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The 1960s Explosion


Director Jean-Luc Godard, one of the major architects of the New Wave, in the early 1960s. chair and pushed him around the set to create tracking shots), and fragments of a script to tell the story of a smalltime punk (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who kills a policeman and must run for his life until he is betrayed by his girlfriend (Jean Seberg). Dedicated to the Hollywood studio Monogram Pictures, famous for its low-budget films, Breathless was Godard’s most successful film commercially, but it is also his most conventional. Almost immediately, he began to abandon narrative and traditional Hollywood syntax to create a political cinema.

Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1960; released 1963) is a political thriller about French involvement in Algeria, shot (like Breathless) in 35 mm silent black-and-white with sound added in post-synchronization. The stark, newsreel look of the film, plus the explicit torture sequences, signaled that Godard was interested in being much more than an entertainer; in this, his second feature, he was already engaged in serious social commentary. The film was shot on the rain-swept streets of Geneva and Zurich in April and May 1960 and was immediately banned by both the French Censor Board and the Minister of Information; finally, after cuts and intense negotiations, the film was released three years later. It was still so incendiary, however, that no U.S. distributor would touch it; it was two more years before its American premiere at the New York Film Festival.

With typical perverseness, Godard’s next feature, Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961), is a Techniscope, Eastman Color romantic comedy, about as far away from Le Petit Soldat as one can get, but not surprisingly Godard undermined the inherent artificiality of the genre by insisting that all the performers use their street clothes in the film, keeping music to a minimum, and shooting the entire film in a rather drab, flat style, essentially cutting against the grain of the material. Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (My Life to Live, 1962), however, is a much more deeply considered film, detailing the life of a prostitute, Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time). Structured as a series of vignettes, the film charts Nana’s initiation into “the life,” her downward spiral, and eventually her murder, as part of an underworld deal gone wrong. Much of the material in the film is clearly improvised, as in Breathless, but in these early works Godard abandoned traditional narrative structure to present a series of incidents that, when viewed together, offer greater insight and are far more compelling in their intensity than the usual three-act screenplay structure.

Les Carabiniers (The Soldiers, 1963), on the other hand, is a return to political commentary, as two mercenaries, Ulysses (Marino Masé) and Michel-Ange (Albert Juross), sign up to fight in an absurdist war and send back home cryptic postcards with Nazi slogans as a record of their adventure. Again, the film aroused a storm of protest, and it was not screened in the United States until 1967 at the New York Film Festival. With Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), one of his most dazzling early films, Godard documents the collapse of the marriage of screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot). Paul works as a writer-for-hire on a film version of Homer’s Odyssey, which is directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself)  and produced by the egomaniacal Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). Godard’s intense admiration for Lang’s films is clearly evident in Contempt; indeed, Godard appears as Lang’s assistant director on the Odyssey film-within-the-film, bustling about the set, barking orders to the crew. Shooting on location in Rome and Capri during the spring and summer of 1963 in Technicolor and Franscope (similar to CinemaScope), Godard made full use of his lavish budget (about $900,000, his most expensive film to date), and created one of the most penetrating films ever made about the difficulties of relationships between women and men, as well as one of the finest films about the making of a film. Although the film was butchered upon its release in Italy, the original film has now been restored on DVD.

Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville, 1965) is a science fiction parable about a world ruled by a giant computer that deprives citizens of free will and turns them into ideological zombies. Pierrot le fou (Pierrot the Fool, 1965) marks a return to color, in a tale of love on the run in the south of France, as Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Marianne (Anna Karina) attempt to escape from Ferdinand’s wife and a group of shadowy gangsters in pursuit of Marianne. The film is stunningly designed in bold, primary colors, and is again composed in set pieces rather than as a linear narrative. American director Samuel Fuller plays himself in a famous party scene, in which he expounds on his theory of cinema. Most of Pierrot le fou was improvised, with very little in the way of a script; as Godard said, “I just write out the strong moments of the film, and that gives me a kind of frame of seven or eight points. . . . The whole ending was invented on the spot…. Two days before I began I had nothing, absolutely nothing.” And yet the finished film is powerful, cohesive, and very funny.

In the summer of 1966, Godard agreed to make two films almost simultaneously, one shot in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, to satisfy producers and distributors who were hungrily awaiting his next film; by this time, Godard had become a cult figure. In fact, the shooting of the films overlapped only by about a week, but it was still a remarkable achievement. The first, Made in U.S.A., was ironically never generally distributed in the United States (with but one screening at the New York Film Festival in 1967), because Godard based the film on a book for which he did not have the rights. The second, 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967), explores the life of a Parisian housewife who turns to prostitution to make ends meet; this film also never received commercial American distribution, except for a screening at the New York Film Festival in 1968.

Godard’s La Chinoise (literally, The Chinese Girl, 1967), a political tract about a group of young university students in Paris who have fallen under the sway of Maoist Marxism, is thought by many observers to have been a harbinger of the “Events of May” in 1968, when students and workers rioted against the government of Charles de Gaulle and brought the country to a complete standstill. In Weekend (1967), Godard created his most ambitious vision of modern life as hell on earth, a savage satire in which a husband, Roland (Jean Yanne), and wife, Corinne (Mireille Darc), who are trying to kill one another, travel the length of France in an apocalyptic near-future to extort some money from a dying relative. The roads, streets, and highways are littered with dead bodies and wrecked cars; in one scene with a grisly traffic pileup, Corinne and Roland pass by without even looking back.

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