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Jean-Luc Godard – Legendary Filmmaker and Master of French New Wave – Dies

Godard was among the world's most acclaimed directors, known for such classics as Breathless and Contempt, which pushed cinematic boundaries and inspired iconoclastic directors.

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Franco-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard – one of the leading lights of the ‘New Wave’ of French cinema – has died. He was 91.

The newspaper Liberation reported his death, citing people close to the director.

Godard was among the world’s most acclaimed directors, known for such classics as Breathless and Contempt, which pushed cinematic boundaries and inspired iconoclastic directors decades after his 1960s heyday.

His movies broke with the established conventions of French cinema in 1960 and helped kickstart a new way of filmmaking, complete with handheld camera work, jump cuts and existential dialogue.

For many movie buffs, no words are good enough: Godard, with his tussled black hair and heavy-rimmed glasses, was a veritable revolutionary who made artists of movie-makers, putting them on a par with master painters and icons of literature.

“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to,” Godard once said.

Critics rate him among the top 10 directors of all time, and he has had a direct influence on the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Bernardo Bertolucci, Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese.

Godard was born into a wealthy Franco-Swiss family on December 3, 1930 in Paris’s plush Seventh Arrondissement. His father was a doctor, his mother the daughter of a Swiss man who founded Banque Paribas, then an illustrious investment bank.

His interest in films blossomed in 1950, when he joined the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin. There he met Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut, who would also become influential members of the Nouvelle Vague.

Initially though, his interest in films was purely as a critic, writing for the publication Cahiers du Cinéma.

It wasn’t until 1954 that he was inspired to make his first short film.

Then in 1960, Godard made his first feature film, A Bout de Souffle or ‘Breathless’. The film, produced by Francois Truffaut and starring Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, was the turning point in his career.

The film heavily referenced American film noir of the 1940s and 50s, but also combined the Nouvelle Vague’s groundbreaking new techniques. The story of a car-thief who shoots a policeman and is then turned over by his girlfriend used hand-held camera work, incidental lighting, actor monologues to camera and jump-cuts.

It was the start of his most successful and influential period of filmmaking.

Cate Blanchett, Jury President of the 71st Cannes Film Festival presents special prize award for Jean-Luc Godard for his film “The Image Book” (Le livre d’image). Photo: Reuters/Eric Gaillard/Files

A new tsunami of creativity

1960 to 67 was a period of intense activity for Godard, in which he made the dozen films which form his Nouvelle Vague canon.

The most successful was the 1963 feature Le Mépris (‘Contempt’), starring Brigitte Bardot. It was the most expensive film he made, and his only orthodox film, though it took Nouvelle Vague techniques and solidified them as the accepted way of modern cinema.

After Pierrot le Fou (1965), his second film starring Belmondo, he was asked to direct Bonnie and Clyde, but he knocked back the offer, saying he distrusted Hollywood.

Godard’s political views had already appeared in films such as Le petit soldat, about the Algerian War of Independence. But in his final film in the Nouvelle Vague genre, Week-End, he delivered a scathing attack against consumerism and bourgeois society. Then in the closing credits, instead of simply “Fin,” the screen lit up with “Le Fin du Cinéma,” or “The End of Cinema.”

Political upheaval and militancy

Inspired by the May 68 protest movement that shook Paris and other European cities, Godard became increasingly politically outspoken. With his longtime friend Francois Truffaut, he led protests that shut down the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, to show solidarity with the students and workers.

Godard’s revolutionary and Marxist rhetoric pervaded both his films and his public statements. He openly criticised the Vietnam War. Between 1968 and 1973, he and Jean-Pierre Gorin made a series of films with a strong Maoist message. The best-known of them is Tout Va Bien (Just Great, 1972), starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda. But towards the end of 1970s, Godard lost faith in his Maoist ideals.

(With Reuters and DW inputs)