From the youthful New Wave excitement of “Breathless” to the experimental works of his old age, Godard changed cinema.
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Jean-Luc Godard has died at 91. One of the pioneers of the French New Wave, Godard and his movie-mad contemporaries rebelled against the square cinematic conventions of the 1950s. They redefined the canon to include then-disreputable American genre pictures, created characters who articulated their own passions and opinions, and illustrated that the tried-and-true techniques of professional filmmaking were stifling and unnecessary.
Between 1960 and 1967, the prolific Godard made over a dozen feature films in a multiplicity of styles — presented with exuberance and wit — creating a body of work that later directors would draw on for inspiration. He excited his peers and his successors with how he expanded the vocabulary and potential of the medium. He then shifted into cine-essays that alternated direct political commentary and poetic imagery, forging a new genre that could best be called “Godardian.”
These nine streaming Godard movies feature the work that won his international fame and his more challenging later films, which saw him trying to stretch his audience’s understanding of what a movie could be.
Godard’s feature-length debut is as startlingly radical now as it was back in 1960. Ostensibly about a cool, remorseless criminal (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his capricious American lover (Jean Seberg), “Breathless” changed cinema with the way its director told the story. Godard is just as interested in watching his characters goof around on an ordinary Parisian day as in seeing them shoot guns or break laws. Whenever the action in any given scene starts to bore him, he and his editor jump-cut to something else, regardless of whether the results look clean. Rather than coming across as amateurish, the experiments with form still feel fresh and youthful — proving that maybe cinema doesn’t need any rules.
Stream it on HBO Max, Criterion or Kanopy; rent or buy it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube or Vudu.
Arguably the director’s most frivolous film, “A Woman Is a Woman” was described at the time as “a neorealist musical” — two genres that would seem pretty incompatible. Godard’s soon-to-be wife Anna Karina plays a stripper, trying to rope one of the men in her life into impregnating her. Emboldened by the success of “Breathless,” Godard shreds even more conventions. He chops Michel Legrand’s lush score into disconnected fragments, has characters address the camera, exposes his own artifice, and generally expresses his sense that real life is just one long movie.
Rent or buy it on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu or Microsoft.
Godard followed the giddy playtime of “A Woman Is a Woman” with the much bleaker, unusually straightforward “Vivre Sa Vie” (a.k.a. “My Life to Live”). Anna Karina plays an aspiring actress who has to work as a prostitute to get by, finding herself adopting a variety of different roles to keep her clients satisfied. Leaving aside the self-reference and winks at the audience, the director instead tells this highly metafictional story in a dozen docu-realistic vignettes, revealing the alienation of urban life and the cruelty of men.
Stream it on HBO Max, Criterion or Kanopy.
A chilly take on dystopian science-fiction, this rare Godard fantasy film was shot in early 1960s Paris, unaltered in any way to look more futuristic. “Alphaville” puts a rumpled, noir-ready secret agent against a backdrop of mid-20th-century modernism, and lets the visual clash between the character and his habitat reflect the artist’s own dim view of how technology strangles the life out of humanity. Genre filmmakers in a post-“Alphaville” world would have to reckon with how Godard made the ordinary seem alien.
Stream it on Kanopy or rent it on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu or YouTube.
The apotheosis of Godard’s early work, “Weekend” crams astonishing imagery and provocative ideas into nearly every minute, all while telling a grabby satirical story about a truly horrible and casually violent upper-middle-class couple, whose trip into the country becomes a suitably ironic nightmare. The film’s centerpiece sequence is a long tracking shot across an epic traffic jam, dotted with pathetic rage and punctuated by stomach-turning gore. Altogether, this movie is one long howl of disgust, delivered with enough energy and humor to be gripping.
Stream it on HBOMax or Criterion.
After “Weekend,” Godard’s frustration with cinema — even his boundary-less variety — reached a peak. For the next half-decade, he dedicated himself to pioneering something new. He shed the dry humor of his early experiments and replaced it with ever more strident politics, forcing his audience to confront the realities of racism, the Vietnam War, and what he assumed was the coming revolution. One of the most enduring artifacts of this era is “Sympathy for the Devil” (a.k.a. “One Plus One”), which combines disconnected documentary footage with The Rolling Stones’ grueling recording process for the titular song. It’s not “entertaining” per se, but it’s fascinating as a portrait of a time when “Godard” had become a brand — so much so that he was allowed to reduce one of the most popular rock acts in the world into a mere motif in his stream-of-consciousness Marxist tract.
Rent it on Apple TV or Amazon Prime.
An atypical exercise in adaptation, 1983’s “First Name: Carmen” turns Georges Bizet’s opera into the erotically charged tale of a revolutionary and the soldier she bewitches. Godard revives his love of American genre movies, staging both a bank-robbery and a kidnapping — while riffing on the forbidden romance of old Hollywood melodramas. He also carries his bomb-throwing ’70s politics into the era of Reagan and Thatcher, for one of his most accessible and impassioned films.
Stream it on Kanopy or rent it on Kino.
Largely out of the cultural conversation for the better part of a decade, Godard suddenly became scandalous again in 1985 with his movie about a working-class virgin named Mary, who gets mysteriously pregnant. Removed from the reactionary conservative politics of the mid-80s — and considered in the context of Godard’s entire filmography — “Hail Mary” is nowhere near as shocking as it once seemed. It’s actually a film of great sensitivity and yearning; and it’s beautiful to look at too, with images of suns and moons designed to echo the heroine’s round tummy. Hardly anti-religion, this picture is primarily a meditation on miracles, as they appear in nature and in human interactions.
Stream it on Kanopy; rent it on Vudu, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft or Kino.
One of Godard’s final films takes a slim story about a bickering couple and threads it through a succession of academic discussions about semantics. “Goodbye to Language” was shot in 3-D, and takes one of the more original approaches to the format by sending different pictures into the viewers’ right and left eyes during some scenes. Yet even without that gimmick (which is absent from the streaming version), the movie is both artful and challenging, pitting images against words in what might be called a uniquely Godardian war movie: where ideas fight ideas.
Stream it on Kanopy or Plex; rent it on Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, or Kino.