Godard’s work rate was always fast, even furious, yet calm and increasingly perverse; he was always both dead serious and put us on. A repertory theater can still pack in young audiences for the modernist Godard films of the 1960s, which still carry a kind of bad-boy seduction and visual glamor that propagates most of their ever-changing play of ideas; the same audience doesn’t turn out for his later work because it lacks the visual pop of the 60s.
Godard was alive but trapped by a sea of quotations and points of comparison, and it could be said that he was James Joyce of modernist cinema; in his middle period he also tried to be cinema’s Bertolt Brecht, but it didn’t really work, and after that he was a very gnarled purveyor of scholarly nonsense. His mind was full of intellectual wisecracks, a sensitive young loner’s defense system, and so he was protected by all his references, but also enclosed. It could have gone on forever, and it almost did, but Godard chose to leave on his own terms via assisted suicide: “It was his decision and it was important to him that it be known,” reads a statement from his third wife and business partner Anne-Marie Miéville.
in “Vivre Sa Vie” (1962), which is perhaps Godard’s finest or most moving early film, Anna Karina plays a girl who stares up at Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) and wants to be in a movie, but she’s not; the irony is that karina’s character is in a movie herself, and a top tier godard movie, but she doesn’t realize it. But it’s Godard. And that explains his secret and deep satisfaction and why he made as many films as he did, as if he had found a secret to eternal life for himself and for Karina, his ultimate girlfriend. Struggling with her own passivity, she eventually needed to find the strength to escape his gaze, even if she was forever marked by it, and not necessarily unhappily. Karina spoke very fondly of Godard in interviews as an older woman.
Godard and Karina were lovers and collaborators in the 1960s, and Godard’s film with Karina is about how he wants to love her and how he ultimately fails to do so, and it can become extremely depressing even as a tacit subject because this lack of feeling and awareness of that lack underlies everything else in their work together. Her character in “Vivre Sa Vie” is shot down at the end, like in a cheap gangster movie, not a Dreyer masterpiece.
There was a romantic in Godard, but this romanticism was boyishly foreign and restrained even in his extreme old age. In all eras of his long career, Godard makes us aware of film as film and feels no need to create for us a facsimile of reality; his films are about films and how life doesn’t measure up. In many of his pictures, he plays lush, emotional music on the soundtracks and cuts it off abruptly, as if we don’t deserve it. (Beethoven’s string quartets are perceived by Godard as the highest of artistic achievements.) The fact that the music comes on and plays continuously after the blackout at the end of “Vivre Sa Vie” is a sign from Godard that death can be more beautiful or exalted than life has been.