Jean-Luc Godard

the truth, as seen by...
Navigate by clicking the directors name: Godard and Herzog

"I like to say that there are two kinds of cinema, there is Flaherty and there is Eisenstien. That is to say, there is a documentary realism and there is theater, but ultimately, at the highest level, they are one in the same. What I mean mean is that through documentary realism one arrives at the stucture of theater, and through theatrical imagination and fiction one arrives at the reality of life. To confirm this, take at look at the great directors, how they pass by turn from realism to theater and back again" 1.

During the beginnings of the French New Wave, the two most important figures were easily François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, it was Truffaut, while still working on The 400 Blows, who gave Godard the scenario for his first film, Breathless. This was the action that set the wheels of progress in motion. And although Godard was not as good friends with Truffaut as he was say, Rohmer or Chabrol, they were quite close nonetheless.

This was the case until May of 1973 when their relationship was cut short by an antagonistic letter Godard wrote. In this letter, he goes into detail on what was wrong with Truffaut’s new film, Day for Night. Godard states, "You [Truffaut] say: Films are big trains that go along into the night...”, on a more political note, as was the style during that period, he continues, “...but who is taking the train, in what class, and who is the conductor with the management’s ‘stool pigeon’ by his side" 2. And he continues in this fashion at some length. When he finally does get down to business, it is in the form of a request for funding. Godard claimed that “ ‘After Day for Night you ought to help me, so that audiences don’t think that the only kind of movies being made are your kind’ he writes in conclusion, ‘If you want to discuss it, fine,’” 3.

Statements such as these are fully in accordance with Godard’s self created persona. It makes sense that a revolutionary director/critic would comment on class structure and bourgeois decadence in a film that he does not like. Once more, a letter like this serves a purpose. That is, to reinforce the self made persona. The whims of a man who would right a letter like this are easily explained, especially after viewing Godard’s revolutionary work.

Truffaut’s response is one of disgust and exasperation. Among other things he tells him, “that [in his] opinion you’ve [Godard] been behaving like a shit”, he goes on to attack Godard’s, “knack for passing himself off as the victim… whereas in fact [he has] always managed to do exactly what [he] wanted, when [he] wanted, as [he] wanted” 4. Truffaut maintains Godard has, “always managed, above all, to maintain the pure, hard-line image [he has] cultivated, even at the expense of defenseless people…” 5.

Just such a comment illustrates a consciousness of the persona, and more specifically, the falsehood in which Truffaut believes it revolves. Nonetheless, this is a good example of Godard interacting with the outside world just as a character in a Godard film would. Perhaps irrational, but still not without a leftist ideology. Godard must maintain this leftist persona on every level and at all times. Once more, it is consistent in his work from this period.


However, Truffaut and Godard did not always have such a contentious relationship. Earlier, during the late 60’s, Truffaut brings up an instance of the persona dictating the subject matter of film. In this case, we see the precursor for Godards films in his daily life. Truffaut recalls, “At that time [during the 50’s, when they first met] he was much more cheerful than he is today. I remember particularly that he played innumerable practical jokes. Now he writes them, he includes them in his films, but no longer in his life” 6. Here we see the activities of Godard making the transition from daily life to filmic life. But his sensibility is never lost.

Truffaut notes, “The miracle of Breathless is that it was made at a time in the life of a man in which normally he would not want to make a film” 7. He continues, "One doesn’t make a film when one is sad and destitute. Making a film means that you’re living in a hotel or an apartment, that you are disengaged from material worries, and that you make your film without any distraction from your present thoughts "8. This was definatly not the case with Godard. Truffaut concludes, “In the case of Breathless, the man who made it was almost a pauper. Therein lies the miracle. It is rare that being so unhappy and so alone, one can still make a film” 9. Most would agree, it comes through in this and his other films.

This accounts for the changes Godard made in Truffaut’s original scenario. Truffaut notes, "Jean-Luc chose a violent end [to Breathless] because he was by nature sadder than I” 10. It was these before mentioned pre-conditions that lead to the pacing, the choice of location and lighting, and ultimately the tone of Breathless, in addition to his subsequent works.

Take, for example, Contempt. The story is allegory on top of allegory, with the bottom layer being the life of Godard himself. On a micro level, it is a film about a man assigned to rewrite a script on Homer’s Odyssey. The producer believes that the story should be rewrote to conform with more modern tastes. The producers suggestion is to add a rift between Ulysses and Penelope, thus accounting for the 10 year journey. This makes perfect sense to the writer, because he believes that his wife no longer loves him. And on a total macro level, it makes sense that Godard would write a story like this during a time in which his own marriage was troubled. Less than two years later, he and his wife, Anna Karina, divorced.

At one point the producer, after seeing an ancient Greek statue of a god, draws on their likeness and he states that, “he knows exactly how they feel”. It is no mistake that that this producer being portrayed is from Hollywood. In fact, he embodies all the qualities that draw "contempt" from the rest of the world. This is an attack on the decadence of Hollywood and the shallowness of its productions.

At another instance Fritz Lang, playing the director, says, “It is not the Gods who created us, but we who created the gods”. This is another allusion to the God/Producer motif, and a statement without the artists there would be no need for producers. Aside from that, one can only imagine, the mindless bickering that take place between the writer and his wife mirroring that of Godard and his own wife.

"He [Godard] has learned that the shortest route from Train de la Ciotat is Mèliés’ Trip to the Moon. He knows that by voyaging to the end of the imaginary, he can create a rigorous, experimental, and very real object, a document more truly in touch with actual events than a strict reportage of those events could ever be" 11.

Notes for Godard section

1. Jean-Luc Godard; interviews, edited by David Sterritt. Jackson: University

Press of Mississippi, 1998 (p.4)

2-5. de Baecque, Antoine and Toubiana, Serge. Truffaut. Translated

by Catherine Temerine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,

1999 (p. 300)

6. Collet, Jean. Jean-Luc Godard. Translated by Ciba Vaughan. New York:

Crown Publishers, Inc, 1970 (p.168)

7-9. Collet, Jean. Jean-Luc Godard. Translated by Ciba Vaughan. New York:

Crown Publishers, Inc, 1970 (p.175)

10. Collet, Jean. Jean-Luc Godard. Translated by Ciba Vaughan. New York:

Crown Publishers, Inc, 1970 (p.174)

11. Collet, Jean. Jean-Luc Godard. Translated by Ciba Vaughan. New York:

Crown Publishers, Inc, 1970 (p.4-5)