Jean-Luc Godard: Biography

Jean-Luc Godard.

Jean-Luc Godard was born into a wealthy Swiss family in France in 1930. His parents sent him to live in Switzerland when the war broke out, but in the late 1940s he returned to Paris to study ethnology at the Sorbonne. He became acquainted with Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, forming part of a group of passionate young film-makers devoted to exploring new possibilities in cinema.

They were the leading lights of Cahiers du Cinéma, where they published their radical views on film. Godard's obsession with cinema beyond all else led to alienation from his family who cut off his allowance. Like the small time crooks he was to feature in his films, he supported himself by petty theft. He was desperate to put his theories into practice so he took a job working on Swiss dam and used it as an opportunity to film a documentary on the project. The construction firm bought the film, an early indicator of Godard's more recent success working on corporate video commissions.

A bout de souffle (Breathless) (1959) was his first feature, based on an idea by Truffaut. Made on a shoe-string budget with Chabrol as artistic supervisor, it was spontaneous, vibrant and groundbreakingly original. Suddenly the typical B-feature crime plot was reborn, with startling cinematic techniques, hand-held camerawork and natural lighting. References to Sam Fuller and Humphrey Bogart and quotations from Faulkner, Aragon and Apollinaire mixed up pop and literary allusions in a dazzling jigsaw of hip cultural awareness. It was a revelation and made Jean-Paul Belmondo a star. It was to be Godard's only box office hit.

By the early 1960s Jean-Luc Godard was probably the most discussed director in the world. He made a an enormous impact on the future direction of cinema, influencing film-makers as diverse as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Wong Kar-Wai.

As the 1960s progressed, Godard became less and less accessible, both in his personal life and his work. After making Week-end (1967), which features a ten-minute tracking shot of a hideous traffic jam, Godard abandoned his increasingly antagonistic relationships with film industry colleagues (his mutual disaffection with Truffaut, for example, is well documented).

He left Paris for Switzerland, which has been his home for the last 20 years. Fascinated with developments in new media, he has experimented with video, making several on commission for clients including Channel 4, France Telecom and UNICEF. Amongst his 'revolutionary films for revolutionary people' is his highly regarded eight-hour history of cinema, recently edited into a 90 minute version.

His latest film is Eloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love), concerning in part an elderly couple who are former heroes of the Resistance and whose life story Steven Spielberg has offered to buy. The film has just received its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 2001 to great acclaim. It is expected to have a British release later this year.

Godard's reputation for being a bitter and reclusive figure clearly does not go unnoticed, but is not observed without humour, as a recent anecdote in the New Yorker illustrates. He told Richard Brody that he and his partner (the film-maker Anne-Marie Mieville) had clipped a cartoon from the paper which exemplifies their situation: a unicorn in a suit is sitting at a desk and talking on the phone with a caption reading "These rumours of my non-existence are making it very difficult for me to obtain financing."

Fin du cinema?

Last Updated: 04 Sep 2006