'I am here to proclaim to these modern times the end of the grammatical era and the beginning of an age of flamboyance in every field, especially the movies." So says The Exterminating Angel in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend, the 1967 film that culminates the first part of the Toronto International Film Festival's retrospective, Godard Forever.
What on Earth is he talking about? The Exterminating Angel (the name comes from Luis Bunuel's 1962 film), a gun-toting hitchhiker who claims to be the Son of God, joins bourgeois couple Roland and Corinne on their journey out of Paris to claim an inheritance. The trip includes a famous nine-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam, scenes of corpse-filled roadways, speechifying revolutionaries and a finale in which Corrine joins a hippie revolutionary cell and picnics on her husband's corpse. Weekend has been acclaimed not only as a snapshot of the ideological turmoil of its time, but as a black comic masterpiece. Today, our reaction is more likely to be: Who makes films like this any more? Who would risk making an audience this uncomfortable? Is he a genius or a fraud?
Don't look for experts to tell you. For every critical acolyte who compares him, as the Cinematheque program does, to James Joyce and Pablo Picasso as a reinventor of his art form, there are weighty naysayers. Famously, there's the 1973 enraged letter from François Truffault, Godard's old friend and fellow critic from the Cahiers du Cinéma, who declared him a chronic poseur, "the Ursula Andress of militancy."
There are other significant doubters as well. "I've never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead," said Ingmar Bergman. Slightly more generous was Orson Welles: "His gifts as a director are enormous. I just can't take him very seriously as a thinker – and that's where we seem to differ, because he does."
Personally, I lean toward the Welles position. Godard's slogans and quotations often smack of overreaching. But while there are dull stretches in most of his movies, there is also, regularly, a sense of play and visual wit that is liberating and more openly emotional than is initially obvious.
Weekend, which is somewhere between fascinating and insufferable, is a film that Godard described as "closer to a cry than a movie." At the end of the shoot, Godard assembled his crew and told them to find other work, because he was stopping making films for a while.
Understandably, he needed a break. The movie was Godard's 15th feature film in seven years, representing the hottest hitting streak in cinema history; Godard, now 84, continues to make elegiac, sometimes deeply beautiful and obscure film/videos, mixing voice-over with sound, found and original footage. But Weekend and 1967 are generally considered the points when he relinquished his hold on a popular audience.
His first and still best-known feature, Breathless (1960), had an irreverence and freedom that inspired filmmakers around the world. The approach was a kind of punk cinema: No lights, no makeup, light cameras used in a documentary style, and a script written on the fly. But the real key was the audacious editing: The film, which came in at 21/2 hours, had to be reduced to 90 minutes, but instead of cutting entire scenes, Godard and his editor chopped into them, hacking out dialogue and transitions in blunt jump cuts.
There are repeated motifs in Godard's early films: A man and a woman in a room for a long scene, discussing freedom and happiness, photographs and illustrations of women in their underwear, fast cars, and enough cigarette smoke to make your eyes sting.
But rather than get stuck in a groove, Godard experimented constantly, moving through the genres and reinventing them with new techniques. Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) is a spy film where assassins quote Cocteau and get tortured in Swiss apartments. A Woman is a Woman is a movie that Godard described as about his regret that life couldn't be lived as a musical. It is shot in vibrant pop colours in CinemaScope, and Anna Karina, Godard's wife, is vibrant in the centre of the screen, while the edges show the crappiness of her surroundings.
Godard's fourth film, My Life to Live (Vive sa vie), is a melodramatic, philosophical essay in 12 episodes about a woman (Karina again) who becomes a prostitute, shot in carefully composed long takes full of talk. For many, his masterpiece is his relatively straightforward movie about the movie business, Contempt (Le Mépris), but really, it's impossible to pick. The 15 early movies feel like one major opus, played in different registers.
Although many things associated with Godard – the Brechtian distancing devices, the bombardment of media images, the long philosophical conversations – did not originate with Godard. But the experience of watching Godard's early films is a reminder of the impact he had on subsequent films and directors.
We know, for example, that Michael Chapman, cinematographer for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), shot New York with Godard's Parisian streets in mind. The digressive hit men in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction stepped straight out of Godard's The Little Soldier and Band of Outsiders. The bickering gay lovers in Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together (1997) are carried on the French New Wave. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, with its bitter take on moviemaking, is resonant of Contempt. Even Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, with its unreliable voice-over, its movie references and audacious willingness to alienate its audience, feels distinctly Godardian. His films remain a useful tool kit for anyone determined to avoid the predictable.
"Before I do anything," Steven Soderbergh once said of Godard, "I go back and look at as many of his films as I can, as a reminder of what's possible." That may be the reason that much of this immersion in early Godard still seems fresh and liberating, a repository of future cinematic ideas and, as Soderbergh says, of all the things that are possible.