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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

(continued from page 2)

Godard calls Hélas pour Moi "a complete flop." "It was 100 percent for 1,000 people, that's all." He blames that on Depardieu, who was contracted to work for six weeks and left after four, leaving most of the work to extras. "The fight was lost from the beginning. It was too hard to make," Godard says. "It could have been a good movie if Depardieu was willing to try. But he was not interested in the movie, in working to make it right. Of course, he said, 'Godard is a genius.' He was just making it for my name." But, Godard adds, without Depardieu, he couldn't have gotten the $2 million financing.

However, when Hélas pour Moi opened at a French film festival in New York in 1995, The New York Times praised both the film and Depardieu's performance. The movie "is not easy to slip into, but the rewards are profound," the review said.

Stuart Klawans, writing in The Nation, called the film, with its "delirious collage effect," "so beautiful, playful, heartbroken, hopeful, multilayered and elusive that I'd better drop it at once." Of course, that is the problem with Godard. His films can be so difficult that the audiences give up, leaving it to the critics and students of film to praise and appreciate.

An example is Godard's JLG by JLG (Jean-Luc Godard by Jean-Luc Godard), which earned good notices when it appeared in American art houses in 1995. Godard says the film is not an autobiography but a "self-portrait," showing, accurately, the director living a life of quiet anonymity. "Now, at my age, I'm finally able to make a self-portrait that is faithful to what I think," he says. The New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty described the action in JLG this way: "He seems to be working on a script, but if he is, the process is indistinguishable from depression. He's restless, solitary, wary; the artist at work looks like a lonely child consoling himself with imaginary friends. Even while you're being seduced by Godard's vision of himself, part of you is saying, 'Come off it.' What's wonderful about JLG is that, as it turns out, Godard is saying the same thing to himself."

Jean-Jacques Beneix, whose 1981 film Diva was one of the few French successes in U.S. release, says Godard "is like an elite. It's not cinema anymore. It's Godard. His films are part of him." Sitting in his office in Rolle, though, Godard isn't much for introspection. Asked for an assessment of his career, he says: "I won't speak of success. Sometimes I feel I'm doing well. Sometimes not."

The son of a Red Cross doctor, Jean-Luc Godard was born Dec. 3, 1930, in Paris. He attended the prestigious Lycée Buffon and studied at the Faculte des Lettres, the leading Paris arts university, though he never received a degree. At age 19, he began writing film critiques for the Gazette du Cinema and later for Cahiers du Cinema. Two years later, he left for a yearlong journey across North and South America and, returning to Europe, rejoined the staff of Cahiers du Cinema in 1956 and began directing short films. Among those early works were Tous les Garçons s'Appelent Patrick (All the Boys Are Named Patrick), with a screenplay by his friend Eric Rohmer, and Une Histoire d'Eau (A History of Water), with a screenplay by François Truffaut.

Breathless was his first feature film and it won him the best director prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1960. France has decorated him as a Chevalier of the National Order of Merit and, in 1987, with an honorary Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar.

He has been married twice, to the actress Anna Karina in 1961 and to Anne Wiazemsky, the granddaughter of the French writer François Mauriac, in 1967. Both marriages ended in divorce, with no children.

Although Godard maintains an office in Paris, which he visits frequently, he prefers the solitude of Switzerland these days. "My mind is in France, even though my body is here," he says. He is a man without pretension. He toils in his second-floor office in Rolle, beneath a poster for Le Mepris (The Contempt), which starred Brigitte Bardot. He takes his meals alone or with Mieville, his longtime girlfriend, in the local hotel. In his view, when you become a media celebrity "you are destroyed."

"I'd like to have done all sorts of films, to have been in all films, to be known and unknown. To do everything," Godard says. "I'd like to be one of the filmmakers who discovered sound," he adds, veering down a new road. "But I'd also like to have known the sadness of those people who discovered sound. Now I have that feeling, too--that feeling that I'm being thrown out. Because it's Apple computers that are doing movies today. Not me."

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