Director Jean-Luc Godard, the godfather of France’s New Wave cinema, died on Tuesday aged 91, newspaper Liberation and other French media said, citing relatives of the filmmaker.
Godard was among the world’s most acclaimed directors, known for such classics as Breathless and Contempt, which pushed cinematic boundaries and inspired iconoclastic directors decades after his 1960s heyday.
His movies broke with the established conventions of French cinema and helped kick-start a new way of filmmaking, complete with handheld camera work, jump cuts and existential dialogue.
“It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to,” Godard once said.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in a tweet, said: “We are losing a national treasure.”
Face of New Wave movement
Godard was not alone in creating France’s New Wave, a credit he shares with at least a dozen peers including Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, most of them pals from the trendy, bohemian Left Bank of Paris in the late 1950s.
However, he became the face of the movement, which spawned offshoots in Japan, Hollywood and, more improbably, in what was then Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, as well as in Brazil.
“We owe him a lot,” former French culture minister Jack Lang wrote in an emailed statement to Reuters. “He filled cinema with poetry and philosophy. His sharp and unique eye made us see the imperceptible.”
Among those he influenced were American directors Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino.
British director Edgar Wright, on Twitter, said Tuesday, “perhaps no other director inspired as many people to just pick up a camera and start shooting.”
Godard was born into a wealthy Franco-Swiss family on Dec. 3, 1930 in Paris. His father was a doctor, his mother the daughter of a Swiss man who founded Banque Paribas, then an illustrious investment bank.
This upbringing contrasted with his later pioneering ways. Godard fell in with like-minded folk whose dissatisfaction with humdrum movies that never strayed from convention sowed the seeds of a breakaway movement that came to be called the Nouvelle Vague.
‘Sometimes reality is too complex’
With its more forthright, offbeat approach to sex, violence and its explorations of the counter-culture, anti-war politics and other changing mores, the New Wave was about innovation in the making of movies.
“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form,” Godard said.
RIP Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most influential, iconoclastic film-makers of them all. It was ironic that he himself revered the Hollywood studio film-making system, as perhaps no other director inspired as many people to just pick up a camera and start shooting… <a href=”https://t.co/KFOnnQ1H6n”>pic.twitter.com/KFOnnQ1H6n</a>
After working on two films by Jacques Rivette and Rohmer in 1951, Godard tried to direct his first movie while traveling through North and South America with his father, but never finished it.
Back in Europe, he took a job in Switzerland as a construction worker on a dam project. He used the pay to finance his first complete film in 1954, Operation Concrete, a 20-minute documentary about the building of the dam.
Returning to Paris, Godard worked as spokesman for an artists’ agency and made his first feature in 1957 — All Boys Are Called Patrick, released in 1959 — and continued to hone his writing.
He also began work on Breathless, based on a story by Truffaut. It was to be Godard’s first big success when it was released in March 1960.
The movie stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a penniless young thief who models himself on Hollywood movie gangsters and who, after he shoots a police officer, goes on the run to Italy with his American girlfriend, played by Jean Seberg.
In 1961, Godard married Danish-born model and actress Anna Karina, who appeared in a string of movies he made during that decade, including My Life to Live, Alphaville and Crazy Pete — which also starred Belmondo and was rumoured to have been shot without a script. The marriage to Karina ended in 1965.
In Week End, his characters lampoon the hypocrisy of bourgeois society even as they demonstrate the comic futility of violent class war. It came out a year before popular anger at the establishment shook France, culminating in the iconic student unrest of May 1968.
That same year he directed an experimental documentary featuring the Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil.
Godard also launched what was to be a career-long participation in collective film projects, with directors such as Roger Vadim, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini.
Films steeped in politics
He switched to directing films steeped in leftist, anti-war politics through the 1970s. His controversial modern nativity play Hail Mary grabbed headlines when Pope John Paul II denounced it in 1985.
Godard harboured a life-long sympathy for various forms of socialism depicted in films ranging from the early 1970s to early 1990s. In December 2007 he was honoured by the European Film Academy with a lifetime achievement award.
Godard took potshots at Hollywood over the years.
He remained home in Switzerland rather than travel to Hollywood to receive an honourary Oscar at a private ceremony in November 2010 alongside film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, director-producer Francis Ford Coppola and actor Eli Wallach.
Recent works, however — among them Goodbye to Language in 2014 and The Image Book in 2018 — were more experimental and slimmed the audience largely to Godard geeks.