Jean-Luc Godard passed away on September 13, 2022. Eric Smoodin, author of Paris in the Dark, is an expert on French film culture and offers this guest post in remembrance. Smoodin is Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and also author of Regarding Frank Capra and coeditor of Looking Past the Screen.
“The camera is a living being…unstable…it’s a body trying to keep its balance……and this imbalance is the very sign of life.” That was how Pierre Marcabru, writing in Combat in March 1960, described À Bout de souffle in his perplexed, admiring, and not always positive review of Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film. When Godard died last month, he left a body of work that had transformed the cinema, and he was acknowledged as one of the most important filmmakers of the last sixty years. But how was he understood at the very beginning of his career, a career so intertwined with the start of the New Wave, and so connected to a belief, among critics in France, filmmakers, and quite possibly the public, that French cinema had just been unalterably changed?
Despite the extensive bibliography about Godard and his work, the available evidence is hard to come by, at least for film historians working in the United States. Of the Bibliothèque nationale’s vast online holdings, the only daily from the period that readily can be accessed is Combat, which had been founded during the war as a Resistance newspaper, but that despite its interest in politics always gave a great deal of space to the cinema. It’s difficult to generalize from Combat, but the newspaper certainly paid attention to Godard, even before À Bout de souffle opened in Paris, perhaps a sign of the young filmmaker’s place in French film culture broadly.
In Combat at the time, Godard typically would be mentioned in relation to the New Wave and to other young filmmakers, often as one among many and then increasingly as the first among equals. In July 1959, for instance, the newspaper’s headline acknowledged a sort of aggressive attack by a group of new directors and screenwriters; “No Respite for the New Wave’s Assault on Cinema.” In Combat’s telling, these cineastes—all of them men—“reflected the phenomenon of the New Wave in cinema.” Combat named many of them, the movies they had made, and also how old they were. The list is familiar to us now—Claude Chabrol, 28 years old, Le Beau Serge (1958), and François Truffaut, 27 years old, Les 400 Coups (1959), for example. But it also contains names and films mostly unknown so many years later—Jean-Pierre Mocky, 30 years old, Les Dragueurs (1959), and Claude Bernard-Aubert, 28 years old, Les Tripes au soleil (1959). In this narrative, Godard is very much in the second wave of the New Wave, “among the new names on the horizon” yet to make a first feature, along with Jacques Demy and Louis Malle.
Combat continued writing about these young, exciting filmmakers, including Godard, who by that time had only made some short films. In January 1960, still a few months before the premiere of À Bout de Souffle, Roger Tailleur lauded “a new generation of cineastes,” including Godard but also Marcel Hanoun, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Philippe de Broca, and many others.
By March, though, just a few days before À Bout de souffle opened, Godard and Truffaut had begun separating themselves, at least in Combat, from their contemporaries. The newspaper ran an interview with American producer Sam Spiegel, recently arrived in France, in order to frame the cinema as being in something of a generational conflict. The 58-year-old Spiegel, responsible for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and who was in preparation for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), came from a long line of hardened veterans who believed that, “after D.W. Griffith, the director had died,” replaced in importance by the movie producer. Combat then pointed out, though, that “nevertheless, he had come to Paris to see the films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, those “intellectuals from Cahiers du Cinéma whose theories of…film are…the opposite of his.”
Just a few days later, À Bout de souffle opened at four very fashionable Parisian cinémas d’exclusivité, the Vivienne in the second arrondissement, the Balzac in the eighth, the Helder in the ninth, and Scala in the tenth. Godard’s premiere stood out as a notable event in the city, even though other films beginning that week point to the astonishing film culture in Paris at the time: Fritz Lang’s Les Contrebandiers de Moonflet (Moonfleet ), Blake Edwards’ Opérations jupons (Operation Petticoat ), and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), among others. Marcabru’s extensive review in Combat seemed to mirror the film itself, a series of jump cuts between emotions and reactions; “À Bout de souffle is a sour, aggressive film…a dry film with a prodigious contempt for human weakness…a razor-sharp film.” Marcabru tried to describe the experience of seeing a film that “comes towards us in fits and starts…the eye and ear never attached to continuity in vision and hearing,” providing us with a “cinema of tensions.”
