Volume > Issue > Jean-Luc Godard: Low-Altitude Narcissism

Jean-Luc Godard: Low-Altitude Narcissism


By Robert E. Lauder | December 1984

Ed. Note: With this issue, we introduce a new column on films — A Cinematic View — which we expect to appear in ev­ery, or almost every, issue. Our regular film reviewer is the Rev. Robert E. Lauder, professor of Philosophy at Cathedral College in Douglaston, New York. He is the author of Loneliness Is for Loving and The Priest as Person, and his writings have appeared in various per­iodicals, from The New York Times to Commonweal and Homiletic & Pasto­ral Review.


The ex-enfant terrible of French cinema has done it again: Jean-Luc Godard has created a film that will draw strong reactions. First Name: Car­men will be hailed by loyal enthusiasts of the direc­tor’s work as another jewel in a marvelous mosaic of movies that Godard has turned out since 1959. But by those who find Godard an impossible-to-acquire taste, the film will be damned as Godard’s latest exercise in narcissistic filmmaking.

Critics have long been strongly divided in their appraisal of Godard’s work. Richard Roud, in addition to suggesting that Godard is the greatest contemporary director, has described him as one of the most important artists of our time. Pauline Kael has characterized Godard as “the most excit­ing director working in movies today.” However, as perceptive a cineaste as Stanley Kaufman has portrayed Godard as “a magician who makes elabo­rate uninspired gestures and then pulls out of the hat precisely nothing.”

What critics do seem to agree on is that Go­dard has been the most influential of contempo­rary directors. Probably the most original techni­cian of the cinema since Orson Welles, Godard — with his jump cuts, sound overlaps, and conversa­tions with the camera — has spawned a generation of imitators. Whether one is exulted or exasperated by Godard’s cinematic techniques, no one will de­ny that Godard is innovative. Prior to Godard no director would dream of cutting from the back of an actress’s head to the back of the same head. In Godard’s first feature length film, Breathless (1959), he did it 18 times.

Though the conventional wisdom is that cam­eras are supposed to record rather than call atten­tion to themselves, Godard’s camera in an impor­tant scene in My Life to Live (1962) swings back and forth like a pendulum. These startling tech­niques and tricks are among the key reasons why viewers either love or hate a Godard film. Even those who find Godard’s unique style and tech­nique arbitrary and distracting recognize the power of some of his scenes. I think of the traffic jam in Weekend (1968) and the display of the warriors’ loot at the end of the pacifist fable Les Carabiniers (1963).

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