Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most influential French filmmaker of the modern era, died on Tuesday. He was 91.
His longtime legal adviser, Patrick Jeanneret, said Godard died by assisted suicide at his home in the district of Rolle, Switzerland (where the practice is legal). "He could not live like you and me, so he decided with a great lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, 'Now, it's enough,'" Jeanneret said via The New York Times.
"Jean-Luc Godard died peacefully at home, surrounded by loved ones," his wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, said in a statement.
Born in Paris, France on December 3, 1930 and raised in Switzerland by wealthy, prominent parents, Godard himself would say, "I escaped from a bourgeois family into show business. And then I discovered that show business was a bigger bourgeois family than my own."
Godard returned to Paris in the late '40s, ostensibly to study at Sorbonne Université; in truth, he spent his time attending film societies with the likes of Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut. It was at one of these clubs, the Cinémathèque, that he met film critic André Bazin, who would later hire Godard as a contributor to his magazine, Cahiers du Cinema.
"In the 1950s, cinema was as important as bread — but it isn't the case anymore. We thought cinema would assert itself as an instrument of knowledge, a microscope, a telescope…" he would say. "At the Cinémathèque, I discovered a world which nobody had spoken to me about. They’d told us about Goethe, but not Dreyer… We watched silent films in the era of talkies. We dreamed about film. We were like Christians in the catacombs."
In the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, Godard criticized the "Tradition of Quality" upheld by the European old guard, prioritizing conventional cinema over innovation and experimentation. With his feature directorial debut, 1960's Breathless (À bout de souffle), he challenged those conventions directly.
Loosely modeled after Hollywood gangster pictures, Breathless stars French actor Paul Belmondo as a wandering criminal named Michel Poiccard, on the run with his American girlfriend Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). With Godard at the helm, the film is as much a riff on noir crime dramas as it is on romantic comedies, and, when the first cut of Breathless was too long for distribution, he trimmed multiple scenes rather than removing any, creating the jump cuts that became one of the film's stylistic trademarks.
The film won Godard the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival, and, with fellow filmmakers Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (and their preceding films The 400 Blows and Le Beau Serge, respectively) Breathless helped launch the French New Wave movement.
"To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated." — Jean-Luc Godard
Godard's groundbreaking work throughout the '60s came to be synonymous with the French New Wave, with his films exemplifying the unconventional style and radical politics of the movement. Each new title was a study of form in relation to an idea. The forms evolved and the ideas changed, but his exploration of the relatedness of the two remained the same.
After Breathless came Contempt, a subversive romantic drama starring Brigitte Bardot, and Band of Outsiders (Bande à part), another reinvention of the gangster film, then Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, a sci-fi/neo-noir by way of Godard. Following the release of Weekend in 1967, the filmmaker moved beyond the French New Wave into even more politically radical films.
The late '60s and early '70s saw Godard and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Godin launch the leftist film collective Dziga Vertov Group, and, following its disbanding, he made experimental films as part of his "second wave" in the late '70s and '80s. In his ambitious eight-part documentary Histoire(s) du cinéma (completed in 1998 after nearly a decade of work), Godard examined no less than the totality of film as the great 20th-century art form.
In 2011, the former enfant terrible was presented an Honorary Oscar, the award itself inscribed with: "For passion. For confrontation. For a new kind of cinema." Over his career of more than half a century that spanned over 100 features, shorts, documentaries and more, Godard did exactly that: Changed cinema as we know it, and inspired generations of filmmakers all around the world.
"Photography is truth. And the cinema is truth twenty-four times per second," Godard once said. He also said, "Every edit is a lie."