Am I the only one who connects French/Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and Bob Dylan, both stunningly prolific and ever-uncompromising, modernist geniuses whose challenging films and songs have been with the world since c.1960? For more than four decades, their daring artistic twists and spins have alternately exhilarated and frustrated their fans. By temperament, both are moody, aloof, and suffer no fools. Both are lady-killers who often have been bad to their ladies. Curiously, both talk their own species of private language, even in public, with sphinx-like logic a common denominator. Can you imagine a normal conversation with either? "Jean-Luc, seen any good movies lately?" "Bob, how about those Sox?"
I'll admit it. This veteran interviewer is intimidated to speak with Godard. I've passed the French New Wave cineaste on a New York street and bowed my head. What could I say that would interest him? He takes no pleasure discussing the cinema. He has little patience for flattery, or, the opposite, in being challenged. He'd never turn the tables and ask personal questions of the interviewer. He wouldn't give a damn. Even Colin MacCabe, a British critic who has known Godard for years and has authored the new Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (FSG, $25), confesses in the book, "...fond as I was of the old brute, I'd never thought he had found my company irresistible."
MacCabe talks of Godard's "complete indifference to normal social convention," and imagines Godard at a party, displaying "an asocial silence which could freeze a room instantly." As a child in Switzerland, Jean-Luc was a thief and shoplifter. As a young man in France, he was the morose one of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, who had little to say after watching movies. On the dole in the 1950s, he stole first editions from friends and sold them for admissions to to the cinema. When he secured a real job, it was an unlikely one, considering his introversion, considering his future intense loathing of Hollywood: for two years, he was PR head of 20th Century Fox's Paris office. Francois Truffaut was among his Cahiers film critic friends, and provided the story which motivated Breathless (1959), Godard's extraordinary breakthrough film. A few years later, they had a harsh, fatal falling out over politics, as Godard, by then an ultra-leftist, could no longer abide Truffaut's classic-style middle-class films. When Truffaut died of a brain tumor in 1984, Godard admitted he felt nothing at all.
Anna Karina was a runaway girl from Denmark who, after Godard spotted her in a bubble-bath commercial, starred in his classic works (Vivra sa Vie, Pierrot le fou, etc.), and became, briefly, Mme. Godard. "For Godard, the story is of crippling jealousy," writes MacCabe, "for Karina, of desperate solitude." He stalked her everywhere. Their child was stillborn. He left her for months without explanation. She tries suicide several times. He hit her. They bitterly divorced.
Godard was never the greatest human being, though he's long settled down, residing since 1970 in a small Swiss town with filmmaker Anne-Marie Mieville. Mieville did not consent to be interviewed for MacCabe's book; and whatever conversations were had with Godard provided scant personal information. The result is a failure as an intimate biography-Godard remains an enigma- but an excellent book for putting Godard's oeuvre into a social/political/theoretical context.
Godardians are divided. Is his career about the crown years of 1959-1966, Breathless to Weekend, and afterward incomprehensible self-indulgence? Or has his vision crystallized through passing time, even as his films become so private, esoteric, opaque? MacCabe is among the "later Godardians." He adores Godard's video essays of the 1990s, melancholy and elegaic, and compares the 1998 tome, Histoire (s) du cinema, to Finnegans Wake. Ultimately, that's what's needed of a biographer, someone partisan like MacCabe, convinced that Godard at a cranky 70 remains the most vital filmmaker in the world.