Jean-Luc Godard: On Prophecy and Pastiche

Samuel McIlhagga

In 2011, I was 16 years old. The year before, still a high school student, I had attended the university tuition protests in the U.K. and believed the world was about to change. It was summer, and I was in the midst of a teenage love affair, hiding out in a rainy Cornish village. A film began to play on the old rear-projection TV.

Letters in primary colors and modernist fonts flash in front of artfully cut images of watery landscapes. A brooding main character wonders about another mysterious main character: “Perhaps she’s a Fabian. That would make her a socialist who advocates gradual change.” Key narrative moments take place under industrial bridges, in imitation of gangster and noir films. Politics, pop culture, youth and the image are blended into a mesmerizing whole that seems out of the ordinary, out of time. From that moment, for me, radical politics came in an antique olive typeface on a black background.   

The film, though, is quite recent: Richard Ayoade’s Submarine (2010). This was my, and many others’, first indirect taste of what we would later know to be the influence of the French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, who died in September at 91. I later learned that, without having seen any of Godard’s films, I had been watching him for years, through the work of Ayoade, Jim Jarmusch, Wong Kar-wai, Wes Anderson, and in the detritus of innumerable half-forgotten short student films, TV shows, music videos, adverts. The vast extent of Godard’s influence would eventually leave the master political filmmaker trapped under the weight of his aesthetic power; in many ways, Godard the man, Godard the filmmaker, became merely Godard the brand.

Godard was born into a wealthy French-speaking Swiss Protestant family of bankers and intellectuals, growing up between Switzerland and Paris while sporadically attending the Sorbonne. Despite his commitment to Marxism, he spent time in right-wing milieus with the journalist and author Jean Parvulesco, who was influenced by the esoteric fascist philosopher Julias Evola and was associated with the French New Right led by Alain De Benoist. Parvulesco was played by Jean-Pierre Melville in Godard’s breakthrough feature film, À bout de souffle, or Breathless (1960).

In that seminal film, he acts as the prototypical French public intellectual, provocatively dealing in essentialist categories before proclaiming that his greatest ambition is to, “Become immortal, then die.” And why not? Philosophically, immortality was right around the corner for the denizens of President De Gaulle and Pompidou’s France, where technological and economic advances came at a furious pace. Parvulesco’s cavalier disavowal of immortality was in keeping with the arrogance of a European epoch certain of material progress and blind to the contingency of its continuation. 

Indeed, Godard’s early films, including À bout de souffle (1960) and Bande à Parte, or A Band Apart (1964) make an attempt to attack the preceding generation, which had fought the war and built modern France. This was a generation that, like West Germany, had retained a deep encrustation of former Nazi collaborators who had survived the initial anti-fascist purges of the 1940s. Yet across Western Europe, from the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, Action Directe in France, and the Italian Red Bridages during the “Years of Lead,” multiple groups that purported to be responding to the fascism of the preceding generation and the confusing miasma of NATO’s “stay-behind operations” began organizing in the 1960s, graduating to political violence in the 1970s.   

Godard was prescient, as ever, on this issue. Yet in his earlier films, he made his attack on the war generation through a glorification of petty criminality, nihilistic libertarianism, and individualistic violence, which can feel like a vaudeville mimicry of the terror vetted out by their Vichy parents to Jews, leftists, trade unionists, and Gallic resistance fighters. The violence of these seminal films remains aimless, kitted out in consumer goods that gesture toward the conditions from which the protagonists find themselves so alienated.

Much of Godard’s need to break structures was, at the start of his career, channeled into the formal innovations that helped create the New Wave of French cinema, alongside filmmakers like Agnès Varda, Èric Rohmer, and François Truffaut. Truffaut even wrote a rough manifesto in the film journal Cahiers du cinéma called “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” (1954), which decried the postwar tradition of quality adaptations of novels and plays. Instead, Truffaut proclaimed, it was necessary to develop a prominently visual and eternally present mode of filmmaking. The fact that the majority of the New Wave generation had seen newsreels of the extermination camps as children would inform this need to find reality onscreen—either by the sublimation of the terrors of the 20th century, or by their disinterment at a later date. 

