Scorsese Screens - January 2023
On January 31, TCM is doing a five-film tribute to Jean-Luc Godard. As someone who was coming of age as Godard was emerging, it feels a little difficult to get used to the idea that he’s gone. It’s just as difficult to come to terms with the fact that the five films programmed—Breathless, Le Petit soldat, Vivre sa vie, Contempt and Masculine Feminine—are now over half a century old. Of all the filmmakers of the French New Wave, Godard always seemed like the “newest.” They were united in their love of cinema but in their deep connections with other art forms as well. For Rohmer and Truffaut, it was literature. For Rivette, the theatre. For Varda, photography. Godard was constantly quoting from and evoking cinema, music, theatre, literature and philosophy, and he composed his frames with the eye of a painter—a modern painter.
But for all the quotations and references to other works, Godard’s films were completely his own, inside and out, and completely works of cinema. To paraphrase Godard’s own comment about Nick Ray, which I quoted in the October column, Jean-Luc Godard is cinema. At the time that those first pictures were coming out, so much was happening at every level of society in every corner of the world—exciting, terrifying, tragic, joyous, confusing, sometimes all of it rolled into one—that you never knew what you were going to wake up to. Godard’s films reflected that feeling. They seemed to grow directly out the experience of living in the world, constantly changing and imploding and evolving, and they gave you the impression that they were composing themselves as you were watching them. Over the years, so much has been said about the jump cuts in Breathless, but what did they do? Where did they take the viewer and where did they take the picture itself? Somehow, those cuts seemed to go right to the heart of cinema, and the great question for every filmmaker: why cut here instead of here? The most crucial factor was that Godard placed the cuts where they were unexpected, so they always threw you off balance and kept you awake.
They still do. It relates directly to life: we’re lulled into thinking about something and then another thing snaps into our minds. Godard put the viewers, the characters and the filmmaker onto the same plane, and it was exhilarating. And in the context of the narrative, every cut brings Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character that much closer to his inevitable fate. Breathless and the four other pictures in the program changed the cinema forever. I suppose that Contempt is my own favorite. It moves me deeply every time I see it. So does Vivre sa vie. For that matter, so does Godard’s entire career, which spanned six decades. If you are young and you find yourself drawn to the cinema, then you need to see his films.