Jean-Luc Godard is nowhere to be found at the Swiss apartment building where he lives and works. But he has left a note for his visitor, promising in the strong black strokes of his own pen to be “at your disposal” at 6 o’clock.
And, at the appointed hour, the genius of French cinema--a small, thin man of 64 with wiry, graying hair and tortoise-shell glasses--answers the door. He quietly leads the way up a flight of stairs to two large rooms clogged with videotapes and books. He settles behind a wooden desk, bare save for an old rotary dial phone and a green pencil sharpener. Pulling a Cuban cigar from his tweed jacket, he says, politely, “Let’s start.”
Thus begins a two-hour journey that resembles nothing so much as a Jean-Luc Godard movie, with sudden cuts, long diversions, bright insights, thoughtful ruminations on films and life, and dour predictions about the future of his medium.
“I like everything in movies,” Godard says. “My main pleasure is every day, or every month, discovering a new one. I’d like to have done all sorts of films, to have been in all films, to be known and unknown. To do everything.
“I’d like to be one of the filmmakers who discovered sound in the 1930s,” he adds, veering down a new road. “But I’d also like to have known the sadness of those people who discovered sound.
“Now I have that feeling, too--that feeling that I’m being thrown out. Because it’s Apple computers that are doing movies today. Not me.”
The world’s critics hailed “Breathless,” Godard’s first feature film 35 years ago, as the work of a genius. He still makes movies as nobody else makes them. And the critics still enjoy dissecting his films. But he admits his audience these days is small.
More than anything else, Godard appears to be baffled, though one suspects he also is quietly pleased, that a world that has fallen in love with box office blockbusters is still interested in him.
“I never understand why I’m remembered,” Godard says with a shrug. “I always wonder why I’m still known because nobody sees my movies now. Well, almost nobody.” Maybe, he ventures, “it’s just because at the beginning I was doing movies that people liked.” Or, he adds, “maybe it’s just because I loved movies in every sense. My only hope is that the camera and the 35mm film will survive until after I’m gone.”
The movies that the French like these days are, by and large, made in America. For the first time in decades, French films claimed less than 30% of their home market last year. U.S. films took 60%.
Some French filmmakers are trying to inject mass appeal into their films while remaining true to their cinematic heritage. But it hasn’t been easy, especially given the small audience for French films in America.
It hasn’t been easy for Jean-Luc Godard, either. Although a treasured French icon, he is also a relic from the days when the most popular movies made audiences do some of the work. For Godard, “interesting” has always been high praise indeed. “I always begin with ideas, and that doesn’t help with the audience,” he says. “But I still prefer a good audience. I’d rather feed 100% of 10 people. Hollywood would rather feed 1% of 1 million people. Commercially speaking, my way is not better.”
Looking back now, he prefers not to speak of success. “Sometimes,” he says, “I feel I’m doing well. Sometimes not. But I’m too old to change.”
Godard was just 29 years old and writing film essays for Cahiers du Cinema, the most influential film journal of its time, when he captured the world’s attention with “Breathless.” The 1959 film, which he wrote and directed, starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as a young hoodlum undone by his love for an American girl, played by Jean Seberg. It earned Godard a place in the New Wave of French directors, alongside Eric Rohmer and the late Francois Truffaut. “A generation of film critics had their lives changed by that film,” the industry newspaper Variety has said.
The New Wave filmmakers greatly broadened the bounds of film theory at the time and, perhaps as importantly, showed that it was possible to make good films inexpensively. Godard and his New Wave colleagues, most of whom had begun as film critics, brought new ways of story-telling to the screen. Pieces of Godard’s films--from the 10-minute tracking shot of a summer traffic jam in the 1968 film, “Weekend,” to the mid-scene jump cuts in “Breathless"--remain an important part of cinema technique.
His body of work includes 100 television and feature films. (“I’d like to not remember some of them,” he says.) Among his more famous films were “A Woman is a Woman” (1961), “A Married Woman” (1964), “Pierrot le fou” (1965) and “One Plus One” (1968). But “Breathless” was his first and, as it turned out, his last commercially successful film.
“All the other ones were not good results,” says Godard, who has directed France’s most celebrated actors, from Brigitte Bardot to Gerard Depardieu. “But there was a lot of praise and glory, aesthetic glory.”
These days, French films have come under criticism from moviegoers for being difficult to follow, self-consciously put together and too short on action. In the United States, they also suffer from the language barrier and the Americans’ general dislike of dubbed or subtitled movies.
“It is more difficult to attract audiences today, but it’s always been difficult,” he says. “The people interested in good movies are very disseminated and it doesn’t make an audience. So to exist, you have to make a big fuss at festivals and things like that.”
For the French, movie-making remains, above all, a part of the culture, the product of which may or may not find a large audience. That is why the French state subsidizes films, to maintain that part of its culture.
In Godard’s view, it is the moviegoers in France and the rest of the world, not the filmmakers, who have changed. They have become more American in taste and prefer what Godard calls “spectaculars,” or big-budget Hollywood fare."Some French movies are a success,” he says, “but generally the audience goes to movies only to escape. They don’t find in French movies the things that are interesting them, and when they do, the material is too difficult. They prefer an American movie.”
