GENEVA (AP) – Jean-Luc Godard, the emblematic “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his first feature film, “A bout de souffle”, and for years counted among the most influential directors in the world of cinema, died on Tuesday. He was 91 years old.
Godard died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle on Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement. The statement cites assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland, as the cause of death.
A medical report recently revealed that the director suffered from “multiple disabling conditions”, according to the family statement, which did not specify the conditions.
In a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic, Godard was perhaps the most innovative director among New Wave filmmakers who rewrote the rules of camera, sound and of storytelling – rebelling against an earlier tradition of more stereotypical storytelling.
For the low-budget “A bout de souffle,” Godard relied on a lightweight, mobile camera to capture street scenes and reach moviegoers in a new way.
It got rid of the contrived sets and “artifices” of Hollywood cinema at the time, a film expert has said. The impact was immediate – “Breathless” arrived like a cinematic thunderclap when it was released in 1960 – and lasting.
“There is a bit of Godard in almost all films today,” said Frédéric Maire, president of the Cinémathèque suisse. “Almost every director who has studied cinema today, or who has learned to make films in cinematheques, has seen Godard’s films and has been amazed, shaken and shocked by his way of telling stories. “
French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute, saying: “We have lost a national treasure, the eye of a genius.”
Godard has worked with some of French cinema’s best-known actors, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, who shot to stardom through the director’s films, and Brigitte Bardot, who starred in his acclaimed 1963 work ‘Contempt “.
Beyond that, he profiled the early Rolling Stones, gave voice to the Marxist, leftist and Black Power politics of the 1960s, and his controversial modern nativity play “Hail Mary” made headlines. one of the headlines when Pope John Paul II denounced it in 1985.
While many of his works were acclaimed, Godard also made a series of politically charged and experimental films, which only pleased a small circle of fans, while frustrating many critics who considered them filled with exaggerated intellectualism.
Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux said by telephone that he was “sad, extremely sad” at the news of Godard’s death.
Born into a wealthy Franco-Swiss family on December 3, 1930 in Paris, Godard grew up in Nyon, Switzerland, and studied ethnology at the Sorbonne, where he was increasingly drawn to the cultural scene that was flourishing in the Latin quarter “cinéma-club” after the Second World War.
He became friends with the future great directors François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, and in 1950 founded the short-lived Gazette du Cinéma. In 1952, he began writing for the prestigious film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.
After working on two films by Rivette and Rohmer in 1951, Godard attempted to direct his first film while traveling through North and South America with his father, but never finished it.
Back in Europe, he took a job in Switzerland as a construction worker on a dam project. He used the salary to fund his first full-length film, 1954’s “Operation Concrete,” a 20-minute documentary about the construction of the dam.
Back in Paris, Godard worked as a spokesperson for an artists’ agency and continued to perfect his writing.
He also started work on “A bout de souffle”, based on a story by Truffaut.
The film stars Belmondo as a penniless young thief inspired by Hollywood movie gangsters who, after shooting a cop, goes on the run with his American girlfriend, played by Jean Seberg.
Godard’s cinematic creations were steeped in the gritty, sassy tones of a resurgent post-war France – known locally as the “Glorious 30” until the late 1970s – and they served some of the imagery and some of the most poignant lines of what was then a rich and avant-garde pinnacle of French cinema.
The footage in “A bout de souffle” of an ingenuous Seberg strolling along the Champs-Elysées in Paris loudly peddling “New York Herald Tribune” newspapers in a tight-fitting T-shirt, and close-ups of a smoking Belmondo a cigarette and carrying a felt pen while running a thumb methodically, thoughtfully between his lips could be listed among the most striking images of French cinema.
With “The 400 Blows” by Truffaut released in 1959, Godard’s film set a new tone in the aesthetics of French cinema. Godard rejected the conventional narrative style and instead used frequent skipped cuts that mixed philosophical discussions with action scenes. He spiced it up with references to Hollywood gangster movies and nods to literature and the visual arts.
Godard also launched what was to be a career-long involvement in collective film projects, contributing scenes to “The Seven Deadly Sins” alongside directors such as Claude Chabrol and Roger Vadim. He also worked with Ugo Gregoretti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini on the Italian film “Let’s Have a Brainwash”, with scenes by Godard depicting an eerie post-apocalyptic world.
Godard, who would later gain a reputation for his uncompromising left-wing political views, had his first contact with the French authorities in 1960 when he made “The Little Soldier”. The film, replete with references to France’s colonial war in Algeria, was not released until 1963, a year after the conflict ended.
His work became more outspokenly political in the late 1960s. In “Weekend”, his characters expose the hypocrisy in bourgeois society even as they demonstrate the comic futility of violent class warfare. It came out a year before popular anger against the establishment rocked France, culminating in the iconic but short-lived student unrest of May 1968.
Godard harbored a lifelong sympathy for various forms of socialism portrayed in films from the early 1970s through the 1990s.
Some of the greatest directors in world cinema have considered Godard’s groundbreaking work an influence, including Quentin Tarantino, Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme.
“Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky tweeted, “Learned a lot from my vhs copy of Breathless…thanks maestro.”
Godard has taken potshots in Hollywood over the years.
He stayed at his home in Switzerland rather than travel to Hollywood to receive an honorary Oscar in a private ceremony in November 2010 alongside film historian and curator Kevin Brownlow, director-producer Francis Ford Coppola and actor Eli Wallach.
His lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian cause also earned him repeated accusations of anti-Semitism, despite his insistence that he sympathized with the Jewish people and their plight in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Although the academy received complaints about Godard’s selection to receive the award, academy president Tom Sherak said the director was recognized “only for his contributions to filmmaking in an era of new vague”.
Godard married Danish-born model and actress Anna Karina in 1961. She appeared in a series of films he made during the rest of the 1960s, all considered landmarks of the new wave. Among them are ‘My Life to Live’, ‘Alphaville’ and ‘Crazy Pete’ – which also starred Belmondo and was reportedly shot without a script. Godard and Karina divorced in 1965.
Godard married his second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, in 1967. He then began a relationship with Swiss filmmaker Anne-Marie Mieville. Godard divorced Wiazemsky in 1979, after moving with Mieville to Rolle, where he lived with her for the rest of his life.
Adamson reported from Paris. Former AP correspondent John Heilprin provided biographical material for this report.