Jean-Luc Godard, the daringly progressive director and provocateur whose unconventional camera work, disjointed narrative style and penchant for radical politics modified the course of filmmaking within the Nineteen Sixties, leaving a long-lasting influence on it, died on Tuesday at his home in Rolle, Switzerland. He was 91.
His longtime legal adviser, Patrick Jeanneret, said Mr. Godard died by assisted suicide, having suffered from “multiple disabling pathologies.”
“He couldn’t live such as you and me, so he decided with an important lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, ‘Now, it’s enough,’” Mr. Jeanneret said in a phone interview. Mr. Godard desired to die with dignity, Mr. Jeanneret said, and “that was exactly what he did.”
A master of epigrams in addition to of flicks, Mr. Godard once observed, “A movie consists of a starting, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.”
In practice he seldom scrambled the timeline of his movies, preferring as an alternative to step forward through his narratives by means just like the elliptical “jump cut,” which he did much to make right into a widely accepted tool. But he never bored with taking apart established forms and reassembling them in ways in which were invariably fresh, continuously witty, sometimes abstruse but consistently stimulating.
As a young critic within the Fifties, Mr. Godard was one in every of several iconoclastic writers who helped turn a latest publication called Cahiers du Cinéma right into a critical force that swept away the old guard of the European art cinema and replaced it with latest heroes largely drawn from the ranks of the American industrial cinema — directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.
When his first feature-length film as a director, “Breathless” (“À Bout de Souffle”), was released in 1960, Mr. Godard joined several of his Cahiers colleagues in a movement that the French press soon labeled la Nouvelle Vague — the Recent Wave.
For Mr. Godard, in addition to for Recent Wave friends and associates like François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, the “tradition of quality” represented by the established French cinema was an aesthetic dead end. To them it was strangled by literary influences and empty displays of expertise that needed to be vanquished to make room for a latest cinema, one which sprang from the personality and predilections of the director.
Although “Breathless” was not the primary Recent Wave film (each Mr. Chabrol’s 1958 “Beau Serge” and Mr. Truffaut’s 1959 “400 Blows” preceded it), it became representative of the movement. Mr. Godard unapologetically juxtaposed plot devices and characters inherited from genre movies and emotional material dredged up, in almost diarylike form, from the filmmaker’s personal life.
The film tells the story of a small-time Parisian crook (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as he commits muggings to gather enough money to run off to Rome with an American student (Jean Seberg), who seems indifferent to his romancing despite being pregnant by him.
“Breathless” is an inventive hybrid that appeared to capture the discontinuities and conflicts of contemporary life, half in the unreal public world created by the media and half within the deepest recesses of consciousness. In Mr. Godard’s later, more radical phase, he got here to suggest that there was no real distinction between the 2 realms.
“After ‘Breathless,’ anything artistic appeared possible within the cinema,” the critic Richard Brody wrote in “All the things Is Cinema: The Working Lifetime of Jean-Luc Godard.” “The film moved on the speed of the mind and seemed, unlike anything that preceded it, a live recording of 1 person considering in real time.
“It was also an important success, a watershed phenomenon,” Mr. Brody added. “Greater than some other event of its times, ‘Breathless’ inspired other directors to make movies in a latest way and sparked young people’s desire to make movies. It immediately launched cinema as the first art type of a latest generation.”
A brief, slight, often scruffy man with heavy-rimmed black glasses and an ever-present cigarette or cigar, Mr. Godard rarely gave interviews. When he did, he typically deflected probing questions on his life and art.
A journalist’s query in 1980 about his decision to maneuver out of Paris in 1974 to Grenoble, within the French Alps, after which to Switzerland, elicited several contradictory explanations — including an assertion by Mr. Godard that on a sudden whim someday, he had “just jumped into the automobile and took the highway.”
It was an outline of a famous scene in “Breathless” wherein Jean-Paul Belmondo impulsively steals an automobile in Marseille and drives off into the countryside and not using a plan.
“The issue of talking to people is that I actually have at all times confused cinema with life,” Mr. Godard said in that interview. “To me life is just a part of movies.”
In 2010, Mr. Godard, long at odds with Hollywood, was awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for lifetime achievement, but not without controversy. The award revived long-simmering accusations that Mr. Godard held antisemitic views.
He didn’t attend the ceremony, and when an interviewer afterward asked him what the award meant to him, he was blunt.
“Nothing,” he said. “If the academy likes to do it, allow them to do it.”
