In the post-#MeToo world, and at a time when diversity in cinema is a more widely-discussed issue than ever before, a great cultural re-examination is taking place. The icons and totems of film, music and television are being subjected to a long-overdue deconstruction. Jean-Luc Godard shouldn’t escape it. No matter how admired and influential he is and continues to be, the simple fact is that Godard’s work is soaked through with sexism.
From Lemmy Caution’s casual slapping of women in the opening minutes of Alphaville to Anna Karina’s subjection to a never-ending series of beatings and shootings, Godard’s work often thrives on the aesthetics of stylised female suffering. When women aren’t being slapped or shot, they are being paraded about for the amusement of bored, pseudo-intellectual men. There are examples littered throughout Godard’s filmography; the topless party that opens Pierrot le Fou, the gratuitous and pointless shot of a naked young woman bathing in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and Brigitte Bardot’s inability to wear trousers in Le Mépris, to name a few.
The unwillingness to truly challenge the critical consensus on Godard and his work as daringly magnificent, philosophically potent and solidly unimpeachable is in part responsible for works in his vein continuing to be privileged and prioritised. Godard has long been considered the font of all cinematic wisdom. The world of cinema has reacted by recreating itself in his own flawed image. The result is film after film depicting slim men in bespoke clothing talking down to women and pressuring them in to languid, emotionally detached sex. Throw in a reference or two to a great painter, philosopher or film director and you’ve apparently got a ‘masterpiece.’
At their worst, Godard’s films aren’t about the struggles faced by women and the cruelty of the world, nor are they humanist works like those of Robert Bresson or Carl Theodor Dreyer. They’re unhitched, uninvolving exercises in the stylish depiction of male smarminess. The worst components of Godard’s legacy seem to reinforce every negative stereotype about art cinema and French film.
Godard’s grating tropes and gratuitous artsy machismo notwithstanding, it remains understandable why his work continues to be revered, consumed, and analysed to near-death. Le Mépris, for instance, is full of the very worst of Godard, with a fedora-wearing lead spouting out causal misogyny against his inconceivably beautiful wife (played by Brigitte Bardot) as their marriage disintegrates. It’s whiny and dated. Yet somehow, thanks to its combination of incredible music, lush cinematography, and jaw-dropping location filming, it can be celebrated as one of Godard’s greatest films. It embodies the best and worst of the auteur’s work.
Le Mépris cannot be separated from its sexism because it’s a crucial component of the story. Paul and Camille cannot connect with each other because to him she’s just an object, a work of art like a Greek statue of a goddess. Just as Alfred Hitchcock reflected on his own sexual desires and obsessions with Vertigo, Godard reflects on his own deteriorating marriage and views on gender in Le Mépris. That doesn’t change the fact that Bardot is objectified for the majority of the film’s run time, gets slapped by her husband and ultimately suffers the greatest penalty of all for her infidelity. But seeing Godard’s ruminations on his own self-destructive sexism transferred onto celluloid is nevertheless fascinating. His self-insert characters often die, but not here. Paul is left as a lonely, broken man; a failure and a loser.
Then there’s Breathless, which manages to achieve something quite atypical for Godard: it’s genuinely fun. With its jazzy soundtrack, iconic performance from Jean Seberg, and gorgeous Parisian location, Breathless is a sleek, slick film that actually goes out of its way to entertain the audience. The lead, Michel, is a typical Godardian man (all misogyny, hollow talk and fedoras) yet the film goes to great lengths when demonstrating how much of a loser he is.
His talk is hollow because he’s learnt it in cinemas, watching Humphrey Bogart films. He thinks himself a charmer, but the women in his life are quick to rid themselves of him. He struts about like Top Cat, committing petty crimes and bigging himself up to anyone that’ll listen, but this is just an act. In reality, Michel is a deeply insecure, desperately sad man who looks ridiculous and deals with it by having fun and robbing people. The film is a fantasy; an overcooked series of ideas in the head of a naïve, crass young man. It’s the effortlessly cool, beautiful American newspaper girl Patricia (Seberg) that we sympathise with. She endures Michel because she likes him, but when the going gets tough, we see that she’s no fool. The ice-cold expression on her face as she witnesses Michel’s fate in the film’s final scene is justly iconic.
In Breathless, the sexism is all contained within the character of Michel. Godard reveres Michel and invites the audience to do the same. If instead we view Michel as a fool jogging towards his grave with his manipulated girlfriend the real hero, Breathless becomes more interesting than Godard ever intended. Godard’s films are often grating, perfecting the dated and dull art of the male gaze and repeating it again and again. His legacy is undoubtedly felt in the lingering sense of male intellectual superiority and unthinking misogyny that can still be detected in films today. Yet even when’s he’s boring, Godard manages to be unique. When he’s on good form, his films are mesmerising, excitingly intimate and thrillingly fast-paced, basking in their own luxurious decadence. Without his forward-thinking direction and small number of truly great films, we wouldn’t have several major stylistic innovations that we take for granted today.
The regressive tropes that Godard helped to perpetuate are woeful, but he still must be considered a vital element in 20th century cinema, an innovator whose very greatest work is his most introspective, whether intentionally or not. Breathless and Le Mépris are stories of sexist men causing their own downfall, making their misogyny an uncomfortable but inseparable component of their stories.
The unfiltered reverence directed at Godard and his films has allowed a stale, repetitive idea of what is and is not worthy cinema to take root, an idea that privileges and celebrates the works of straight, while male ‘visionaries’ at the expense of others. The recent controversy surrounding the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s lack of diversity, the BAFTAs‘ push for inclusiveness and the most recent Oscars ceremony being the most diverse in history, we can see that the overwhelming critical bias towards white, male, western cinema is in decline. A change in institutional culture to embrace a diverse and pluralistic view of what constitutes great film is long overdue. The films of Godard, and those of other male directors who have left equally profound impacts on the cinematic landscape, have long acted as an impervious barrier to this necessary shift.
Godard has a complex legacy, but a fitting one for a filmmaker whose misogynistic cinematic tropes undermine a filmography that is otherwise full of the revolutionary ideals towards which he strives.
Words by Frank Evans.
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