After the shock of À Bout de souffle, Godard became the great star of the New Wave. Two weeks after the opening, Combat reported that the film had finished second to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), by one vote, for the best French film since September 1959 among the editors of the literary journal La Nouvelle Critique. The next month, Combat told readers that the Ministry of Affairs had chosen À Bout de souffle to represent France at the Cannes film festival, and then, in July, that Godard had won the best director prize at the Berlin film festival. Marcabru himself kept writing about the film, explaining in April 1960, in an article headlined Ethnologie et cinéma, that Godard was actually a sociologist, telling us more about human behavior than any expert in the field.
Combat now treated Godard, not yet thirty, as something of a mentor to other New Wave directors, and as an important model for young, serious filmmakers around the world. The newspaper wrote admiringly of the 29-year-old Jacques Demy making his first feature, Lola (1961), with “the blessing” of his “production advisor,” Jean-Luc Godard. Then, in an enthusiastic review of the just-released Shadows, an anonymous critic confidently explained that the technique of the film “was very close to that which Jean-Luc Godard utilized in À Bout de souffle,” asserting influence even though the director, John Cassavetes, had finished his 1958 film well before Godard had begun his.
Godard consistently would be used to signify the ongoing health and vibrancy of the French cinema, and the terms here were those of continuity rather than the earlier “assault.” In August 1960, Jean-Louis Caussou reflected in Combat on “The New Film Season,” and viewed it as marked both by a welcome return of “the old guard,” with the opening of Abel Gance’s Austerlitz (1960), and by the spectacular new films by Godard, as well as Truffaut, Malle, and Claude Autant-Lara.
Combat began reporting on Godard’s second feature, Le Petit Soldat, in February 1960, even before his first, À Bout de souffle, had opened. By the time Godard had finished Le Petit Soldat, the film and the controversy around it had become a major news story. The Minister of Information, Louis Terrenoire, who oversaw the French film censorship commission, had banned this film about the Algerian war, largely because of the movie’s depiction of the French army’s use of torture against Algerian liberation fighters. Combat took up the commission’s decision in order to argue against censorship in general, and also saw Terrenoire’s action as the death knell of the New Wave, “putting an end to the ambitions of young directors who wish to bring to the screen something other” than the expected and the conventional.
Even more than Terrenoire, the man Combat named as most responsible for banning the film was Jean-Marie Le Pen. At the time a young member of the national assembly, Le Pen would become the leader of the anti-immigrant, antisemitic French ultra-right, a position now held by his daughter, Marine le Pen. In 1960, Le Pen père demanded that Le Petit Soldat not be shown anywhere in France or elsewhere, and argued unsuccessfully that Godard himself should be expelled from the country.
Referring to the scenes that Terrenoire found objectionable, Combat quoted Godard as saying that “the instances of torture last three-and-a-half minutes in a 90-minute film, and therefore do not exceed that which is tolerated in detective, horror, science fiction, or spy films.” Then Combat enlisted Godard to provide a response to the controversy, and the director wrote both dismissively and humorously about the actions taken against his film. Godard insisted, first, that “I don’t think anything about censorship,” but then added that “we must say what we have to say, express what we feel without worrying about…censorship.” He went on that “if we really are of this century, we necessarily pose the problems of this century through stories,” while “censorship…aims to preserve principles fixed in the past.” Godard concluded that censorship is “like someone telling you, ‘I don’t like your belt, it’s shocking, take it off.’” Then, when you comply, “your pants fall down and that’s even more shocking…so you get put in jail.”
In just one year, at least in Combat, Godard had gone from one of many very promising young French filmmakers to a leading spokesperson for freedom of speech and expression. Reading through the newspaper’s reporting on Godard from that period, we can get a sense of the impact of his films, of the intense shock of the new. This is the recurring motif of Marcabru’s review of À Bout de Souffle, and, in fact, of so much of the writing about Godard in the decades that followed. “It is a new beginning of cinema,” Marcabru wrote. “It is crucial.”