It’s hard to overstate the influence of Jean-Luc Godard on the cinema that came after him – especially immediately following the death of his Cahiers du Cinéma and French New Wave contemporary Jacques Rivette. Godard was at the movement’s forefront, leading the charge for a new type of cinema, and this new collection finds as its focus his earliest work, including five of his ten films made between 1960 and 1965.
His directorial debut remains his best known work, and Breathless – a.k.a. À Bout de Souffle – is presented here beautifully. The film introduced both Godard and soon-to-be-star Jean Paul Belmondo to the world in a frenzy of quick cuts, eschewing contextualising shots and breaking the language of cinema down to its most basic form. Belmondo is effortlessly, impossibly cool as the low-rent crook on the run from the police; Jean Seberg captivating as the American journalist caught up in the rush.
Three of the films included here – Une Femme est une Femme, Pierrot le Fou and Alphaville – star Anna Karina, Godard’s wife for most of the period. It’s an entrancing sample of her roles, and the selection of films allows for a fascinating examination of her progression as an actor. She moves from tentative, sulky comedy in 1961’s Une Femme est une Femme to a magnetic, balletic physical performance in Alphaville, both predatory and innocent, threatening and harmless.
There are running themes throughout much of Godard’s early work, brought out by watching the films together. The meaning and import of art, and of cinema in particular, are frequently brought under the microscope, highlighted through the director’s ongoing experimentation with editing and cinematography, playing with perspective, colour and framing.
Above all though, these films return again and again to love: whether it exists, whether it can last, how it dies. Le Mépris and Pierrot le Fou may offer support to sceptics of sentimentality, seemingly drawing out love’s limits. In contrast, Une Femme est une Femme and especially Alphaville suggest a more hopeful, if inconclusive, outlook. There are no easy answers with Godard.
Extras include introductions to each film from critic Colin McCabe (best viewed after the fact, despite the name), a few brief excerpts from a new interview with Anna Karina, and a handful of longer documentaries on Godard’s work. They’re interesting, but hardly essential – the films are the stars here, magnificent examples of a filmmaker committed to experimentation, taking on a fresh genre with every production, never taking the safe option.
Words by Dominic Preston