Born Into Wealth
Jean-Luc Godard was born on Dec. 3, 1930, in Paris, the second of 4 children in an extravagantly wealthy Protestant family. His French-born father, Paul-Jean, was a distinguished physician, and his mother, Odile Monod, was the daughter of a number one Swiss banker. Mr. Godard credited his parents with instilling in him a love for literature; he initially desired to be a novelist.
Paul-Jean Godard, who became a Swiss citizen, opened a clinic in Nyon, Switzerland, and Jean-Luc spent his early childhood there, visiting his family’s estates on each the French and Swiss sides of Lake Geneva and remaining there until the tip of World War II.
After France was liberated, he returned to Paris as a youngster to attend secondary school, the Lycée Buffon, then enrolled on the Sorbonne in 1949, aspiring to study ethnology. As a substitute he immersed himself in cinema, spending much of his time on the Cinémathèque Française, a nonprofit film archive and screening room, and within the film societies of the Latin Quarter.
It was on the Cinémathèque that he made the acquaintance of André Bazin, an influential film critic and theorist, and of the opposite young film enthusiasts in his circle, including Mr. Truffaut, Mr. Rohmer and Mr. Rivette. He began writing reviews for the magazine La Gazette du Cinéma in 1952 under the pseudonym Hans Lucas, and later joined Mr. Truffaut, Mr. Rohmer and Mr. Rivette as a contributor to Cahiers du Cinema, which Bazin had founded.
When his parents refused to support him financially, hoping that he would take more responsibility for himself, Mr. Godard began stealing money — from his members of the family and their friends and even from the office of Cahiers du Cinema. This went on for five years.
He distributed a number of the proceeds to fellow filmmakers, lending Mr. Rivette enough money to make his film debut with “Paris Belongs to Us.”
“I pinched money to give you the option to see movies and to make movies,” Mr. Godard told The Guardian in 2007.
After his mother secured a job for him with a Swiss television outfit, he stole from his employer and in 1952 landed in jail in Zurich. His father obtained his quick release, but only after Mr. Godard agreed to spend several months in a mental hospital.
He grew estranged from his parents, and when his mother died in a road accident in 1954, he didn’t attend the funeral.
A decade later, Mr. Godard paid homage of sorts to his mother in “Band of Outsiders,” a movie about two thieves who romance a young woman living in a villa. The feminine lead, played by Anna Karina, a Danish model who was Mr. Godard’s wife (his first) on the time, is called, like his mother, Odile, and, like his mother, she detests movies.
Mr. Godard’s personal and skilled lives intertwined throughout his profession. His first marriage, in 1961, to Ms. Karina, led to divorce in 1964. (She died in 2019.) In 1967, when he was 36, he married Anne Wiazemsky, an actress 16 years his junior who was starring in his film “La Chinoise.” Ms. Wiazemsky, who died in 2017, wrote two books about their marriage, which led to 1979. Twelve years ago, he married Anne-Marie Miéville, who survives him.
Mr. Godard developed the outline of “Breathless” in 1959, inspired by a newspaper clipping given to him by Mr. Truffaut. For his stars he selected Mr. Belmondo, the son of a widely known sculptor just at the start of his acting profession, and Ms. Seberg, an American actress whom the Cahiers critics had admired for her performances in two Otto Preminger movies, “Saint Joan” (1957) and “Bonjour Tristesse” (1958).
Mr. Godard remained best known for “Breathless” and a couple of dozen movies he made in quick succession afterward, ending with “Weekend” in 1967. University audiences identified with the doomed romanticism of Mr. Belmondo’s central character in “Breathless,” a petty criminal who identified with the doomed romanticism of the characters played by Humphrey Bogart within the American movies that Mr. Godard and his Cahiers colleagues admired.
On one level, “Breathless,” produced on a $70,000 budget, appeared to fulfill Mr. Godard’s famously dismissive dictum, “All you’ll want to make a movie is a lady and a gun.” However the herky-jerky rhythm — with scenes sometimes out of sequence — fascinated and bewildered audiences.
Writing a number of years after the film’s release, the cultural critic Susan Sontag likened its impact on cinema to the effect the Cubists had on traditional painting. And covering a 2000 revival screening of “Breathless,” the essayist and novelist Philip Lopate said he felt as exhilarated by the film as when he first saw it 40 years before.
Other great avant-garde movies were released concerning the same time: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” (1960), Mr. Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” (1960). “Yet only ‘Breathless’ seemed a revolutionary break with the cinema that had gone before,” Mr. Lopate wrote in The Recent York Times. “It seemed a latest type of storytelling, with its saucy jump cuts, digressions, quotes, in jokes and addresses to the viewer.”
