Jean-Luc Godard, iconic French New Wave film director, dies at 91

Godard revolutionised popular cinema with his 1960 debut, Breathless, and stood for years as one of the world’s most provocative filmmakers.

Jean-Luc Godard
Godard, the ingenious 'enfant terrible' of the French New Wave who revolutionised popular cinema in 1960 with his debut feature Breathless [File: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP]

Film director Jean-Luc Godard, the godfather of France’s New Wave cinema, has died aged 91, multiple French media outlets reported on Tuesday.

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 kick-start a new way of filmmaking, complete with handheld camera work, jump cuts and existential dialogue.

French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the director’s talent and mourned the loss of a “national treasure”.”Jean-Luc Godard, the most iconoclastic filmmaker of the New Wave, invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art. We have lost a national treasure, a genius,” Macron tweeted.

Godard made a string of films, often politically charged and experimental, which pleased few outside a small circle of fans and frustrated many critics through their purported overblown intellectualism.

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

Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux told The Associated Press he was “sad, sad, immensely so” at the news of Godard’s death.

Jean Luc Godard
Godard, right, with actress Cecile Camp for their film In Praise of Love at the 54th International Cannes Film Festival in 2001 [File: Reuters]

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.

He grew up in Nyon, Switzerland, and studied ethnology at the Sorbonne in France’s capital, where he was increasingly drawn to the cultural scene that flourished in the Latin Quarter “cine-club” after the second world war.

He was friends with future big-name directors Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. Breathless, based on a story by Truffaut, was Godard’s first big success when it was released in March 1960.

In 1961, Godard married Danish-born model and actress Anna Karina, who appeared in a string of movies he made during the remainder of the 1960s, all of them seen as New Wave landmarks. Notable among them were My Life to Live, Alphaville and Crazy Pete.

His work turned more political by the late 1960s. Week End came out a year before popular anger at the establishment shook France, culminating in the iconic but short-lived student unrests of May 1968.

Quentin Tarantino, American director of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs in the 1990s, is often cited as one of a more recent generation of boundary-bending tradition that Godard and his Paris Left Bank cohorts initiated.

Earlier came Martin Scorsese in 1976 with Taxi Driver, the disturbing neon-lit psychological thriller of a Vietnam veteran turned cabbie who steers through the streets all night with a growing obsession for the need to clean up seedy New York.

In December 2007, Godard was honoured by the European Film Academy with a lifetime achievement award.

In 2010, he refused to travel to Hollywood to receive an honourary Oscar alongside film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, director-producer Francis Ford Coppola and actor Eli Wallach.

His lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian cause also brought him repeated accusations of anti-Semitism, despite his insistence that he sympathised with the Jewish people and their plight in Nazi-occupied Europe.

He spent his last years in Rolle, Switzerland.

Source: News Agencies