My Jean-Luc Godard movie marathon, ‘Breathless’ and beyond

I’m one of the Godard demoniacs.

There are many of us whose deep interest in Jean-Luc Godard’s films sparked such a love. Perhaps nothing clarifies my condition quite like seeing all but a few of Godard’s films, in chronological order, over a period of a few months.

At the time of my project some 20 years ago, Godard had made about a hundred works (131 at the time of his death on Tuesday, according to the IMDB census), including feature films, short films, television programs and commercials, and other oddities. Video copies of most were rare, or even rarer, requiring a dedicated campaign of internet searching to find them.

The reward for this work was an exquisite immersion in Godard’s oeuvre. It was a fascinating study of a filmmaking revolutionary whose relentless—even ruthless—invention never ceased to fascinate me. If Akira Kurosawa was cinema’s Shakespeare, as Steven Spielberg put it, Godard was its Samuel Beckett.

Jean-Luc Godard with tinted glasses and a cigar at a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival.

French director Jean-Luc Godard in Berlin in 1966.

(Edwin Reichert/Associated Press)

My first encounter with Godard, which started it all, was Breathless, of course, at Nuart I think (or maybe New Beverly) in the early ’80s.

I was disoriented early on, with the famous jump-cut scene at the end of the opening sequence when Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character, Michel, shoots at the cop. Michel, who is busy under the hood of the stolen car, is confronted by a motorcycle cop at the side of a country road. Michel grabs a gun from the car. “Freeze!” says the policeman. Close-up of a hand (whose?) pulling the trigger of a pistol. sound of a shot. A body falls. Wide shot of Michel running across a field.

Put in jazzy music and cut to Michel in the back seat of a car arriving in Paris, where he’s soon greeting Jean Seberg (Patricia), who’s selling copies of the New York Herald Tribune.

what just happened I was still trying to figure that out as the narrative rushed on, and I never quite caught up with her. In the end I was lost. And amazed.

I stayed in my seat and watched it again.

Nothing in my cinematic life (I was about 20) had prepared me for this. I had no idea that films could tell a story in this way. After my second viewing of the day, the narrative came into focus. And everything else – the jazzy soundtrack, the handheld black and white, the movement, the mixed montage, and of course the ultra-cool Belmondo and the gorgeous Seberg – pulled me into a weird and wonderful new world. If what I had seen before were movies, what exactly was that?

A photographic collage of a woman's face and other images.

An image from “Historie(s) du Cinema”.

(UCLA Film and Television Archives)

This experience sparked my abiding interest in world cinema, especially Godard, and, decades later, my quirky idea of ​​watching each of his films in turn.

My interest in it arose when Godard started a monumental TV miniseries called Histoire(s) du Cinema. He shot it in eight parts from 1989 to 1999. Upon completion, the series was compiled into a film of the same name, considered by many to be his magnum opus. Drawing on Godard’s many years of watching and making films, it is a kaleidoscopic mosaic of sound and vision that unfolds in his vision, invention, historical investigation and length – 266 minutes in all. It’s one of my favorite films, by Godard or anyone else.

But since the parts were shown in France, they were rarely shown in the US, and there were rumored video copies with English subtitles, but I couldn’t find any. I hadn’t seen any parts of Histoire(s) so I made it my mission to find them. I was interested in finding other Godard rarities. This gave me the idea to see all of Godard’s work, from his short films from the mid-1950s to Histoire(s).

Some of Godard’s better known works found their way onto DVD, but many more were exclusively on VHS, often long out of production. And the rest, apparently, were not available at all.

I can’t remember how I first found Robert the film smuggler – eBay or something – but he claimed to have for sale high quality VHS copies of many Godard titles that I absolutely couldn’t find anywhere, including all eight Parts of “Histoire(s ).” Of course I bought them all. Picture and sound were remarkably clean.

Robert, who lived in Colorado, vaguely described via email some sort of high-end duping machine he owned, but he otherwise never disclosed his method of pirating Godard (and other) films, nor did he do so seemingly non-existent films at all. The quality wasn’t always good, but he always disclosed when I expected a tape to be inferior.

