Coming up with a good analogy for the unique position Jean-Luc Godard holds in film history turns out to be a bitch and a half. I thought first of Picasso, but Picasso didn’t develop cubism in a vacuum—a contemporary, Georges Braque, experimented with pretty much the same non-representational ideas. Charlie Parker, maybe? Not being a jazz hound, I’m not quite sure how radical his work seemed at the time. More to the point, Picasso and Bird permanently transformed their chosen media, influencing everybody who followed. What we’re searching for here is somebody who more or less single-handedly firebombed the joint, rewriting every rule, then wound up being almost completely ignored—as if Picasso came along and the art world said “Ooh! Ahh! Amazing! Unbelievable!” and then just went right back to painting clearly recognizable, nearly photorealistic portraits and still-lifes for 40-plus years.
Oh, sure, you see the occasional Godard homage now and then. Quentin Tarantino clearly reveres the guy, for example. But having Mia Wallace draw a cartoon square in the air with her fingers or shimmy around her living room like Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie isn’t remotely the same thing as actually grappling with or building on Godard’s ideas. Which, bizarrely, nobody has done. His early films—that astonishing run from Breathless (1959) through Weekend (1967)—look every bit as miraculous, confounding, and unprecedented today as they did then, mostly because they’re bursting with challenging, inspired flourishes that have been gathering dust ever since. Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at this bedroom scene from 1961’s A Woman Is A Woman and tell me where, outside of perhaps the avant-garde, you’ve seen anything like it.
Godard famously called A Woman Is a Woman “not a musical, [but] the idea of a musical,” and this clip gives you just a little taste of the film’s deliberately discordant score, which couldn’t call more attention to itself unless the notes were actually reproduced onscreen. (The composer is Michel Legrand, who would go on to write impossibly romantic tunes for the actual musical The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.) In general, the more mundane the characters’ actions, the busier and more grandiose the musical accompaniment; the score also starts and stops abruptly, giving the impression of someone sitting at a mixing board and flipping the on/off switch now and again at random. Godard clearly adores the lush themes of old Hollywood movies, but at the same time, he can’t help but italicize them, underlining their function by employing them in a context where they seem hilariously overbearing. The approach is both ironic and heartfelt, though the heartfelt aspect would gradually dissipate over the course of the next half-century, leading to the ultra-dry, impenetrably gnomic movies Godard makes nowadays.
Other aspects of the scene are just as ostentatiously artificial. As the quarreling lovers, Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy carry their own light sources around the room; again, this is a sort of affectionate poke at the conventions of the era, which demanded that stars be perfectly lit at all times, no matter how implausible the illumination. And when Godard wants to emphasize that the two are having communication issues, he has them conduct an argument in which most of the words wind up obscured by a furious toothbrush, timing the exchange like a classic comedy routine. (Actually, I just now thought of a film that picks up that particular ball and runs with it: Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis. That was an avowed tribute to Richard Lester, but its ideas concerning language seem very Godardian. Tellingly, it’s Soderbergh’s least-seen movie.)
And then, of course, there’s the angry fight conducted entirely via book titles—an idea so original that, in fairness, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be inspired by it without just ripping it off. Having agreed not to speak to each other, Karina and Brialy are forced to borrow taunts and insults from other people’s words—a potent metaphor for the creative act, and particularly for the sort of self-conscious quotation/distortion Godard was then fashioning into an entirely new style of filmmaking. Plus it’s just funny as hell, especially in that Karina’s volleys are fairly blunt (Monster, Executioner, Con Artist) while Brialy’s tend toward the inexplicably surreal (Peruvian Mummy, Sardine)—a dichotomy that’s nicely set up when Karina surreptitiously peeks at the books Brialy has selected, trying to work out in advance which titles she’ll need in order to respond. Good luck with that.
As clever and audacious as this postmodern japery is, though, what makes it truly sing are the goofy human touches Godard includes alongside it—another element sorely missing from his recent work. At the beginning of the scene, Karina, who’s modeling her pajamas for Brialy and asking whether he prefers them or a nightgown, performs a little twirl and loses her balance slightly, very nearly falling over. It clearly wasn’t intentional, and most directors would cut and shoot another take, or at least remove the stumble in the editing room. Godard just leaves it there, as if to say “Hey, clumsiness happens.” I’m also strangely fond of the way Karina and Brialy brush off the soles of their feet before getting into bed, which is exactly the kind of intimate detail that films of the period went out of their way to omit—though, admittedly, Godard underlines the moment by having them perform the ritual in unison, legs held high.
Point is, from beginning to end, this scene looks to me like nothing else in cinema, then or now. And it’s not atypical, by any means—the entire movie looks like this, as do subsequent Godard films like Pierrot Le Fou, Masculin Féminin, and Band Of Outsiders. I could have chosen a scene at random from any of them and made essentially the same point, which is that Godard’s early work, despite being a total game-changer, has not in fact appreciably changed the game. Other filmmakers pay lip service to his greatness, and some, like Tarantino and Hal Hartley, toss in the occasional homage, but I can’t think of anybody who seems at all like a direct descendent. His singular ideas about what movies can be remain largely unfulfilled, as if the revolution he represented (much more so than his fellow Nouvelle Vaguers François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol, each of whom took an entirely different and less radical path) never even happened, apart from a general shift to location shooting and the odd wink to the audience. Shame, really. But it’s never too late.