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Jean-Luc Godard, rule-breaking master of French cinema, dies at 91

With ‘Breathless’ in 1960, the filmmaker rode the crest of the French New Wave movement to liberate a hidebound movie industry

Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard in 1980. (Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images)

Jean-Luc Godard, the European filmmaker and cinematic rule-breaker regarded as one of the most influential, uncompromising and at times befuddling artists of his era, once declaring “a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” died Sept. 13 at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva. He was 91.

His legal and tax adviser, Patrick Jeanneret, confirmed the cause was assisted suicide and said a recent medical report indicated Mr. Godard had what he termed “multiple invalidating pathologies."

Over six decades, Mr. Godard’s output of more than 90 features, documentaries, shorts and videos defined him as one of the most productive, mischievous, didactic, subversive and polarizing of moviemakers.

Starting with his 1960 debut feature, “Breathless,” Mr. Godard rode the crest of what became known as the New Wave, a group of young film critics — including François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol — who took up directing to liberate what they regarded as a calcified movie industry. “We barged into cinema like cave men into the Versailles of Louis XIV,” Mr. Godard said.

Many critics have come to see “Breathless” as a galvanizing work of art, shunning linear narrative and anything smacking of convention — like consistency of perspective in narration and unobtrusive editing. Mr. Godard used jump cuts to unsettle; the editing technique, which cuts a frame or two from a scene, is now common in film and music video but was startling in the early 1960s.

These techniques and motifs set a template for much of his later work, with characters who stepped out of character to wink, wave and mug at the camera. His films skewered sex, war, religion and commercialism with ironic juxtaposition of image and dialogue, and he overstuffed them with witty and self-conscious allusions to literature, old movies and radical-left politics.

The American critic Susan Sontag hailed Mr. Godard in 1968 as one of “the great culture heroes of our time,” putting him alongside Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Igor Stravinsky as revolutionizing their respective fields of art. Mr. Godard’s unpredictable iconoclasm appealed to Sontag, who noted his “prodigal energies, his evident risk-taking, the quirky individualism.” It wasn’t that he was steadily brilliant, she wrote, but that he was brimming with ideas and seldom repeated himself.

Sontag wrote that Mr. Godard helped create a new language of cinema with movies that were “both achieved and chaotic, ‘work in progress’ which resists easy admiration.” Yet his enthusiasts were wide-ranging, including Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci and Jim Jarmusch. He also had an incalculable impact on international art-house cinema.

At his best, Mr. Godard was responsible for some of the most sublime moments of 1960s screen time, including the comical and barbaric car pileup in “Weekend” (1967) as a lashing at greed and materialism; the 10-minute interlude of postcards meant to evoke plunder and ad­ven­ture in the 1963 antiwar film “The Riflemen” (“Les Carabiniers”); the cocktail party in “Pierrot Le Fou” (1965) where bourgeois guests mouth the scripts of television commercials; and the impromptu pop-music dance by a trio of crooks in 1964’s “Bande à part” (Band of Outsiders).

Where a playfulness and exuberance pervaded his early films, Mr. Godard gradually became more politically dogmatic. His feature “Sympathy for the Devil,” filmed in 1968 and released in 1970, alternates scenes of Black power revolutionaries and Maoist agitprop with lengthy shots of the Rolling Stones recording the title song. Critics called it nearly unwatchable.

Mr. Godard continued making movies through recent years, mostly elliptical, philosophical essays such as “Notre musique” (2004) and “Film socialisme” (2010). Changes in public taste and his challenging, ceaselessly provocative style limited his audience to serious film buffs and connoisseurs, but the impact of his early work on generations of moviemakers cannot be overstated.

Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1996) has all the traits of a Godard film, with its fanciful plot, two-dimensional characters and tributes to pop culture; the dance scene with John Travolta and Uma Thurman has been described as an homage to the sequence in “Bande à part.”

Mr. Godard was not easily flattered. When Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart, the French filmmaker quipped of the homage, “He would have done better to give me some money.”

In person, Mr. Godard hardly looked like an imposing movie director. He had a slight build, with a high forehead, unkempt hair, dark glasses and an air of shyness. But he was by many accounts a prickly, unnerving and aloof man bristling with contradictions. Born to an affluent Franco-Swiss family, he became a committed Maoist. He also made commercials for Nike shoes when he needed money for other projects.

Stories proliferated of his difficult personal style. His first marriage, to the Danish actress Anna Karina, the star of several of his 1960s films, was riven with emotional abuse. He fell out with Truffaut in the early 1970s — over politics or women, or perhaps both — and the two never spoke again.

Anna Karina, luminous star of French New Wave films, dies at 79

In 2010, a controversy arose when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to award Mr. Godard an honorary Oscar for his life’s work. The citation read: “For passion. For confrontation. For a new kind of cinema.”

The award revived a long-standing debate about whether Mr. Godard’s support of Palestinian causes was rooted in antisemitic attitudes. He had spent part of his youth under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather, who favored the pro-Nazi Vichy French government. “He was anti-Jew,” the director once said, “whereas I am anti-Zionist, he was anti-Semitic.”

