French Cinema's Reluctant Genius

Jean-Luc Godard makes incomprehensible films appreciated by tiny audiences, and he has no intention of changing.

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In 1995, France marked the 100th anniversary of the first film shown by the Lumière brothers to a paying audience. In celebration after celebration, French film industry leaders have patted themselves on the back for their rich history.
Godard, ever the paradox, doesn't buy it. For him, the history of cinema is a story of failure, brought on by the pursuit of profits. "The child is suffocating under the sweets," he once told a French newspaper interviewer. "I don't see what we are celebrating. Cinema is ultra-celebrated. I think it is the celebration of an idea that has died in those who celebrate it. They want to believe it is alive, but they are the dead ones.
"Before the war," he tells me, "there was a difference between bad American movies and bad Swedish movies and bad French movies. But, little by little, America has taken over world culture. American culture is all over. Blue jeans. Cigarettes. It's too much. I think we should have the right to bad Spanish movies, not only bad American movies. I have nothing against blue jeans. I just don't like them on everyone. It's too disgusting."
That dour view of cinematic history comes through clearly in Histoire(s) du Cinema, a two-part video documentary Godard directed several years ago. The series was greeted with interest, but also bafflement, in France. In the United States, Katherine Dieckman, writing in the magazine Art in America, described it as "expansive, densely layered and elegiac--at once an idiosyncratic version of film history and a brooding autopsy of it."
In a strange way, though, Godard seems to love film's failure as well as its success. "I like everything in movies," he says. "The old Indian movies, the dreadful Hollywood production. There is such a circus. That's why I'm still well known, because I'm probably the only one who loves movies in every sense."
The problem for all moviemakers today, Godard says, is the information explosion. "Pictures no longer bring anything new to the audiences, because they have it 100 times a day on TV," he says. "It's like flowing water. The only thing left is to show more truth about people's lives, but they don't want the truth about that."
Godard doesn't see as many movies as he'd like, holed up in Rolle for most of the year. But he still loves the medium. His favorite directors include Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and, like every true Frenchman, Jerry Lewis, "a great director and a great character actor. Brilliant. A huge clown. I loved Hardly Working." But of Steven Spielberg, Godard says: "It's all fakery. It's false. I know the difference between Beethoven and Spielberg. I know why the dinosaurs disappeared. And Beethoven was a dinosaur." In other words, the true artists are facing extinction.
The gulf between Hollywood and Godard is really the difference between escapism and truth. Godard has said that film is "the truth 24 times a second," and he believes that Hollywood has buried cinema's search for truth beneath the search for marketable "concepts." Most American directors "are like orphans," he says. "They have no parents, no history. There's no story, so they have to invent one. I was always accused of doing pictures with no plot. But a picture is first a story, second a story and third a story. The Americans just spread their stories all over the world, hoping that a majority of the audience will buy them the history they don't have."
Tired of answering questions, Godard places the rest of his cigar in an ashtray. Putting on a trench coat, he heads into the dark Swiss night to a nearby restaurant, where the genius of French cinema dines alone with his dark thoughts.
Scott Kraft, deputy foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, was formerly its Paris bureau chief.
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