Big Smoke Meets WhiskyFest: Tickets Available


French Cinema's Reluctant Genius

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

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.

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."

When it comes to dealing with the public, Godard can have sharp mood swings. He will spend hours with a young film student one day, and not answer his phone the next. He didn't show up for a retrospective of his work in New York, but appeared at a roundtable discussion in France on the future of cinema.

For years, he has smoked Cohibas, which run about $20 apiece in Switzerland, though he is a languid practitioner of that art. During our interview, he had to relight his cigar a dozen times, finally finishing it after three hours. Smoking expensive Cuban cigars would seem to be his only bourgeoisie weakness, and it's not one he chooses to discuss. Asked later, by telephone, to talk about his evident love of cigars, he demurs. "I'm not in the mood to answer questions," he says. His assistant in Paris explains that Godard is depressed over his film Forever Mozart. He had waited until just before shooting to write the script, as is his custom. (He also is known for encouraging actors to ad-lib their lines.)

Forever Mozart turned out to be a devastating portrait of French intellectuals wringing their hands over the war in Bosnia but doing nothing to help end it. The movie had its world premiere during a film festival in Sarajevo last year. "Before showing my film in Strasbourg, capital of Europe, I wanted to give it to Sarajevo, capital of suffering," Godard says. "It was the people of Sarajevo who inspired this film." The reactions in Sarajevo, though, were typically mixed: some in the audience praised it as evocative and powerful, while a few people walked out, finding it too dense and bloody. Godard himself couldn't make the Sarajevo opening, having been called upon at the last minute to take over the male lead in Nous Sommes Tous Encour Ici (We Are All Still Here), a film being shot under the direction of Mieville.

Most of his movies these days are funded by Gaumont, the French cinema chain, and Canal Plus, the French cable movie channel. Although his films are not box-office hits, he completes them in six weeks and they cost less than most television movies, about $2 million each, so they usually break even. "When someone gives me 10 million francs [about $2 million] to make a movie, I never say it's not much," Godard says. "I can still spend 10 million francs and do something interesting. Then you discover that it is a lot of money. Of course, if you hire 40 people and want a helicopter in the Sahara, you can't do it."

Godard doesn't think much of actors, especially those who he says are more interested in reading lines than in creating lines. He expects his actors to be willing to collaborate with him in the pursuit of art; hence his reluctance to begin with a firm script. He is, in fact, most truly at home in the editing room, which makes him something of a dinosaur in the business. "With television and computers, the art of editing has disappeared," he says. "Now there are just lawyers and agents. It's over for me. I still have the same enthusiasm, though not the same strength. It's very physically exhausting, making movies. I'm more tired."

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.

More in Celebrities

See all
My Favorite Cigar

My Favorite Cigar

The legendary middle linebacker shares his go-to smoke. 

Nov 18, 2022
10 Covers To Celebrate

10 Covers To Celebrate

We've had an amazing arrary of covers during our 30-year history. Here are 10 of our favorites.

Nov 18, 2022
My Favorite Cigar

My Favorite Cigar

The famous chef's cigar of choice is a former Cigar Aficionado Cigar of the Year, can you guess which …

Nov 18, 2022
My Favorite Cigar

My Favorite Cigar

Actor Edwin Lee Gibson likes to pair his cigars wtih a single-malt and sometimes a bit of writing. He …

Nov 18, 2022
Remembering The Interviews

Remembering The Interviews

Marvin R. Shanken has interviewed a host of fascinating people from all walks of life throughout the …

Nov 18, 2022
My Favorite Cigar

My Favorite Cigar

Joe Gurrera, the owner of the popular gourmet market chain Citarella, still finds time to smoke a …

Nov 18, 2022