Few filmmakers have been as prolific as French writer-director Jean-Luc Godard, or for as long a period. He’s got over 100 film and TV projects on his resume as a director alone and he’s been doing it for over 50 years. That’s an amazingly fruitful and hefty career, and just last year, Godard put out his 3D exploration Goodbye to Language. With so many films under his belt, I feel sort of sheepish in saying that I’ve only seen a fraction of them and yet I’d still consider him one of my favorites, a true auteur who was part of the group of film critics at Cahiers du Cinema that invented that term.
So, my Top 7 list will be very limited, in fact entirely limited, to his first decade or so of filmmaking, which is also roundly considered his golden period, where Godard and other of his peers began the French New Wave in earnest. As always, these are just my opinions, and your mileage may vary.
7) A Woman is a Woman (1961)
Godard’s third feature was a New Wave pastiche of the Hollywood musical, in color. While there aren’t any big song and dance numbers, the scenes are all scored with big orchestral cues and it looks very classic comedy. The story involves an exotic dancer named Angela (played by Godard’s muse and eventual first wife, Anna Karina) who is trying to get her boyfriend Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) to give her a baby, which he fervently refuses. His best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo) confesses his love to Angela and has a lighthearted pursuit about it. Humorous arguments and things ensue and there’s a really excellent sequence when Angela and Emile stop talking to each other but continue the argument by pointing at the titles of books. As Godard says in the film’s trailer below, he gave the actors the freedom to come up with the scene as they went. It’s weird how much it feels both scripted and improvisational.
6) Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Godard’s fourth film is back to black and white and tells you right up front what kind of movie it’s going to be through it’s caption “A Film in 12 Scenes.” Karina is back, this time playing a woman named Nana who leaves her husband and young son to move to Paris with the hope of becoming an actress. She becomes a shop girl but because that doesn’t pay much, she decides to become a prostitute to make better money. It does not end well when pimps are involved, however along the way we get to see Nana living her life (the English title is “My Life to Live”), going to the cinema to see Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc and weeping opening, and just having various interactions with people. In another of Godard’s memorable centerpieces, Nana plays a jaunty big band number on the jukebox and dances around a pool hall, annoying her pimp and his friends but looking really happy about it the whole time.
5) Breathless (1960)
This is the one that started it all, and got people excited about the French New Wave. When people parody films of the movement, they often emulate Godard and his use of jump cuts to visually move the scene along even if the dialogue is still continuing like normal. This was a pretty revolutionary film at the time and even now is looked at for being quite innovative. And at its heart it’s just a pretty typical Noir-esque crime story written as a scenario on a napkin by Godard’s friend and contemporary Francois Truffaut. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a criminal with a love of Hollywood movies who has to hide at the apartment of his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), whose in Paris as a student. They spend time together, have long, lingering conversations, and generally wax poetic about their lives until the authorities catch up with them. It’s a movie that’s nothing much in description but everything in execution. (You should read Michelle Buchman’s essay on the film here.) It got remade horribly in the ’80s.
4) Contempt (1963)
For me, this is the film where Godard really started to show what he could do and, having only made five features prior to this, was already able to comment on the film world and on the process of making a film itself. His cinematographer Raoul Coutard makes the movie look gorgeous and sumptuous, which is pretty perfect for a movie starring the famously good-looking Brigitte Bardot and an entire scene revolves around looking at her rear end. The movie is about a film being made in Rome where a brash American producer (Jack Palance) hires legendary director Fritz Lang (playing himself) to direct a new version of Homer’s The Odyssey, but Lang is trying to make it an art film which doesn’t fly. The screenwriter they hire to “fix” it is Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) who comes to Rome with his wife (Bardot). It’s clear the producer is into Bardot’s character but she’s sure her husband would never allow anything to happen, but a decision is made which leads to the titular “contempt,” and far worse. It’s a lovely and sad movie exploring the rift between people and between art and commercialism.
3) Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Now, Godard has always played fast and loose with the form of filmmaking and that’s part of his charm. But as he kept making movies in rapid succession in the ’60s, his tendency toward chaos started showing up more and more. Later, he’d start making movies almost entirely about Communism and his own ethos about those things, but here he’s still making movies about criminals and romance, only now it’s complete with fourth-wall breaking and rampant corpses. It’s so good! Belmondo plays a man named Ferdinand who is fed up with his bourgeois lifestyle and wife and kids. After getting fired from his cushy TV job, he and the babysitter (Anna Karina, of course) abscond together, only she’s been chased by fascist gangsters who leave a trail of corpses everywhere they go, which is usually where the two crazy lovebirds are about to go. There’s a lot of hiding bodies in this movie. It’s Godard’s version of a very dark comedy, with even a life on the lam quickly becoming boring and monotonous to these people.
2) Alphaville (1965)
This is an absolutely genius idea for a movie, from top to tail. Visually, it’s a typical Noir-style detective story set in Paris; but the storyline and dialogue and where everything is meant to take place is the far-future with people in spaceships and stuff. The film stars Eddie Constantine, an American expat, who is playing a secret agent named Lemmy Caution. The character of Lemmy Caution was very familiar to French audiences of the time because he’d been in over a half-dozen films already since 1953, each time played by Constantine. Godard is ostensibly making just another adventure with the character, but using the iconography of the crime film to portray a sci-fi movie. Alphaville, the place, is run by a totalitarian computer called Alpha 60 which has outlawed things like love, poetry, art, and pretty much anything not coldly logical. Very Orwellian. People who act illogically are rounded up and executed, at a rate disproportionately male, interestingly. During the twisted missing-person narrative, Caution meets a programmer from Alphaville (guess who – Anna Karina) who knows no emotion. Naturally, Lemmy falls for her and she’s introduced to feelings she’s never had before. They better get out of Alphaville in his Ford Galaxie, huh? Fun fact, the voice of Alpha 60 is Godard belching dialogue.
1) Band of Outsiders (1964)
And no list of Godard films, certainly in this period, can be complete without what many, including myself, consider his best film. Like so many of his films, this one is a very basic crime narrative – involving a girl (Anna Karina, who else), a couple of doofs (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) who try to win her over, and a pile of money in her aunt’s suburban chateau. The trio make maybe the worst criminals on the planet, but it’s exactly these foibles that make them all so weirdly endearing. Godard as the narrator breaks in several times to tell us what people are thinking and what we should look for and what not. In the movie’s most famous scene, the three of them are line dancing and the narrator cuts in to say what each of their hopes and dreams are at that exact moment. It’s a very funny thing to overlay over a shot of people just dancing all in a row. While not as ambitious as some of his films, Band of Outsiders has an excellent pace and structure to it that amplifies Godard’s idiosyncratic style for the better. And, I’d just like to take this moment to highlight the acting of Karina who looks so different in all these movies and yet is always solid. She has one of the most emotive faces in cinema.
And there we have it, friends. A pretty small cross-section of Jean-Luc Godard, I admit, but those are seven great movies. What would be your top 7? Let me know in the comments below!
IMAGE: Rolling Stone
Kyle Anderson is the weekend editor as well as a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!