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Godard, my Neighbour

Goran Gocić


Hanne Karin Bayer arrived in Paris in 1957, a 17-year-old runaway from a broken home in Denmark, with little money and no knowledge of French. A woman approached her in a cafe in the Latin Quarter and offered her work as a model. The following year, a promising Parisian cinema critic with the pen name Hans Lucas was hastily preparing his first feature film. He spotted Hanne in a shampoo advert and offered her a role.

This is how Anna Karina, her professional name, and Jean-Luc Godard, his real name, met. She refused the role but accepted his marriage proposal in 1961. She was 21; he, ten years her senior. By 1967, they had created seven films together – all of them trespasses against convention. 

Karina became the icon of the French ‘nouvelle vague’, or new wave of experimental cinema. Godard was its unelected, highly articulate prophet. He never hesitated to plunge into controversy: the Algerian war of independence which continued until 1962 was addressed in The Little Soldier (made in 1960 but not released until 1963), amateur prostitution in My Life to Live (1962) and in Two or Three Things I Know About her (1967). Godard belonged to the Parisian intellectual scene at its peak in the 1960s, when people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were writing for newspapers. 

The characters in Godard’s films were all good looking, able-bodied folk in their prime – as if ready to do an advertisement for Kellogg’s. Godard selected actresses as if scouting for a beauty contest: Brigitte Bardot, Marina Vlady, Macha Méril, Jane Fonda. In this respect, he remained hopelessly bourgeois. 

But what else could he be? He was born into a wealthy, well-connected French-Swiss family. His father was a physician; one of his cousins established Paribas bank, another became President of Peru. Jean-Luc, however, was in permanent rebellion – and could be spiteful, as he was towards André Bazin, his editor at the Cahiers du Cinéma. Urban legend has it that Godard requested ‘on the contrary’ etched on his gravestone. 

Godard enrolled in anthropology at the Sorbonne but did not attend, preferring to spend time in the jazz dens of Rue de Rennes. During one of those sessions, with Truffaut, they say, a synopsis for Godard’s 1960 film Breathless was outlined by Truffaut on a serviette. Godard’s filmmaker colleagues Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Truffaut strove to tell stories and entertain audiences; Godard preferred to provoke them. They swore their allegiances to Hitchcock, Godard preferred Brecht. His family was upper middle class; he declared himself a Marxist.

After the student protests of May 1968, Godard made an honest attempt to break away from parlour Marxism and prove himself worthy of his political project. He denounced stripes, stars, and fiction. As if caught up in Sartre’s dilemma of ‘bad faith’, in which we deceive ourselves that we are what we are and have no choice, Jean-Luc Godard even refused to play the role of Jean-Luc Godard.

In short, he was back where he started – in Latin Quarter filmmakers’ cooperatives during the 1950s, when he and his peers worked on each other’s projects without fees or prejudices. But Jean-Luc eventually waved goodbye to the ‘nouvelle vague’ and said hello to the Maoist and Soviet influenced Dziga Vertov Group – a new gang of filmmakers working in response to the radical intellectual ideas of Althusser, Foucault and Lacan.

In a film co-directed with Anne-Marie Miéville, 2 x 50 years of French Cinema (1995), Godard interrupts his on-screen interlocutor: ‘A-ha – the history of cinema is counted from the date its exploitation began!’ This simple maxim proved critical to his work during his coquetry with revolution. An anti-capitalist, his films denounced all forms of exploitation, including theatrical distribution. Impossible to see anywhere, they fell victim to their maker’s radicalism.

By the second half of the 1970s, Godard had sobered up from the revolutionary hangover. He renewed the contract with Mephistopheles, opting to work for television and shoot low-budget videos, thus serving the people. His works again starred his and Truffaut’s leading actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, again got sent to festivals, again sold to distribution chains. 

Perhaps capitalism is, as Churchill observed of democracy, the worst economic system – except for all the others. In the 1980s, Godard reminds me of Ace – the hero of Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) – he ends up in some small, unventilated studio with a pair of strong spectacles, playing with video and evoking memories. Or is it just called ageing?

Attendance at the London Film Festival in 1987 offered me the privilege of catching a Godard double bill. Or so I thought: the avid interest in his King Lear (1987) left me stranded in the National Film Theatre’s deserted cafe while the film was running in front of a packed audience. I spotted a discreet gentleman reading a book. Balding hair, a week-old beard, thick tinted eyeglasses, badly matched colours, a mandatory scarf. Putain!

I approached the table. ‘Excuse me, sir, this might sound silly – but are you a certain Jean-Luc Godard?’ ‘Yes,’ the man replied, measuring me up. I was dressed like one of his 1960s characters: every piece of clothing on me was scarlet. ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ ‘Please.’ 

I started asking him about his films; he responded in perfect English. But good things never last – a festival photographer sprang up from nowhere blinding us with a flash. Other journalists started crowding the table. My private masterclass soon turned into a cacophony of requests. 

So this is why he came unannounced to London. Perhaps the price of such enormous creativity and fame is this need to hide from the world. Godard established a creative and life-long partnership with the filmmaker and editor Anne-Marie Miéville, and in the 1990s withdrew to a small town on Lake Geneva.

As an ex-Yugoslav, I postponed indefinitely watching his short I salute you, Sarajevo (1993) shot at the time of the siege. When I eventually saw it, I cried.

Looking back, what I remember about Jean-Luc Godard are scenes. A meditation over a coffee cup from Two or Three Things, a virtuoso sequence-shot of marriage proposal in Masculine Feminine (1966), a dialogue in which the camera remains fixed on Nana’s face in A Woman is a Woman (1961), a shock when Pierrot addresses the audience in Pierrot le Fou (1965), when peasants return from war in Les Carabiniers (1963), the endless traffic jam which opens Weekend (1967).

All are celebrations of sensuality, seeming to jump out directly from the treasury of subconsciousness. They are the Roland Barthes’ punctum, David Lynch’s eye of a duck – the point of impact. They remain permanently etched in one’s memory. This is cinema as pure as it gets.

If I had to summarise the 131 films by Jean-Luc Godard, I’d find myself in trouble. Perhaps the habit of following a coherent plotline makes Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963) so popular among cinema buffs. My personal favourites, however, are Two or Three Things and British Sounds (1969). The former is the most ingenious of Godard’s film-essays, the latter his best documentary.

Even though his three spouses were public figures like himself, Godard kept his private affairs private. I have read books on him and by him, but only recently did I learn that he was a father of three. Jean-Luc eventually addressed what Camus posed as the one really serious philosophical question – ‘and that is suicide’. 

He was 91.

Jean-Luc Godard, the most influential filmmaker in the history of cinema. Born in Paris, 3 December 1930. Died in Rolle, 13 September 2022. My contemporary. My role-model. My inspiration. My acquaintance. The subject of my dissertation. My favourite artist. My kindred soul. My neighbour.