Waiting for Godard

An exhaustive new biography of Jean-Luc Godard argues the director is as dominant and influential as Picasso.

1964, France. French-Swiss director, screenwriter and producer Jean-Luc Godard. Georges Pierre/Sygma/Corbis

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Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard Richard Brody Faber and Faber Dh215 The film historian David Thomson once wrote that Jean-Luc Godard is "our first great director who does not seem to be a human being". Thompson was grumbling about the lack of emotional realism in Godard's films, but his remark could just as easily be generalized to apply to the man himself. Despite five decades of interviews, magazine profiles, and a conspicuously personal style of filmmaking, Godard remains for even his most devoted admirers something of an enigma, an owlish, cigar-smoking intellectual hidden away on a remote Swiss island. With Richard Brody's massive, meticulous new biography, the portrait is now as complete as it is ever likely to be - or at least as complete as we would ever want or need it to be.

Compared to politicians and celebrities, the lives of prolific artists do not make for dramatic reading; the bulk of their waking hours are spent behind closed doors, doggedly working away in their studios. And although filmmaking is the most inherently social of the visual arts, Godard was never one for large crowds. Born in 1930 into a prosperous Swiss family, Godard spent his formative years reading world literature and watching obscure old movies. By his early twenties, he was writing tumultuous critical essays for the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, and soon went on to direct his own debut feature film, Breathless (1960), an instant and enduring icon of European art cinema. For the next 48 years (and counting) Godard worked more or less non-stop, writing and directing nearly 50 back-to-back feature-length films. Considering this vast body of work, Godard in Brody's estimation has now emerged as "an artist as dominant, as crucial, as protean, and as influential as Picasso".

Brody, an editor and film critic at The New Yorker, conducted scores of interviews with virtually everyone who played some significant role in Godard's personal or professional life, and the results are in: he is cranky and disagreeable. It's of course uncharitable to base character assessments on the testimony of ex-wives and former employees, but by his own admission Godard has few friends, and in these 700 pages hardly anyone comes forward with anything nice to say - very few fond remembrances of the halcyon days of love affairs, very few glowing accounts of working under the direction of a great artistic genius. (It should be noted that Anne-Marie Miéville, Godard's domestic and professional partner for the last 35 years, did not go on record for this book; Godard himself began a series of interviews with Brody in June 2000, but abruptly cut them off after their first meeting.) Though not without his curmudgeonly charms, on balance Godard comes across as capricious, melancholic and flagrantly self-centred - "a s***," in François Truffaut's friendship-ending summation.

Jean-Pierre Beauviala, a Godard collaborator who engineered a series of cameras according to the director's exacting specifications, goes a step further than Truffaut: "[Godard] needs drama; he needs discord; he needs provocation; he needs conflict; he needs difficulties; he needs to yell at people - he needs to be unhappy." This is as much a comment on Godard's personality as it is his artistic methodology. Setting aside all the hurt feelings and bruised egos, Godard's stormy, destabilising temperament was integral to his success as a director. Godard was notorious, for instance, for giving his actors their lines only moments before they were expected to deliver them, and then angrily refusing to elaborate on the psychological motivations behind them. This would result in performances that were by turns tentative, affectless and exasperated - which was precisely what Godard wanted.

It is critical that Brody's book is structured as "a working life", because for Godard the cinema and life are all but interchangeable. Of course all artists incorporate their personal experience into their work, but more than any other living filmmaker, Godard suffuses each of his films with his unmistakable identity. In Brody's reading, the bulk of Godard's films from the 1960s can be seen as play-by-play accounts of the stages in his doomed marriage to the actress Anna Karina: the early infatuation (Le Petit Soldat,1961); the first appearance of strains in the relationship (A Woman is a Woman,1961); Godard's mounting anxiety about infidelity (Contempt, 1963); the dissection of what went wrong (A Married Woman,1964; Alphaville, 1965), his self-flagellating response to the break-up (Pierrot le Fou, 1965); and the final bittersweet goodbye (Made in USA, 1966). Further into his career, living in semi-isolation in rural Switzerland, Godard's filmmaking became more abstract, but no less tied to the specifics of his life. In video works like France tour detour deux enfants (1978), and the monumental Histoire (s) du cinéma (1988-1998), Godard found a way to give a vivid on-screen life to his own increasingly philosophical thought process, which was fixated less on his romantic mishaps and more on the legacy of the Second World War, as well as contemporary conflicts in Sarajevo and Palestine. It is in these elegiac, politically provocative late works that Godard's artistry reached its highest pinnacle.

As Brody makes his way through the entirety of Godard's career, he provides a systematic and unhurried account of the origins, financing, casting, production, release and critical reception of each of Godard's films. This in itself goes a long way towards setting the art-historical record straight, but it is in his readings of the films themselves that Brody's talents as a writer and critic are most evident; his conclusions are consistently perceptive and in many cases revelatory. Though this exhaustive tome may try the patience of readers without a broad pre-existing interest in Godard's work, it is nonetheless a valuable close-up on one of the 20th century's most demanding and rewarding artists.

Edward Orloff lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has written previously for Film Comment.