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Godard, The Old Pro Of France's New Wave

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page N03

Jean-Luc Godard, who turned 74 Friday, remains proudly, defiantly and unpredictably, well, himself. Yes, his work can occasionally exude the joy of a Latin midterm exam, for all its intellectual and literary references, but you'd be hard pressed to find a Godard picture that doesn't show flashes of playfulness, mischief and heartfelt rapture.

Take time to see "Notre Musique," which opens Friday at Landmark's E Street Cinema, or any of his earlier works in the ongoing Godard series at the National Gallery of Art's East Building, and you may get a sense of the man behind the camera: He's polemic, he's provocative, he's thunderously self-absorbed and he's didactic to the point of obnoxious. A former film critic in the 1950s who railed at convention, Godard (along with Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette) created the French New Wave, the movement of low-budget, insightful films that paid homage to classic American cinema and challenged viewers on many levels, political and personal.

Jean-Luc Godard, whose career dates to the 1950s, is the subject of a retrospective at the National Gallery. Among the films being screened there are "Hail Mary," below left, and his newest work, "Notre Musique." (Vincent Kessler -- Reuters)

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Godard's 1960 film "Breathless," starring a brooding, sexy Jean-Paul Belmondo, was a gangster film with the kind of jump-cut editing that characterizes so many contemporary films. It was also a commercial hit in France, and perhaps the watershed film of the New Wave. From then on, Godard's commercial hits (which included the 1962 "My Life to Live") were fewer and farther between. But he was never far from controversy, whether for a topless scene in 1964's "A Married Woman," or references to the Algerian war (in the 1963 film "The Little Soldier") or for "Hail Mary," a 1985 movie that retold the story of the Virgin Mary in stark, contemporary terms.

He became cinema's enfant terrible, not only for his bold deconstructions of storytelling itself but for his politics. Embedded in the anti-Vietnam sentiment of the late 1960s, he made such radically inspired films as the 1967 "La Chinoise," in which five Marxist roommates go through life together (it screens Saturday and Sunday at the Gallery) and "Sympathy for the Devil" (1968), a think piece on revolution featuring a studio performance of the title song by the Rolling Stones.

The filmmaker is most adored for his earlier, more fun-filled works, many of which starred his wife, Anna Karina, whose dark-haired, mascara- eyed look was the inspiration for Uma Thurman's character in "Pulp Fiction." That playfulness is apparent in "A Woman Is a Woman" (1961), in which, at one point, the young Angela (Karina) turns to her boyfriend, Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy), and instructs him to greet the audience. They turn to the camera and smile, Emile tipping his hat. Since that era, Godard (in a career that spans approximately 100 features, shorts and videos) has evolved into a complex on-screen essayist; you can see some of this evolution in the remainder of the gallery's retrospective, which runs through Jan. 2 and includes "Videotheque Godard," Parts 1 and 2, (the first screening is Saturday at 3) a compendium of his works in video from the 1970s to the present.

"Notre Musique," his latest, is divided into three parts: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Acting as guide, Godard gives richly perceptive observations on war and the way that the media have framed, obfuscated and ultimately sanctified it.

In terms of the industrial military complex that passes for mass entertainment, Godard might as well be a great auk with a camera. Hallowed by academic film scholars! Works in French with subtitles! Lives in virtual seclusion in Switzerland! Makes films that resemble intellectual essays! But he shows no sign of waddling into extinction and his films continue to be provocative challenges -- oftentimes baffling, but insightful and powerful.

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