5 Must-See Films From Jean-Luc Godard

By Abak Hussain

Like him or hate him, cinema owes this French director a great debt

Jean-Luc Godard, a giant of world cinema, recently passed away at the age of 91. Born in Paris in 1930, Godard was known for the movement known as the French Wave, a movement he pioneered along with a group of like-minded young directors, like Jacques Rivette, Francois Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer. While his films are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, as Godard has often been accused of “style over substance,” a basic education in the films of Godard is surely a prerequisite for any true film aficionado. He influenced a wide range of film-makers, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino. For those who still have not yet ventured into seriously viewing Godard, here is a crash course: Watch these five films and you are sure to get a good sense of the man and his stunning body of work.

Breathless (French: À bout de souffle, lit. ‘Out of Breath’) is a 1960 French crime drama film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Breathless

Year: 1960
French title: A Bout de souffle
After all these years, Godard’s first film, Breathless, is still his most famous and most talked-about one. The story centres around Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young criminal who imagines himself as being a Humphrey Bogart-style persona. Michel steals a car and kills a policeman, and while on the run, engages in a relationship with American student and aspiring journalist Patricia (Jean Seberg). The film is known for its stylistic innovations and bleak tone. The impact of the film on viewers was immediate. Soon after original release, Godard won the Jean Vigo prize, and the money made in the box office was 50 times the initial investment. Even now, 62 years later, Breathless can be consistently found on lists of the most influential movies of all time. The critic Roger Ebert, years later, wrote: “No debut film since Citizen Kane [….] has been as influential.” The critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes says: “Breathless rewrote the rules of cinema – and more than 50 years after its arrival, Jean-Luc Godard’s paradigm-shifting classic remains every bit as vital.”

Contempt (French: Le Mépris) is a 1963 French New Wave drama film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Contempt

Year: 1963
French title: Le Mepris
Godard liked to make films about films, and in Contempt, he explicitly did so. This film is about the disintegration of the marriage between a screenwriter and his wife, who begins to get drawn towards the film’s producer. It has big name stars like Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot, and legendary director Fritz Lang appears as himself. Unlike Godard’s previous efforts, which appear as edgy, quickly-made indie films, Contempt is a big budget offering that has elements to appeal to more mainstream crowds. That is not to say Godard’s hallmarks aren’t there – they certainly are. Plenty of experimentation with visuals and editing are on display here, but there is also a meatier story here than, say, Breathless. The film was a massive critical success. A Sight & Sound critic called it “the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe.” Martin Scorsese said it was “one of the greatest films ever made about the actual process of film-making.”

Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) is a 1964 French New Wave film directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Band of Outsiders

Year: 1964
French title: Bande a part
Quentin Tarantino loved this film so much, he named his production company A Band Part. Not only that, he paid homage to a dance scene from the film in Pulp Fiction. That’s right, the unforgettable dance scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman was a nod to Godard. The film is about three young people, two of them movie buffs (of course!), who decide to commit a robbery. This is a playful, self-referential film, where the actors live in a world constructed of their imagination. They pretend that they are gangsters, when they are really not. When things get real and the stakes get high, of course things change, but then again, the audience, along with Godard, really know that the characters are indeed actors, and none of this is real. The film is good fun for lighter moods. Godard himself described it as “Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka.” Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the characters is called Franz.

Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville) is a 1965 French New Wave science fiction neo-noir film directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Alphaville

Year: 1965
French title: Alphaville: une entrange aventure de Lemmy Caution
Alphaville is the only film on this list which is explicitly science fiction. It blends the genres of dystopian sci-fi with film noir, with a result that is pure Godard. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965, and has created far-reaching ripples in popular culture. Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami have alluded to the film in their books, and an actual suburb called Alphaville exists in Brazil. The basic plot, to contemporary viewers, will seem like well-trodden dystopian fare: The distant space city of Alphaville is in the grips of a tyrannical ruler, and a secret agent must uncover the workings of the city, find a missing person, and free the city. The tyrannical ruler in question is the AI system Alpha 60, which has banned free thought, individualism, love, poetry, and emotion. While an AI villain may not at all seem like a novel idea to contemporary audiences, Godard’s film, which predates Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by three years, was a game-changer of its time.

Pierrot le Fou is a 1965 French New Wave film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Pierrot le fou

Year: 1965
In this film, Godard really stretches the French New Wave’s stylistic innovations to the extreme. Characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera, visuals drawn from cartoons are employed, and a bold editing style is on display – even by Godard’s standards. The plot involves Pierrot (played by Breathless hero Jean-Paul Belmondo) feeling stifled by his lifestyle in Paris, and going on the run with his girlfriend Marianne (played by Anna Karina). They steal a car, go on a crime spree, and pretty much live outside the law. For those looking for a conventional movie experience, perhaps with a satisfying story, Pierrot le fou will probably be extremely frustrating. As a gangster film or as a thriller, it is certainly not very satisfying, but as an example of what made Jean-Luc Godard such an influential figure in the film-making world of the 1960s, the film is the perfect pick.

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