouldn't, Godard lights the cigar with a single stick match, letting the smoke rise, and intones softly, now in English, "Let's start."

Thus begins a rare, three-hour-long interview that evokes nothing so much as a Jean-Luc Godard film, with jump cuts and sharp diversions, thoughtful ruminations on life and bright insights into the state of what the French call "the cinema" and its dour future.

"I never understand why I am remembered, why I am still known," he says, reflecting on why I have come to see him. Eventually, he offers an answer of sorts. "I think only just because, at the beginning, I was doing something that people liked. I think I'm proving by my existence that I am still very alive, and that making a good picture is still possible. Maybe that's why I still have a name. But I'll always wonder why I'm known, because nobody sees my movies. Well, almost nobody."

Jean-Luc Godard is one of the best-known names in film history even though, as he correctly surmises, his audiences are small. His name is synonymous with the boldest, and most inaccessible, of French film. He still makes movies as nobody else does, and critics still enjoy dissecting them. But it isn't easy. Although a treasured French icon, he is viewed, even in France, as someone who toils just outside the bounds of conventional filmmaking. He is a relic from the days when the most popular movies made audiences do some of the work, and his films are often incomprehensible, even for his fans. For Godard, "interesting" has always been high praise.

"I'm always doing what is not done," he says. "What I never do is what everyone else is doing. I always begin with ideas and that doesn't help with the audience. But I always prefer a good audience. I'd rather feed 100 percent of 10 people. Hollywood would rather feed 1 percent of 1 million people. Commercially speaking, my way is not better."

A walk past the movie houses on the Champs-Élysées in Paris confirms that. American movies, and especially blockbusters, are the ones selling most of the tickets. Last year, the top-grossing movies in France included The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Independence Day, Mission Impossible and Seven. Diabolique, starring Sharon Stone, the American remake of a 1955 French thriller, sold 171,471 tickets in its first three weeks in 1995. That was nearly three times the box office for Godard's 1994 feature film, Hélas pour Moi (Unfortunately for Me), which had the drawing power of Gerard Depardieu in the lead role.

"It is more difficult to attract audiences today," Godard says. "Of course, it has always been difficult. The people interested in good movies are very disseminated, and it doesn't make a good audience. My audience has always been small and it's even smaller now. So to exist you have to make a fuss at festivals and things."

For the French, filmmaking remains a part of the culture, irrespective of mass appeal. Many in France blame Hollywood's skillful marketing for killing the film industry in Europe. But it remains very much alive in France, due in part to government subsidies of films, a practice that draws cries of "unfair competition" from Hollywood. But helping fund films hasn't made them more popular. In the United States, foreign movies, whether dubbed or subtitled, have an appeal limited mostly to art houses. Moviegoers in America, and elsewhere in the world, criticize French films as being difficult to follow, self-conscious and too short on action.

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