Indeed, this was probably a safe place to start. Godard’s own family, according to biographer Richard Brody, was deeply anti-Semitic and pro-Vichy. Godard grew up listening to pro-Philippe Pétain radio and reading the fascist pamphlets of Lucien Rebatet with his grandfather. His own youth in the 1950s and early 1960s was backgrounded by the three-way colonial civil war between the FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front), the French government, and the forces of the pied-noirs, or white Algerians, which consisted of the FAF (French Algerian Front) and the OAS (Secret Armed Organization), two right-wing paramilitary groups opposed to Algerian independence.

Godard’s often-overlooked 1963 film Le petit soldat (The Little Soldier), technically his second feature, deals with the Algerian decolonization process by focusing on a relationship between Bruno Forestier, an OAS assassin posing as a journalist, and Véronica Dreyer, an aspiring actress and FLN operative. Le petit soldat initially went into production after À bout de souffle in 1960 but was banned by the French authorities for depicting politically motivated torture. While the violence of Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel in À bout de souffle, channeled through the aesthetics of American gangster films and the glamor of Humphrey Bogart, remained acceptable to French society, a cinematic depiction of the ongoing conflict proved unpalatable. 

Godard recognized this tendency to push down the temporal and psychic proximity of the violence of World War II. His initial choice to aestheticize the dark side of the human conscious suffused Le petit soldat with a sophisticated tension. Indeed, Bruno and Véronica engage in a performance of aestheticism, where they both pretend to be model and photographer. This game of double duplicity continuously draws them back to memories of World War II and fascism; Véronica compares the shoot to “being questioned by the police.” Their flirtation eventually leads to a conversation about the ambiguous death of her parents—at the hands of either Nazis or Communists. Bruno comments that, “Suddenly [I] had the extraordinary feeling that I was photographing Death.” However, this deep seam of violence in post-war European life is buried once more as everything, in Bruno’s words, “returns to normal.” Godard’s deep uncertainty about what might lay hiding behind his aestheticism was not taken up by many of the later films that owed a debt to his work. The seams that he was mining, the fissures he cracked open, never gave way to films that deepened and extended his inchoate critique. Instead, we returned to a cinema of pure visuality, which quotes Godard far less skeptically than the director himself once quoted the Hollywood greats that preceded the New Wave. 

At times, we all may display a tendency to absorb politics as much from media as from theory and experience. Godard’s early work, such as À bout de souffle (1960), Bande à part (1964) Week-end (1967) and La Chinoise (1967) would transmit a powerful vision of aestheticized and periodized political action. Godard’s idea of what this political change meant in practice would change over the 1960s from a libertarian “rebel-without-a-cause” criminality to a politically committed Marxism (if one inflected by some boomer cultural sensibilities).

Both of these modes endured into the next century. During the quietism of the 2000s and early 2010s, political change in the U.K. could still come in corduroy flares and Beatles cuts. As a teenager at a 2010 protest against tuition fees, I watched the Conservative Party’s HQ on the Thames burn while students rushed by and reenacted scenes from their grandparents’ generation—a generation that had rejected its own forbearers.   

Godard’s powerful, historically particular vision of what was then futuristic—and is now nostalgic—has come to inform our understanding of progress and politics. We have decided to recycle our cultural past, in mourning for the unrealized potential of half-remembered cultural moments like May 1968, only synecdoches of actual material change. This is a process of haunting, which the theorist Mark Fisher claimed leads to a focus on “lost futures.” A society becomes captured by these foreclosed paths when contemporary capitalism becomes so rapacious that it precludes even basic social-democratic programs that allow for subsistence-level lives. We then become obsessed with a set of unrealized futures promised by the near past: the Derridean notion of “hauntology.” The profound melancholy that this realization generates needs to be neutralized—and so the past becomes objectified, then recycled. 

