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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

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Godard believes that it is the world's moviegoers, and not the filmmakers, who have changed. They prefer big-budget Hollywood spectaculars and they rely on the big screen to escape, rather than to discover universal truths. "Movies are not as good as they should be," Godard says. "Actors work, but they don't know how to be better. And people don't find in the French movie the things that interest them. Even when they find them, the material is too difficult. They prefer an American movie. The world audience has become an American audience.

"These days a 'good movie' is defined as one that makes money," he adds. "In literature, never. In movies, always. Culture is business. Art is something different."

But, obviously, Godard admits, French directors are not giving people "what they need in the way they need it." And it's only because of French subsidies that the industry survives. "We're like sick people being given medicine to survive," he says. "We're surviving, but until when? Nobody knows. As long as the hospital lasts, the sick people will survive."

In a career that has spanned four decades, Godard has made more than 100 films and directed France's most celebrated actors, from Depardieu to Brigitte Bardot. But only one film, Breathless, his first feature, was a financial and critical success.

"All the other ones were not good results," Godard says. "There was a lot of praise and glory, aesthetic glory. But they weren't commercially successful."

Breathless, known in French as A Bout de Souffle, captured the world's attention when it opened in 1959, earning Godard a place in the New Wave of French directors, alongside Eric Rohmer and the late François Truffaut. The black-and-white film starred the handsome young Frenchman Jean-Paul Belmondo as a young hoodlum undone by his love for an American girl, played by the French-speaking American actress Jean Seberg. "A generation of film critics had their lives changed by that film," Variety said.

At the time, Godard was 29 years old, writing film essays for Cahiers du Cinema, the most influential film journal of its time. The New Wave filmmakers, most of whom, like Godard, had begun as film critics, expanded the bounds of film theory and proved that it was possible to make interesting pictures inexpensively.

After Breathless, Godard made such New Wave classics as Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman), in 1961, and Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot the Fool), in 1966. Segments of his early films, from the mid-scene jump cuts in Breathless to the 10-minute tracking shot of a summer traffic jam in the 1967 film Weekend, remain an important part of modern cinematic technique.

Since 1974, Godard, working often with his companion and co-director, Anne-Marie Mieville, has broken new ground with works that fuse film and video. Once content to playfully mock Hollywood stories, he has moved into devastating critiques of politics, capitalism and image making.

Godard's films open and close in France these days with barely a whisper. One of his more recent feature films, Hélas pour Moi, starred Depardieu as a man whose body is taken over by God. The Paris daily newspaper Le Figaro reviewed it under the headline: "Hélas pour Nous" ("Unfortunately for Us"). It sold 70,000 tickets in France, a respectable run, due largely to Depardieu's following. By comparison, the top-grossing French film of all time, the 1993 comedy Les Visiteurs, has sold 13 million tickets.

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