How Jean-Luc Godard Embodied Revolutionary Cinema

What kind of revolutionary filmmaker was Jean-Luc Godard? This is not an easy question to answer in periods when the divide between art and politics is hard to bridge in practice.

Jean-Luc Godard directs Brigitte Bardot during the filming of Contempt in 1963. (Jean-Louis Swiners / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The subtitle of Bert Rebhandle’s book about the films and the life of Jean-Luc Godard raises a question. What kind of “revolutionary” filmmaker was Jean-Luc Godard (1930–2022)? He was a master of composition, the use of bright colors, and contrapuntal sound. His films are full of “characters,” fragments of roles and relationships, that are rotated through abruptly, without much in the way of plot or psychological motivation. His tracking shots, absurd scenarios, use of quotations, mixing of B-movie tropes with high culture, use of text and titles popping on the screen, branching out into completely nonlinear video essays — these became part of Godard’s signature.

Godard was a revolutionary regarding his attitude toward cinema and his refusal to ever stop interrogating it, dismantling it even. The extent to which he was a revolutionary in a more straightforward political sense is another question. Is it possible for an artist, journalist, academic, or philosopher to be a revolutionary today? Such a moniker requires a revolutionary milieu, the absence of which has marked the last few decades and marks Godard’s trajectory. However, even when there was something like a revolutionary conjuncture for Godard to relate to in the ’60s and ’70s, the politics of form that Godard was invested in often made any relationship to such a movement problematic.

Only in periods when revolution becomes a mass movement can the deep divisions, in Europe and America at least, between the artistic avant-garde and the political avant-garde begin to close. Otherwise, what Peter Wollen called “the two avant-gardes” remain separated by the divisions of class and culture that advanced Western capitalism, with its mass-media domination of everyday life and popular culture, has managed to build.1 This is not necessarily the case elsewhere. When you watch a documentary by Patricio Guzmán for example, such as The Pearl Button (2015), what is striking is the poetic wisdom with which ordinary people speak unselfconsciously, speech that then harmonizes with the poetic qualities that Guzmán conjures from the landscape. But Latin America is a different continent, and the gulf between intellectuals and ordinary people is easier to bridge. In the Global North, the institutions of the middle class have been constructed around what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital, which concerns distinctions of taste that reproduce rather than dismantle class divisions. Godard wrote about storming the fortress of cinema in the 1960s, only to later be imprisoned by it. But cinema is part of a complex of institutions — bourgeois institutions into which Godard was ineluctably ensnared.

The political modernism that produced Godard’s most celebrated period, and in my view, his most fertile, between À Bout De Souffle (1959) and Letter to Jane (1972), requires, in Perry Anderson’s formulation, certain coordinates: a classicism of artistic rules and a canon against which the new modernist art can kick and rebel, as well as a broader classical culture of the past that can be reinterpreted in the present (think T. S. Eliott); a rapid transformation of relations thanks to capitalism’s own version of “permanent revolution,” especially in the field of technologies of transport, communication, and cultural production, that alter the tissue of everyday life; and, finally, “the imaginative proximity of social revolution” that promises to turn the potentialities glimpsed in capitalism into some alternative to it. If the rise of Stalinism and Nazism, the victory of the Allies in World War II, and the triumph of the West in the Cold War snuffed out political modernism, France in the late ’50s and 1960s experienced, Anderson argues, “a brief afterglow of the earlier conjuncture,” and Godard was political modernism’s most daring exponent.2

This is not the sort of historical and social analysis you will find in Rebhandl’s book, however. While not an academic volume, it offers an informed and intelligent discussion of Godard’s films and lots of interesting background detail behind the circumstances of their production. Nonetheless, the book is very much addressed to an audience that thinks of Godard in traditional terms as a Great Artist, abstracted from context except where the artist intersects personally with “history.” This is less true of the first chapter, which sets the scene and traces Godard’s emergence out of a collective — the group of film critics around Cahiers du Cinema who would later become the filmmakers of the French nouvelle vague.

