Vive La Révolution
We live in potentially halcyon times in regards cinema output. We have the entire historical back catalogue of movie making to mine ideas and influence from, so in theory it just takes a select and tasteful eye to pick the various existing ingredients and come up with something fresh, like a cinematic Heston Blumenthal, new and exciting.
Of course that’s not really the case and we have loads of dross being constantly released to bloodshot our eyes and hoover up our hard earned cash, giving nothing of value in return, leaving us like exhausted hamsters on a movie reel.
Every so often it radically changes though. Seemingly out of nowhere a genuine auteur arrives as if from another planet (ie Bowie) and gleefully/stubbornly refuses to accept convention, the strangling establishment and recognises the futility of universal conservatism or the norm. After all, we’d still be swinging from trees and living in caves with studio executives if we (at least some of us) weren’t marching to the sound of our own French accordion.
And so cheeky young upstart Jean-Luc Godard rocked up onto the cinema screen as part of the 50s/60s+ French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement including among others Francois Truffaut and André Bazin. Truffaut had directed and released The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) in 1959 and it was a cinematic revolution. A semi-autobiographical film constructed with a candor, natural lighting and dialogue that was a polar opposite to the current fare. In it’s absolute immediacy, simplicity and honesty it changed everything.
It certainly changed or at least directly inspired Godard, having wholeheartedly inspired his first movie Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960). Jean-Luc had the seemingly fortuitous background of not having seen many movies while growing up, thus not having been conditioned to accepting their formality/tone and would have immediately seen the disparity of their portrayal of the world in relation to the actual world he saw when leaving Paris ciné-clubs (film societies) every night. And clearly he had a lot to say being that he went on to make/direct 130 features.
Flying the flag for cinematic revolution is StudioCanal’s new release of five key movies from the early Godard library, lovingly presented in all their glory in a wonderful blu-ray boxset Godard: The Essential Collection. Selecting the pivotal works of his directorial debut ‘À Bout De Souffle’ (Breathless, 1959), Une Femme est Une Femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and Alphaville (1965).
All beautifully presented, it would be a integral boxset for any movie connoisseur, but with the addition of around six hours of interviews, documentaries and a multitude of other bits ‘n bobs including a booklet of essays, it makes this set absolutely essential for anyone that cares about film full stop.
Following the very swift evolutionary creative path of Godard from the spartan black and white but highly innovative ‘Breathless’ with it’s fast edits, inspired framing, fresh dialogue (so fresh it was written minutes before filming at times) and location shoots that beautifully captures with hand held cameras an emerging and dynamic modern Paris through the misadventures of a French criminal (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American (Jean Seberg) in an homage to Bogart movies but set in Paris.
Godard goes beautiful intense full colour (everything seemed so much more vivid in the 60s) on the next movie stop ‘Une femme est une femme’ (A Woman Is A Woman, 1961), staying again in Paris, and this time an homage to American musical comedy films as a young couple dance around the subject of starting a family, or not. This movie introduced Ann Karina who was to become Godard’s lover and muse as the young stripper who pines for a child whilst her lover (Jean-Claude Brialy) wants to almost remain a child himself. Entering the equation and mixing up the emotional French fray is Jean-Paul Belmondo who again was to be a muse of sorts for Godard’s future work.
Next up is Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) in my favourite of the set. Dealing with ‘death’ (though more likely murder) of old cinema, as the world closes the screen curtains of classics that would have been created by the likes of Fritz Lang, who actually stars in the movie as himself, passing the film baton onto the bright young things such as Jean-Luc.
With themes of the conflict of integrity versus commercial success and the dissolution of relationships, all beautifully and idiosyncratically played by such stalwarts as Lang, Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli and Jack Palance, it is an elegant piece, and somewhat more accessible and focused than other Godard movies.
Godard puts on his space helmet for ‘Alphaville’ (1965) though actually still stays in Paris for this science fiction satire dystopian piece that is part the future, the present and the past. A bleak black and white film noir world where there is a battle between the clarity and coldness of the ruling refined pure technology (Alpha 60) and unruly human emotions between Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina that seem to keep messing everything up.
‘Pierrot le Fou’ (Pierrot the Madman, 1965) once again starring team muse Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo, is the spontaneous, chaotic, surreal and murderous adventures of the two leads as they run away from his marriage and mundane conformity of Paris life to roam the French plains like a wild west gang in the comic book (Les Pieds Nickelés) that he carries. The initial rush of the run/chase soon wears off and apathy sets in again, only to be spiced up once again with yet even more chaos, no doubt representing the state of Jean-Luc’s life at the time as he was extremely prone to representing themes of his actual life in his movies.
Godard was inspired by everything, and as such had a tendency to put everything into his movies. At times this was too much for my mind to keep up with on a few of the movies, but at the same time it is strikingly apparent that he has influenced pretty much EVERY movie director since. There is a stunning amount of elements that are directly lifted and re-propose it into the like of Tarantino’s work which look fresh in today’s world, so they must have been mind blowing in the 60s. The extras really are exemplary, and give an extremely helpful insight into the world and mind that resulted in the formation of the great auteur that is Jean-Luc Godard. They are so good in fact that the set would be worth buying for them alone.
With the clear ability to make very high quality and successful movies such as ‘Tangerine’ (2015) just using a mobile phone, there must be potentially thousands of creative folk out there who could get a fantastic schooling in the making of innovative movies with this set, or indeed get it for yourself and let it inspire you to be the next Godard.
The Godard: The Essential Collection Blu-ray™ boxset is out now.