Jean-Luc Godard was not just a central figure of the French New Wave, he was arguably the definitive filmmaker of the 1960s. The remarkably fertile first chapter of his career -- from his euphoric debut, "Breathless" (1960), to the apocalyptic "Week End" (1967), which concluded with the title "End of Cinema, End of World" -- amounts to a generational document. The films are filled with contemporary references to pop culture and politics, but more than that, they effortlessly distilled the intellectual energy and youthful anarchy of the period as well as the looming doubts and disillusionments.
The towering reputation of '60s Godard eclipses the work this filmmaker has produced in the four decades since, much of it written off as arcane or indulgent. Radicalized by the near-revolution of May '68, he devoted himself the following decade to Marxist polemics and then to a series of video experiments. In the '80s, he made a tentative move back toward narrative features but with his signature pop-art brashness replaced by a more poetic, allusive method.
It's easy to understand the enduring appeal of Godard's early films: bold primary colors, glamorous actors, aphoristic wit, reliable spasms of sex and violence. The period is increasingly well represented on DVD, thanks to the Criterion Collection, which this week releases 1965's "Pierrot le fou" ($39.95) to go along with its excellent editions of "Breathless," "Contempt" (1963), "Band of Outsiders" (1964) and "Masculin feminin" (1966).
"Pierrot le fou" -- a dazzling, convulsive, richly hued road movie that Godard termed the story of "the last romantic couple" -- pairs Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina and unfolds as if in a trance. (Godard called it "a completely unconscious film.") The Criterion set is packed with extras, including an interview with Karina and audio commentary by Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin. Even more essential, though, is Lionsgate's new Godard box ($34.98), which assembles four of his underappreciated films from the '80s and '90s.
"Passion" (1982), a playful meditation on the artistic process, is not the first or last Godard film about the making of a film. Jerzy Radziwilowicz stars as a Polish director amid an increasingly beleaguered shoot. The production climbs over budget, and the frustrated filmmaker balances love affairs with two very different women. One is a factory worker (Isabelle Huppert), who muses on the connections between labor and pleasure; the other, a hotel owner (Hanna Schygulla), is the wife of the factory boss (Michel Piccoli). As the hero searches for a story -- the film-within-the-film seems to mainly involve the restaging of famous tableaux by Rembrandt and Goya -- so does the film, with fascinating results.
In the violent farce "First Name: Carmen" (1983), Godard himself plays the blocked director, confined to an institution while his niece (Maruschka Detmers) attempts a bank heist, only to fall for the cop who intervenes. Riffing on the various versions of "Carmen" (Merimee's novella, Bizet's opera, Otto Preminger's movie), the film revisits the lovers-on-the-run scenario of "Pierrot le fou," but in contrast to the earlier film's doomy romanticism, the love story is exhausted before it barely begins, mired in ill feeling and impotence.
The gangster antics and murder mystery in the ensemble piece "Detective" (1985), Godard's breeziest post-'60s movie, are red herrings. The film is most interesting for its casual scrambling of genre tropes and for its layered experimental soundtrack. "Helas pour moi" ("Woe Is Me," 1993) is a fine example of elegiac late-period Godard. An oblique modern-day take on the Greek myth in which Zeus seduces a wife by assuming the form of her husband, the film is a haunting reverie on faith and fidelity. (Godard was forced to edit around an absent star: Frustrated with the filmmaker, Gerard Depardieu quit midway through the shoot.)
Godard's later films are without question weighty endeavors, rooted in myth, philosophy and history. But as this set demonstrates, what they lack in buoyancy they make up for with ambition and majesty. They can be challenging, but they are also often works of startling beauty and intricacy, immensely rewarding in their own right.