French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, 91, chose death by assisted suicide with ‘great lucidity’

Jean-Luc Godard died peacefully at his home in Rolle, Switzerland, on Sept 13. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK - Jean-Luc Godard, the daringly innovative director and provocateur whose unconventional camerawork, disjointed narrative style and penchant for radical politics changed the course of film-making in the 1960s, leaving a lasting influence on it, died peacefully at his home in Rolle, Switzerland on Tuesday. He was 91.

His longtime legal adviser, Patrick Jeanneret, said he died by assisted suicide, which in his case was medically and legally validated, having suffered from “multiple disabling pathologies“.

“He could not live like you and me, so he decided with a great lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, ‘Now it’s enough’,” Jeanneret said in a phone interview, adding Godard wanted to die with dignity, and “that was exactly what he did”.

The French auteur’s wife Anne-Marie Mieville was at his side.

“No official (funeral) ceremony will take place,” his family said. “He will be cremated... And it really must happen in private.”

A master of epigrams as well as of movies, Godard once observed: “A film consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.”

In practice, he seldom scrambled the timeline of his films, preferring instead to leap forward through his narratives by means like the elliptical “jump cut,” which he did much to make into a widely accepted tool. But he never tired of taking apart established forms and reassembling them in ways that were invariably fresh, frequently witty, sometimes abstruse but consistently stimulating.

As a young critic in the 1950s, Godard was one of several iconoclastic writers who helped turn a new publication called Cahiers du Cinéma into a critical force that swept away the old guard of the European art cinema and replaced it with new heroes largely drawn from the ranks of the American commercial cinema – directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

When his first feature-length film as a director, Breathless, was released in 1960, Godard joined several of his Cahiers colleagues in a movement that the French press soon labeled la nouvelle vague – the new wave.

For Godard as well as for new wave friends and associates like François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, the “tradition of quality” represented by the established French cinema was an aesthetic dead end. To them, it was strangled by literary influences and empty displays of craftsmanship that had to be vanquished to make room for a new cinema, one that sprang from the personality and predilections of the director.

Although Breathless was not the first new wave film (both Chabrol’s 1958 Beau Serge and Truffaut’s 1959 400 Blows preceded it), it became representative of the movement.

A short, slight, often scruffy man with heavy-rimmed black glasses and an ever-present cigarette or cigar, Godard rarely gave interviews. When he did, he typically deflected probing questions about his life and art.

Jean-Luc Godard in New York on Sept 22, 1964. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In 2010, Godard, long at odds with Hollywood, was awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for lifetime achievement, but not without controversy. The award revived long-simmering accusations that Godard held antisemitic views.

He did not attend the ceremony, and when an interviewer afterward asked him what the award meant to him, he was blunt.

“Nothing,” he said. “If the academy likes to do it, let them do it.”

Jean-Luc Godard was born Dec 3, 1930, in Paris, the second of four children in an extravagantly wealthy Protestant family. His French-born father, Paul-Jean Godard, was a prominent physician, and his mother, Odile Monod, was the daughter of a leading Swiss banker. Jean-Luc Godard credited his parents with instilling in him a love for literature, and he initially wanted to be a novelist.

Paul-Jean Godard, who became a Swiss citizen, opened a clinic in Nyon, Switzerland, and Jean-Luc Godard spent his early childhood there, visiting his family’s estates on both the French and Swiss sides of Lake Geneva and remaining there until the end of World War II.

After France was liberated, he returned to Paris as a teenager to attend secondary school, the Lycée Buffon, then enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1949, intending to study ethnology. Instead, he immersed himself in cinema, spending much of his time at the Cinémathèque Française, a nonprofit film archive and screening room, and in the film societies of the Latin Quarter.

It was at the Cinémathèque that he made the acquaintance of André Bazin, an influential film critic and theorist, and of the other young film enthusiasts in his circle, including Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette. He began writing reviews for the magazine La Gazette du Cinéma in 1952 under the pseudonym Hans Lucas and later joined Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette as a contributor to Cahiers du Cinema, which Bazin had founded.

He grew estranged from his parents, and when his mother died in a road accident in 1954, he did not attend the funeral.

A decade later, Godard paid homage of sorts to his mother in Band Of Outsiders (1964), a film about two thieves who romance a young woman living in a villa. The female lead, played by Anna Karina, a Danish model who was Godard’s wife (his first) at the time, is named, like his mother, Odile, and, like his mother, she detests movies.

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Godard’s personal and professional lives intertwined throughout his career. His first marriage, in 1961, to Karina, ended in divorce in 1964. (She died in 2019.) In 1967, when he was 36, he married Anne Wiazemsky, an actress 16 years his junior who was starring in his 1967 film La Chinoise.

Wiazemsky, who died in 2017, wrote two books about their marriage, which ended in 1979. Twelve years ago, he married Anne-Marie Mieville, who survives him.

As he grew older, Godard seemed more intolerant of other film directors. He quarrelled bitterly with Truffaut, once his closest friend among the new wave directors.

He was especially scathing toward Hollywood film-maker Steven Spielberg. In the 2001 film In Praise Of Love, he portrays Spielberg representatives trying to buy the film rights to the memories of a Jewish couple who fought in the French Resistance.

Commenting on the film’s sourness, New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote in 2002 that it “completes Mr Godard’s journey from one of the cinema’s great radicals to one of its crankiest reactionaries”.

Godard insisted that despite his disappointment with contemporary Hollywood, he remained enamored of the great American directors of the past.

“We thought we could do better than the bad films, but not better than the good,” he said in a 1989 Times interview. “Myself, I never thought I would do better than John Ford or Orson Welles, but I thought I could perhaps do what Godard was meant to do.” NYTIMES, AFP

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