The Cahiers critics rebelled against the “quality” cinema of both Hollywood and the French industry. They rewrote the canon with their preference for B movies, out-of-favor directors, and productions made on the margins of the studio system by outfits like Monogram. Rebhandl maps all this out very nicely. The emphasis that the Cahiers critics placed on form, especially mise-en-scène, is underlined, and the question of the politics of form more broadly would become central to both film theory and Godard’s work. Rebhandl is familiar with the theoretical debates around Godard’s work but is not interested in interposing much of that scholarly literature between Godard and the reader. Sometimes this is a loss. Weekend (1967), for example, was basically made because Godard wanted to experiment with what turned out to be a three-hundred-meter tracking shot of an absurd traffic jam. The discussion of this shot, one of the great moments of cinema, is disappointing and would be so enriched by Brian Henderson’s discussion of the anti-bourgeois “flatness” of the shot as a critique of the ideological connotations of “depth of field,” which conveys a rich world of human agency and possibility.3

Once the Cahiers period is dealt with and Godard’s filmmaking begins, Rebhandl’s focus narrows on the emerging artist. Rebhandl commits himself to assessing each film in chronological order. A more selective and thematic account might have yielded greater dividends, more depth, and less breadth. Inevitably, some, although by no means all, of the discussions of the films are quite descriptive, given the ambition to say something about each one in chronological order.

While the focus of the book is on the films themselves, there is also important biographical information, and it becomes clear how much of Godard’s biography does enter the films. Rebhandl suggests A Married Woman (1964) is Godard’s first avant-garde film, his first decisive reworking of his anarchic pop-art enthusiasms into a sustained, reflexive critique of cinema and its images at the level of form. It also features Godard’s wife, Anna Karina — who had started an affair with another actor — playing a wife who is having an affair with an airline pilot. Sexual politics is central to Godard’s films and life, often in ways that remind you of the difference between cultural works of great importance and the ethical shortcomings of the people who produce them.

The more interesting questions concerning Godard’s turn toward political modernism — how it related to fresh waves in the commodification of life in mass culture (advertising, photography, and film, analyzed so perceptively by Roland Barthes), what other critical political-cultural currents were at work (the situationists), how the proximity of revolution through the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the time was making itself felt — are unfortunately absent. The growing strength of the Socialist Party as an electoral force was another indicator of mass political currents turning left. Yet Godard’s turn to revolutionary politics is, of course, given the approach of the book, explained solely in terms of his biography: his falling in love with Anne Wiazemsky, whose student circles at Nanterre University brought Godard into direct contact with the revolutionary left. In terms of sexual politics, Godard, according to Wiazemsky, became besotted with her after seeing her photograph in Le Figaro. Godard was as much a victim of capitalism’s machinery of desire as he was an interrogator of it.

The chapter dealing with the eight-year period of 1959–1967 is forty-three pages long. The chapter dealing with the five-year 1967–1972 period of revolutionary cinema is only twenty-one pages long. Despite the lack of selectivity implied by the chronological treatment of Godard’s filmography, there does seem to be some hidden selectivity at work in those choices. Perhaps, for Rebhandl, Godard’s interest in revolutionary politics is less interesting because it seemed to be only of transient interest to Godard himself. The real problem for Godard, however, was that the two avant-gardes could only be brought together for a limited period, and with great difficulty even then. Here is Rebhandl describing Godard’s first pitch to the other filmmakers contributing to Far from Vietnam (1967):

Godard wanted to show what bombs can do to a naked woman’s body (“the warmest and liveliest thing there is”). He didn’t consider representing it pictorially; he wanted instead to represent it in the form of a combination of image and sound — the sound is supposed to tear the skin of the image and make the body of the film explode. When he presented this idea to the collective, he was met with rejection: too allegorical, insufficiently concrete, insufficiently political.4

A similar problem, a tendency toward abstract formalism, arose following Godard’s invitation in 1978 to go to Mozambique and contribute to the revolutionary government’s film and television plans. There, with his then long-term partner and wife Anne-Marie Miéville, Godard ruminated on utopian projects, including a television system that would invent its own technology, eschewing the production equipment of the Western corporations and even the broadcasting standards of PAL and SECAM. Needless to say, Godard’s attempt to connect with a revolution on these terms went nowhere.