Robert followed up on my requests for titles he didn’t have on hand. I had to save up to buy his expensive cassettes, and then there was the ethical concern about piracy – although Godard himself was generous in borrowing film clips and sharing his with others, which helped me to rationalise. I’ve bought dozens of his Godard films over a number of years: 32 Maxell VHS cassettes in all, each with a typewritten label announcing one or more coveted titles.

Some of the finds were modest triumphs, out-of-print VHS titles that had eluded me despite years of hunting: mid-1970s Numero Deux and Comment ça Va, for example, Godard’s first video experiments that foreshadowed his visually stunning film-video -Hybrid movies of the 2000s and 2010s.

Among the larger finds were the documentaries “1 AM” and “1 PM,” which resulted from Godard’s collaboration with DA Pennebaker; and a wonderful school-age television series that Godard directed with Anne-Marie Mieville, his longtime partner and collaborator, called France Tour Detour Deux Enfants.

Even bigger were the films of the Dziga Vertov Group, the Marxist projects that Godard realized with director Jean-Pierre Gorin and their filmmaking collective in the late 1960s and early 1970s. How the hell did Robert have the Vertov Group films? It had all four main titles: “Pravda”, “Wind from the East”, “Battle in Italy” and “Vladimir and Rosa”. Not to mention others from the period often attributed to the Vertov group, including “See You at Mao” (aka “British Sounds”).

One of my favorites in Robert’s collection was his series of Godard “minis,” which he arranged into six volumes, each cassette containing several (then) rare short films. These included the 1950s gems Charlotte and Veronique, or All the Boys Are Called Patrick and Charlotte and Her Jules, two pre-Breathless shorts, the latter starring Belmondo; and “A Story of Water” from 1958, together with Francois Truffaut. Some later rarities included “Meetin’ WA,” in which Godard spoke to Woody Allen; a documentary about the making of Godard’s “Each for Himself”; a television advertisement for Girbaud jeans directed by Godard; and his television documentary “20×50 Years of French Cinema” from the mid-1990s. I hadn’t seen any of that before my Robert connection.

But Robert didn’t have everything. Crucial gaps in my collection remained, including Godard’s two earliest films. It would be years before I saw Operation Concrete, his first documentary film from 1955, and Une Femme Coquette, his 1956 feature film adapted from the Maupassant story The Sign. For a few other Godard titles, I’d have to wait for future DVD or Blu-ray releases as well, or the movie streaming glut we enjoy today.

When I finally showed my Godard retrospective and watched one or more at a time, it ran from Charlotte and Veronique (1957) through the entire Histoire(s) du Cinema (1999) to a new Godard or two had made while I was hunting for tapes of Robert. I had DVD copies of quite a few movies but most were on VHS, some of dodgy quality. I didn’t count how many I watched in total, but I would estimate that my Godard Festival included around 70 films.

My methodical exploration of Godard led to an accurate understanding of the size and development of his work. I became aware not so much of the great films compared to the smaller ones, nor of sheer numbers, but of each as a segment in a larger whole, the vast, decade-long film that is Jean-Luc Godard – the Mosaic Construction of Histoire(s) exploded over the span of his filmmaking life.

So bold was Godard’s artistry that even today his films feel modern, as if he were constantly striving to conceive a new cinema, if not a new, more humane and livable world. His films ranged from artistic masterpieces to wandering experiments, with many well-crafted, stylish, and delightful in between. Most were rich in arts and entertainment, and even among his missing, Godard was always worth seeing.

His work was as literary as any in film history, but for all the book references and the recurring Godard essay that runs through much of it, his work was ultimately a fine art. As the titles of his last two feature films – Goodbye to Language and The Image Book – imply, for Godard the image was the thing.

With Godard’s oeuvre now closed and posthumous releases pending, there are few opportunities to see his films in cinemas these days. But with many Blu-ray releases and YouTube and other streaming platforms, we have a practically complete collection of Godard in better quality than ever.

As I say goodbye to him and reflect on my cinematic love, maybe it’s time to start over and watch them all again. My Jean-Luc Godard movie marathon, ‘Breathless’ and beyond

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