For instance, the criminality of Odile, Franz, and Arthur in Bande à part becomes the respectable middle-class sentimentality of Nick and Meg in Hanif Kureishi’s homage Le Week-End (2014); the challenging Maoist politics of La Chinoise and Godard’s British counterpart Lindsay Anderson’s if…(1968) are diminished to youthful eccentricities at the hands of Wes Anderson in The French Dispatch (2021). Godard’s early films have been emptied of content, while his aesthetics have been preserved, cast in amber. His 1960s protagonists have grown up, become civil servants, professors, or journalists in Paris; they have made investments and raised rents, become reactionaries. They vote for the nationalist Éric Zemmour, charmed by his literary exclamations, or otherwise respectably lump for the neoliberal Emmanuel Macron and En Marche. It is easier to constantly replay 1968 through visual quotation than accept its failure. We have instead taken up residence in a separate future, shaped by the cultural backlash, economic crisis, and neoliberal turn of the late 1970s that introduced a glimpse of scarcity to the continent.  

It is perhaps because of this that modern filmmakers maintain a focus on Godard’s early films leading up to 1968. We yearn for the lost potential of the hippie and student movements, just as we pine for our own experiences as young people watching these seminal films for the first time. As technological capitalism progresses, directors like Ayoade and Anderson are caught in the same cultural loop—nostalgia, homage, pastiche—that is the ubiquitous, perhaps defining, feature of 21st-century culture.

Yet Godard himself outgrew his early work and carried on creating political films into his 80s, with ambitions to transcend the narrow aesthetics of an idealized 1960s. It is these films, for which Godard often enlisted the Dziga Vertov Group, a collaboration named after the Soviet director, that offers a real and substantial challenge to the endless cultural recycling. They are awkward and urgent films that often shock the viewer as they attempt to negate traditional narrative arcs.
Indeed, Godard’s work of the 1960s, made during France’s trente glorieuses, shares a comfortable suburban consumerist ennui and quietism with those directors that followed him during the boom years of the 1990s and 2000s. While we should not aim to recycle these films nor their tropes, there is a shared terrain here: between the political, economic, and energy crises of the 1970s, when the Dziga Vertov Group films were made, and our modern disarray. It is that work that should speak to us. But does it?

For Godard, becoming an overtly political filmmaker came as a trade-off: some of the spontaneous joy of his early films was lost in his quest to materially reinvent filmmaking. This is a point the director Michel Hazanavicius makes in his 2017 Godard biopic Redoubtable. In it, a fictional fan asks Godard, “When are you going to make funny films again?”

Godard’s Dziga Vertov Group project attempted to make films that were truly populist, screening them at trade unions and political meetings. However, the deep influence of poststructuralism and new theorizing about the destabilization of meaning—especially Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967)—alienated Godard’s audience, and his collaborations with other filmmakers never really reached the mass public. Godard’s embrace of philosophical deconstruction would push beyond the bounds of his earlier experiments with form. Though the outcome was not inevitable, for Godard, formal innovation and political invention found themselves at loggerheads.

However, now and again, Godard’s twin pulls—politics and aesthetics—come together to produce humane comedy that still gestured at underlying structures. As, for instance, in Week-end (1967), when a convertible carrying bourgeois Parisian socialites crashes into a mud-strewn French farmer who quotes Marx and plays “The Internationale” on an analog radio. It is in these moments, which lay outside the Godard that has been digested by mass media, that he manages to recombine the artistic and the political into something surprising and new. However, Godard’s ability to present us with “newness” has been continuously frustrated by a set of deadening visual shorthands that have been recycled and reused by a film industry concerned with profit over innovation. 

The 21st first century’s cannibalistic hunger for the New Wave led to Godard becoming a reclusive resident of Rolle, a village in Switzerland, during his later years. Swiss law permits assisted dying; in the end, the 91-year-old Godard, debilitated by multiple illnesses, chose to end his life on his own terms. Unlike his friend and fellow New Wave director Agnes Varda, Godard never escaped his own frame of reference to the degree necessary to mock the empty aestheticism of the world’s secondhand “Godardianism.” Still, he did try to grow beyond it. Indeed, Godard moved through history, negotiating the triumphs and failures of his always-evolving ideas about politics and filmmaking. He was the last person who would have hoped for secular sainthood, or the founding of a visual, symbolic, static lingua Godard—and yet, despite his late efforts, it is that hidebound set of signifiers that remains. ♦




Samuel McIlhagga is a freelance journalist, book reviewer, and writer based in the U.K. 

Consider supporting Protean Magazine on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!