The film became a global success, one in every of the larger industrial hits of Mr. Godard’s profession. There would even be an American remake in 1983 starring Richard Gere.
But somewhat than repeat the winning formula of “Breathless,” Mr. Godard introduced a component of radical politics into his next film, the grey, somber “Le Petit Soldat,” which criticized French conduct within the Algerian war for independence. The film was banned from French theaters for 3 years, during which era Mr. Godard directed a candy-colored, wide-screen homage to the Hollywood musical, “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961), starring Ms. Karina, and the stark, Scandinavian-influenced “My Life to Live” (1962), which solid her as a Paris housewife who drifts into a lifetime of prostitution.
In 1963, the Italian producer Carlo Ponti offered Mr. Godard a hefty budget and the services of Brigitte Bardot, then at the peak of her international popularity, to create a movie version of the Alberto Moravia novel “Il Disprezzo.” The resulting film was “Contempt,” the story of a screenwriter (played by Michel Piccoli) who’s hired by a venal American producer (Jack Palance) to punch up the script of an “Odyssey” being filmed in Rome by a veteran Hollywood director (Fritz Lang, playing himself).
The screenwriter struggles to keep up his integrity in regard to each his work and his wife (the producer appears to have designs on each), but finds his self-respect slipping away. Amid the standard Godardian fireworks — which include shots of Ms. Bardot’s nude backside, inserted to satisfy Mr. Ponti’s contractual demands — “Contempt” retains a quiet sense of human tragedy that for a lot of critics makes it the masterpiece of Mr. Godard’s first period.
Because the Nineteen Sixties unfolded, Mr. Godard continued to work at a breakneck pace, turning out sketches for compilation movies — including “RoGoPaG” (1963) and “Paris vu Par ” (1965) — alongside features like “Band of Outsiders” (1964), “Une Femme Mariée” (1964), “Pierrot le Fou” (1965) and “Masculin Féminin” (1966).
In “Alphaville” (1965), he plucked a personality from the French popular cinema, the private detective and undercover agent Lemmy Caution, together with the expatriate American actor Eddie Constantine, who had played Caution (or variations on the character) in lots of movies, and dropped him right into a dystopian future ruled by an enormous computer.
Despite his stylistic innovations, at this point Mr. Godard saw the world in traditional Romantic terms: as a struggle of a heroic individual against the forces of conformity and oppression.
That modified in February 1968, when he, together with several Recent Wave colleagues, improved to protest the choice by the French minister of culture, André Malraux, to force Henri Langlois to resign as chief of the Cinémathèque Française, the film archive that Mr. Langlois had helped present in 1936.
Demonstrations filled the streets and quickly grew to embrace impatient demands for a general restructuring of French society.
By the tip of April the demonstrations had grown violent. Two weeks later, Mr. Godard joined with Mr. Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, Louis Malle and other film figures to shut down the Cannes Film Festival. The protests of May 1968 were in full swing, and Mr. Godard was swinging with them, lashing out at his fellow filmmakers for failing to reveal sufficient solidarity with France’s striking students and staff.
For his part, Mr. Godard abandoned industrial cinema and plunged into radical politics, embarking on a series of movies, financed on the fly and shot in economical 16-millimeter, that attempted to depart fiction behind. After a pair of aggressively didactic movies, “Un Film Comme les Autres” (1968) and “Le Gai Savoir” (1969), and an abortive project with the Rolling Stones, released against Mr. Godard’s wishes as “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968), he joined with the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin to create a collective they named the Dziga Vertov Group, after the Soviet filmmaker whose efforts to create a latest type of political documentary they much admired.
The movies of this era, which include “The Wind From the East” (1970), “Struggle in Italy” (1971) and “Vladimir and Rosa” (1970), didn’t find wide distribution or wide acceptance, although they continue to be useful artifacts from a tumultuous time and helped open the strategy to the equally provocative but less ideologically confined movies that followed.
A 1972 try to move the ethos of the Vertov Group into the mainstream with the 35-millimeter feature “Tout Va Bien,” starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, was not a industrial success, though it did yield a brief film, “Letter to Jane,” which pointed the way in which toward the last third of Mr. Godard’s profession.
Because the camera scrutinizes a still photograph of Ms. Fonda taken in Hanoi, Vietnam, Mr. Godard, in voice-over, analyzes her expression and tries to situate the news photo throughout the context of publicity stills taken for Hollywood movies, including a shot of her father, Henry Fonda, as Tom Joad, the hero of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
‘Becoming an Adult’
Mr. Godard would carry this minimalist approach and essayistic structure into the emerging realm of video art, with works like “Numéro Deux” (written with Ms. Miéville) and the six-part television series “Six Fois Deux/Sur et Sous la Communication.”
