A new movie and a special anniversary make May 2018 a fantastic time to revisit the life and work of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. A biopic about Godard, Le Redoubtable, recently played at the IU Cinema. It tells the story of his political radicalization during the late 1960s. One section of the film touches on his participation in shutting down the Cannes Film Festival during the turbulent events in France during May 1968, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
But this renewed look at the politically radical Godard should not distract from celebrating the aesthetically radical Godard. Before the events of 1968, Godard had made pioneering films that opened up the medium of cinema. His keen eye made his films some of the most innovative in the French New Wave.
One of the most innovative movies he made during his early period is Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live). Released in 1962, it tells the story of an aspiring actress named Nana who goes on various adventures in Paris as she inexorably gets drawn to the path of prostitution.
But like many Godard films, Vivre Sa Vie’s true innovations lie not in its plot. Instead, what makes Vivre Sa Vie so fresh is how Godard uses film form. A more conventional filmmaker might film one of Nana’s first conversations with her pimp Raoul by using the shot-reverse-shot technique. Instead, Godard uses a medium shot of Nana and tracks the camera from side to side as she talks, not cutting for longer than the average director would. This strategy of cutting with the camera makes an appearance later on in the scene when Godard repeatedly tracks from a medium close-up of Nana’s face to Raoul’s as they negotiate. This style would prove influential — critic and former IU Cinema guest Richard Brody has even argued that it influenced everybody from Chantal Akerman to Spike Lee.
Vivre Sa Vie has an innovative approach to structure as well. An opening subtitle says that this film takes place in “twelve tableaus,” and before each section there is a chapter title describing the sequence to a small extent. This novelistic approach to structure influenced Quentin Tarantino, who would use chapter titles in Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds.
Today, Godard is 87 years old. Instead of trying to shut down the Cannes Film Festival, he will have a film there in competition called The Image Book. He has continued to press the boundaries of what cinema can be to the delight of some and the confusion of others. But no matter what, Godard’s groundbreaking early 1960s work will continue to serve as a foundation for those who want to experiment with the visual potential of film as a medium.
Vivre Sa Vie was screened at the IU Cinema in 2013 as part of the retrospective series Brody Presents Godard. In conjunction with the series, film critic Richard Brody visited the Cinema to discuss Godard’s work for the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture Series.
Other Godard films that have been shown at the Cinema include La Chinoise (Wounded Galaxies, 2017); Goodbye to Language (International Arthouse, 2014); and La Redoubtable (International Arthouse, Wounded Galaxies, 2018).
Jesse Pasternack is a senior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed six short films.