Mr. Godard, despite a longtime antipathy to Hollywood commercialism, accepted the honor but did not come to Los Angeles for the ceremony.

‘One dogma after another’

Jean-Luc Godard was born in Paris on Dec. 3, 1930, and was the second of four children of a Swiss doctor and a French banker’s daughter. He grew up in Nyon, Switzerland, where his father opened a clinic.

He had settled in Paris in the late 1940s and embraced a bohemian lifestyle that included watching hundreds of films a year at a movie house that drew such like-minded cineastes and future directors as Chabrol, Rohmer and Truffaut. To support himself, Mr. Godard stole books from his grandfather’s collection of first editions and sold them.

While launching their careers behind the camera, the Young Turks of the New Wave were writing groundbreaking essays in the journal Cahiers du Cinema that championed filmmakers as artists in the tradition of novelists such as Dostoyevsky and painters such as Picasso.

Hollywood studios tended to look on movies as a collaborative effort organized by a producer, but Mr. Godard and his peers developed the “auteur” theory — insisting that a film should be regarded as the personal creation of the director, just as a poem was the personal creation of a poet and a painting of a painter. This was a novel perspective at a time when even marquee directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, were viewed as fine and distinctive big-studio technicians but rarely as artists.

“He was an extraordinary critic, hurling down one dogma after another,” the film historian David Thomson wrote of Mr. Godard.

After making short films, Mr. Godard vividly demonstrated the ideals of the New Wave with “Breathless,” about a gangster on the run (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and the American girlfriend who betrays him (Jean Seberg).

Jean-Paul Belmondo, jaunty star of New Wave classic ‘Breathless,’ dies at 88

Much of “Breathless,” made on a shoestring budget, was filmed by handheld camera on the streets of Paris. Jump cuts lent a jolting pace. Working with no more than a brief plot outline prepared by Truffaut, Mr. Godard wrote new dialogue every day. Allusions to Humphrey Bogart gangster films and other cultural reference points brought a winking freshness to the script.

Richard Brody, a journalist and Godard biographer writing in the New Yorker in 2000, said the film felt “like a high-energy fusion of jazz and philosophy. The actors spoke in hyperbolic aphorisms that leaped from slang to Rilke, and ideas and emotions came and went in a heartbeat; the film resembled a live recording of a person thinking in real time. … In the years to come it inspired New Cinemas from Czechoslovakia to Brazil.”

“Breathless,” one of Mr. Godard’s few commercial successes, brought out his contrarian nature. Soon after its release, he told an interviewer he hoped his next film would be a flop, explaining, “I prefer to work when there are people against whom I have to struggle.”

In the meantime, Mr. Godard continued to excite the film world with his next batch of movies, including “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961) and “My Life to Live” (1962), both of which starred Karina (as a stripper and a prostitute, respectively). She also was featured in “Alphaville,” a 1965 science-fiction fantasy presumably set in the distant future but filmed in contemporary Paris.

“The Little Soldier,” made in 1960 and released three years later, was a mishmash of political commentary, romantic comedy and scenes of torture. It was banned in France for its denunciation of the Algerian War.

One of Mr. Godard’s most unlikely projects was “Contempt” (1963), for which he was given an unprecedentedly high budget by his standards — $1 million. The picture starred Brigitte Bardot, the French actress renowned worldwide for her pneumatic figure and sexy pout. Mr. Godard fought with his producers, who wanted any excuse to show Bardot in the buff. He tacked on a nude bedroom sequence in which she asks her screenwriter husband (Michel Piccoli) to comment on every part of her body. The scene was more absurd than sexy.

“Contempt” was filled with allusions to modern filmmaking and offered a scorching portrait of the implosion of a marriage. It was also a commercial and critical disaster, although its reputation has improved considerably with time. Scorsese called it “brilliant, romantic and genuinely tragic” and “one of the greatest films ever made about the actual process of filmmaking.”

“Weekend” is often considered a turning point for Mr. Godard. He became engulfed in the student protests and strikes of 1968, proclaimed himself a Maoist, set up an independent production center in Grenoble, France, and began turning out experimental videos full of communist ideology.

He grew so shaken by the thought of all remotely commercial cinema as essentially corrupting that he ended “Weekend” with two title cards: “End of Film,” followed by “End of Cinema.”

‘Doing what is not done’

Mr. Godard’s marriages to Karina and actress Anne Wiazemsky ended in divorce. Since the early 1970s, he had been the companion and collaborator of the Swiss filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, his only immediate survivor. They married about 10 years ago, Jeanneret said.

Reemerging in the 1980s based in Rolle, Mr. Godard again embraced feature productions, and critics praised him as an impeccable visual stylist and masterful technician. He lost none of his ability to provoke, as when he portrayed the Virgin Mary as a gas station attendant in “Hail Mary” (1985). Mr. Godard befuddled English speakers more than usual when “Film socialisme” was released in 2010 with English subtitles that barely hinted at what was being said in French.

Inscrutability did not bother Mr. Godard. “I’d rather feed 100 percent of 10 people. Hollywood would rather feed 1 percent of 1 million people,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m always doing what is not done. And what I’ve never done is what everyone else is doing. I still think you can be an artist in making movies.”

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