These radically discontinuous works use rapid dissolves and densely layered soundtracks to flee linear narratives and ordered, rational arguments, plunging the viewer as an alternative right into a barrage of conflicting impressions, wildly assorted quotations, elaborate puns and paradoxical observations.
Mr. Godard said of the series, which attracted a number of publicity but few viewers: “It isn’t even a sketch. It’s the eraser, the paper to make the sketch.”
In 1979, Mr. Godard moved again, this time to Rolle, Switzerland, where he kept a house and production office — together with one other on the outskirts of Paris — for the rest of his profession.
Starting along with his gingerly return to mainstream filmmaking in 1980, with “Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)” (released in English as “Every Man for Himself”), Mr. Godard would move forwards and backwards between feature-length theatrical movies, often with major stars (“Détective,” with Johnny Hallyday; “Nouvelle Vague,” with Alain Delon; and “Hélas Pour Moi,” with Gérard Depardieu) and shorter, more casual film and video pieces intended for television and festival viewing.
Those works often featured Mr. Godard as himself commenting on just-completed movies (“Scénario du Film ‘Passion,’” 1982), rattling around his home in Switzerland with Ms. Miéville (“Soft and Hard,” 1986), interviewing celebrities (“Meetin’ WA,” 1986, with Woody Allen) or contemplating his own mortality (“JLG/JLG — Autoportrait de Décembre,” 1995).
In 1988, he began one in every of his most ambitious projects, a seven-part series on the history of film, “Histoire(s) du Cinéma,” which he accomplished in 1998. This maddeningly dense, allusive work consists of film clips — every part from Hollywood classics to hard-core pornography and concentration-camp footage — accompanied by snatches of classical music and Mr. Godard’s off-screen ruminations on the morality of image-making and the role of film within the twentieth century.
“After I made ‘Breathless,’ I used to be a toddler in movies,” Mr. Godard said in a 1992 interview with The Times. “Now I’m becoming an adult. I feel I may be higher. I believe that artists, as they get older, discover what they’ll do.”
As he grew older, Mr. Godard seemed more intolerant of other film directors. He quarreled bitterly with Mr. Truffaut, once his closest friends among the many Recent Wave directors.
He was especially scathing toward Steven Spielberg. Within the 2001 film “In Praise of Love,” he portrays Spielberg representatives attempting to buy the film rights to the memories of a Jewish couple who fought within the French Resistance. Commenting on the film’s sourness, the Times critic A.O. Scott wrote in 2002 that it “completes Mr. Godard’s journey from one in every of the cinema’s great radicals to one in every of its crankiest reactionaries.”
Mr. Godard’s personality was as difficult to warm to as lots of his movies were. Biographers filled paged after page with details of his feuds and schisms. He and Mr. Truffaut got right into a spat after the discharge of Mr. Truffaut’s “Day for Night” in 1973 and never reconciled before Mr. Truffaut died of a brain tumor in 1984. When a chat show interviewer reunited Mr. Godard and Ms. Karina in 1987, Mr. Godard’s indifferent response to a matter about their romance caused Ms. Karina to depart the set.
As for the accusations of antisemitism, which surfaced at various times over his profession, fueled each by his remarks and by a few of his movies, Mr. Godard gave a typically elusive response to an interviewer in 2010.
“All peoples of the Mediterranean were Semites,” he said. “So antisemite means anti-Mediterranean. The expression was only applied to Jews after the Holocaust and World War II. It’s inexact and means nothing.”
Yet no matter his personal flaws and the undeniable fact that few of his movies found a mainstream audience, Mr. Godard was and still is a very important influence on aspiring filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino, as an example, named a production company that he formed in 1991 A Band Apart, after Mr. Godard’s film “Band of Outsiders.” (“Bande à Part” was the French title.)
“To me Godard did to movies what Bob Dylan did to music,” Mr. Tarantino once said. “They each revolutionized their forms.”
Mr. Godard insisted that despite his disappointment with contemporary Hollywood, he remained enamored of the nice American directors of the past.
“We thought we could do higher than the bad movies, but not higher than the great,” he said in a 1989 Times interview. “Myself, I never thought I might do higher than John Ford or Orson Welles, but I believed I could perhaps do what Godard was meant to do.”
Neil Genzlinger, Alex Marshall and Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.