A good movie today, by definition, “is one that makes money,” he says. “In literature, never. In movies, always. But, obviously, we (French directors) don’t give people what they need.”
Whatever the reason, Godard films open and close in France these days with barely a whisper, though they regularly appear on French cable television. One of his more recent feature films, “Helas Pour Moi” (“Unfortunately for Me”), in which Gerard Depardieu stars as a man whose body has been taken over by God, was reviewed in one French newspaper under the headline “Helas pour Nous” (unfortunately for us).
“Helas Pour Moi” sold 69,500 tickets in France last year, a respectable run, owing much to the fame of Depardieu. (By comparison, though, the top-grossing French film of all time is “Les Visiteurs,” a 1993 comedy due for release soon in the United States. It has sold 13 million tickets.)
Godard calls “Helas Pour Moi” “a complete flop.” He blames much of it on Depardieu, France’s best-known actor and a man most directors would be reluctant to criticize publicly. But Godard is not like most directors."It could have been a good movie if Depardieu was willing to try, but he was not interested in the movie, in working to make it right,” Godard says. “Of course, Depardieu said, ‘Godard is a genius.’ But he just made it for my name.”
Depardieu was “just fair,” in the movie. “The fight was lost from the beginning,” Godard says. “We had a contract for six weeks; he left after four.”
However, when “Helas Pour Moi” appeared at a French film festival in New York earlier this year, the New York Times praised it and Depardieu’s performance. The movie “is not easy to slip into, but its rewards are profound,” the paper said.
Similarly, the most recent Godard film to appear in American art houses, “JLG by JLG” (Jean-Luc Godard by Jean-Luc Godard), has earned some good notices. The film is not an autobiography but rather, he says, “a self-portrait.” And it shows, accurately, the movie director living a life of quiet anonymity.
In describing the action in “JLG by JLG,” New Yorker magazine’s film critic, Terrence Rafferty, wrote in February: “He seems to be working on a script, but if he is, the process is indistinguishable from depression. He’s restless, solitary, wary; the artist at work looks like a lonely child consoling himself with imaginery friends.”
“Even while you’re being seduced by Godard’s vision of himself,” Rafferty added, “part of you is saying, ‘Come off it.’ What’s wonderful about ‘JLG’ is that, as it turns out, Godard is saying the same thing to himself.”
These days, Godard has no regrets about his career path."I’m proving by my existence that making a good picture is still possible,” he explains. “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.”
For those convictions, Godard still is revered.
“I like pieces of his films,” says director Jean-Jacques Beineix, whose “Diva” was one of the few French successes in its U.S. release. “But he’s like an elite. It’s not cinema anymore. It’s something else. It’s Godard. His films are part of him.”
Born in Paris, the son of a Red Cross doctor, Godard prefers the solitude of Switzerland these days. But he still considers himself French. “My mind is in France, even though my body is here,” he says.
Godard is, as one might expect, a man without pretention. In his apartment in Rolle, a tiny village on Lake Geneva, he toils in a second-floor office, beneath a poster for Le Mepris (“The Despised”), which starred Brigette Bardot. He takes his meals, alone or with his longtime girlfriend, the director Anne-Marie Mieville, at the local hotel.
Most of Godard’s movies these days are funded by Gaumont, the French cinema chain, and Canal Plus, the French cable movie channel. Although Godard’s films are no longer box office hits, they cost less than most television movies (about $2 million each) and usually break even.
“I don’t know why the industry is so interested in making money,” he says. “It’s making money, money. But what do they do with the money? They are already rich. When someone gives me 10 million francs (about $2 million) to make a movie, I never say it’s not much,” Godard adds. “I can still spend 10 million francs and do something interesting. Then you discover that is a lot of money. Of course, if you hire 40 people and want a helicopter in the Sahara, you can’t do it.”
“I still have the same enthusiasm, though not the same strength,” he adds. “It’s very physically exhausting, making movies. I’m more tired.”
He doesn’t care much for actors, especially those unwilling to collaborate in the pursuit of art, which he often shapes without a script. Too many actors, he says, are hired hands more interested in reading lines than in creation. And he’s only truly at home in the editing room, which, he says, makes him something of a dinosaur in the business.
“With television and computers, the art of editing has disappeared,” he explains “Now there are just lawyers and agents. It’s over for me.”
There are no surprises on his list of favorite directors: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and, like every true Frenchman, Jerry Lewis. “I loved ‘Hardly Working,’ ” he says. “Jerry Lewis is a great director and a great character actor. Brilliant. A huge clown.” But of Steven Spielberg, Godard says: “It’s all fakery. It’s false. I know the difference between Beethoven and Spielberg.”
Little by little, America is taking over world culture, he believes. “I have nothing against it,” he says. “But I think we should have the right to bad Spanish movies, not only bad American movies. American culture is all over, and it’s too much.”
Perhaps, he seems to suggest, the age of the filmmaker as cultural force is past. “Obviously, we (filmmakers) don’t give the audience what they need,” says Godard. “We’re not able to give them what they need in the way they need it. Pictures can no longer bring something new to the audiences, because they have it 100 times every day on TV. It’s like flowing water. The only thing left is to show more truth about people’s lives, but they don’t want the truth about that.”