By the time Godard made First Name: Carmen (1983), when the Socialist Party, under François Mitterrand, was abandoning its socialist policy program, the young, student-type insurrectionists who featured in Godard’s films were now merely bank robbers and kidnappers with no political vision at all. Godard appears in the film as himself, in a sanitorium — a nice touch in an insane world. By now the conceptual counterrevolution against Marxism in French intellectual circles was well underway. Rebhandl’s discussion of Godard’s films becomes increasingly focused on the multiple references to the works of literature, music, painting, philosophy, and historiography that were informing Godard’s thinking and work. Godard himself becomes more than a film director and, through the essay form in particular, a philosopher working with sounds and images.

For Rebhandl, Godard is something of an outsider who does not belong anywhere — too trenchantly deconstructive of cinema and television to fit in, yet, working in the medium of image and sound, not a writer either. There is something to this, and Godard’s own peculiar self-exile in the small town of Rolle, in Switzerland, underscores the sense of isolation. Yet despite this lack of fit, there is a sense in which Godard functions as part of the cultural capital of the intelligentsia. Certainly, Godard’s multiple allusions to other cultural works are more interesting to Rebhandl than those leftist political currents that were once more prevalent.

The Left, for Rebhandl, is just one more place where Godard does not seem to fit, rather than the key to understanding his trajectory. From the 1980s onward, Godard’s interests become more “universal” and more about the tragedy of human existence, which, no matter how terrible, is a way of framing problems that conveniently lets capitalism off the hook. The Holocaust looms large here, and this is paired with Godard’s concern about the destruction of Palestine by the Israeli state. Inevitably, this pairing leads to accusations of antisemitism, against which Rebhandl defends Godard.

Godard’s massive, decade-long project that ended up being the multipart Histoire(s) du cinéma was completed in 1998. Using an essay form (“essay” in the sense of a highly poetic associational logic rather than a linearly structured argument) and mostly archival film, Godard attempts to read the history of the twentieth century through film and vice versa. The DVD of Histoire(s) was accompanied by a book form of the project and a CD of the soundtrack. Rebhandl describes Histoire(s) as “a total work of art that deliberately overtaxes the human senses and intellectual capacities.” Or, as one commentator on Reddit noted, trying to watch Godard’s Histoire(s) “makes me feel stupid.”5

Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat (1977) opens with a comparable attempt to speak of history through film and film through history. He cuts between Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), about the 1905 uprising against the tsar, and 1960s documentary footage of protests, demonstrations, and confrontations with police. The visual parallels between the fictional film and the documentary footage are astonishing, and the technical skills and research that must have gone into matching the visual parallels are impressive. Although ambitious as a concept, nobody watching this opening sequence would feel “stupid.” The point being made — about resistance, struggle, oppression, hope, and solidarity — has a lucidity that seems lost on us now. It was not only Godard who got imprisoned in the fortress but intellectuals more generally.

Still, the fortress has cracks in it. Godard’s ideas can be taken up by others and distilled into something that makes more concessions to what passes for pleasure and intelligibility while still committing to critique, including to a critique of our habits and expectations around the language of film. In this, Godard is like any philosopher, dependent on his or her ideas being translated into a more popular idiom to gain traction with enough people to become “history.” Film Socialisme (2010), for example, a meditation on European civilization that is set, in the first part, on a luxury liner, seems to have been the allegorical inspiration for Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022), which is also set, at least for a long section, on a luxury cruise liner. There are many Godardian types, absurdist scenarios, and formal devices in Östlund’s film, but it is put together with more of an eye toward audience comprehension than Godard could muster in his later years.6

Godard’s films always give a sense of being experiments, intellectual prototypes for a future audio-visual language using, perhaps, some yet-to-be-invented technologies. In the afterword to the book, written for this English translation, Rebhandl notes that Godard, in his assisted suicide, died accepting “the unknowability of his future legacy.” In that sense, Godard’s time may be yet to come, the true avant-garde he was.

About the Author

Michael Wayne is a professor in media and film studies at Brunel University London. His most recent book is Marxism Goes to the Movies (Routledge, 2020).