17 July 2018

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Jean-Luc Godard nostalgia: is it time to stop pining for the great director’s past?

Redoubtable is a new biopic which focuses on the French-Swiss auteur’s early career. But in obsessing over the old Godard, it obscures the fact that he’s still making radical films

Brace yourselves for a wave of Godard nostalgia. It’s 50 years since Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and co closed down the 1968 Cannes film festival in solidarity with student protests in Paris. This year’s Cannes poster also pays tribute to Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou. Those were the days, eh? When cinema was radical and part of the revolutionary struggle. Nobody embodied that more than Godard. He is cinema’s Picasso and its Che Guevara. He is the auteur wannabe auteurs want to be and remains the most dazzling, inventive, stylish, insouciantly brilliant yet confrontationally political film-maker the medium has ever seen.

But by the time of Cannes 1968, Godard was also closing the curtain on his own auteur status. When we think of Godard, often we’re really only thinking of that first, golden phase of his career, from his 1960 debut A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) to 1967’s Weekend, which closed with the words “FIN DE CINEMA”. He wasn’t joking. From then on Godard set a course away from commercial, capitalist, “bourgeois” entertainment and towards a Marxist/Maoist/socialist ideal. Where Godard’s early films made you feel guilty for enjoying yourself, his later ones made you feel guilty for not enjoying yourself.

Doubling the nostalgia factor is the forthcoming Redoubtable, a new biopic that captures Godard in exactly this period of transition. As you’d expect from Michel Hazanavicius, maker of The Artist, Redoubtable tips very much towards Godard’s earlier, funnier movies in its playful, colourful, retro-chic sensibility. But it is also unafraid to portray Godard as a bit of a dick. When he stands up to speak at a student rally, he can only come up with an incoherent babble about Jews being the new Nazis, and he’s increasingly mean-spirited and jealous (the film is based on the memoir of his then wife, Anne Wiazemsky). He bristles when fellow protesters keep asking when he’s going to make another entertaining film like A Bout de Souffle or Le Mépris. At one point, Godard’s new associate Jean-Pierre Gorin outlines the vision for their new, ill-fated Dziga Vertov collective: “A cinema with no script, no actors, no theatre and no literature.” A friend chips in, “No spectators either?”

You have to wonder how effective Godard’s self-imposed exile has been. Many of his 1970s and 80s films were impenetrable, shambolic, joyless and borderline unwatchable. And the few people who did watch them were largely drawn in by Godard’s mighty reputation – a reputation he acquired via those earlier, more commercial movies.

Godard himself reportedly called Redoubtable “a stupid, stupid idea”, and you can understand why: the nostalgia for the old Godard obscures the fact that he’s still making films. He’s got a new one at this year’s Cannes, The Image Book, which tackles the modern Arab world. He has never stopped being radical, adopting new visual forms such as video, digital and even 3D, addressing the issues of the age, reinventing the language of cinema, and in the 21st century he’s returned to a more accessible, but still uncompromising form of essay film, as in 2014’s Goodbye to Language. But still, the revolution Godard pursued in his cinema never came to be in real life.

How does Godard’s radicalism compare with current movies such as, say, Black Panther or Get Out? Those films did nothing to upset the Hollywood system or the capitalist order, but you could argue they effected a huge cultural change because they reached a lot of people. Similarly, the #MeToo movement has altered the landscape more than the efforts of a hundred male-oriented wannabe-Godard auteurs. Will the director’s late career one day be reappraised and cherished, or it will it be forever overshadowed by his early career? It’s a bit like the tree falling in the middle of the forest: can a movie truly be considered radical if no one is around to see it?

Redoubtable is in UK cinemas from 11 May

By Steve Rose

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