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A filmmaker who strode a different path to make a difference

It took Shoma A. Chatterji years to warm up to the works of Godard, nurtured as she was by Bollywood, Bengali and Malayalam cinema for years together. Since Bombay then hardly had any film society movement, she had absolutely no exposure to films from Europe, Japan, China and Africa, remained an ignoramus, she says, and, like the six blind men and the elephant, she did not realise what she was missing

My exposure to international cinema from across Europe, the Middle-East (West Asia) and South Asia began with my entry into the film festival circuit from 1986. In those days, IFFI had a special slot on retrospectives by great masters from across the world. This opened the door to international cinema for me.

I avidly watched Bernardo Bertolucci, Steven Soderbergh, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Agnes Varda, Costa Gavras, Antonioni, the works, trying not to miss a single film in the early morning shows at my first Filmotsav in Hyderabad in 1986. I fell in love with all their films except Godard’s. His films went completely over my head. They were nowhere near the films I was nourished on. The stories they contained, if they did contain any story at all, had to be drawn out with great difficulty as they overturned the entire grammar of cinema.

Many of Godard’s critics claim that his work as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema laid the foundation for his inventing, imagining, evolving and executing a unique language of cinema which puts him among the ten best filmmakers in the world for all time. His early films transformed cinema; his later work was a constant indicator of different paths the medium might follow. Like his work or not, he made a difference.

During Godard’s early career as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard criticised mainstream French cinema’s Tradition of Quality, which de-emphasised innovation and experimentation. In response, he and like-minded critics began to make their own films, challenging the conventions of traditional Hollywood in addition to French cinema. Godard first received global acclaim for his 1960 feature Breathless, helping to establish the New Wave Movement.

The first film of Jean-Luc Godard I watched was Masculin Feminin. Needless to say, I did not understand a single frame though I found they were visually very rich. I was disappointed to discover that the film was just a collec­tion of fragments, notes, improvisations. Looked at closely, it synthesises into a tight pattern that is a strange blend of the classical and the balanced. In the ambience of an international film festival surrounded by cinephiles and intellectual film critics, I did not dare tell anyone that I did not understand the film at all and so did not much like it.

When I watched the film after many years, I found it to be rather clichéd in the way Godard reinforced the masculine-feminine divide signalled in the title – it is strongly suggested that boys talk politics and paint slogans, while girls play with their hair and shop. The film bagged the award for Best Feature Film Suitable for Young People at the Berlin International Film Festival while Jean-Pierre Léaud won the Silver Bear for Best Actor for his performance in the film.

By the time I got the opportunity to watch Goodbye to Language, Godard’s 42nd film, I was sucked into Godard and had taken to his cinema like a duck takes to water. It is a beautiful film that not only narrates a beautiful, almost a poetic story, but also introduces innovative techniques of the film vocabulary. These include a “separation” shot in which a single, unbroken shot splits into two separate shots that can be viewed simultaneously through either the left or the right eye, and then returns to one single 3D shot. Aragno and Godard also experimented with double exposure 3D images and shots with parallax that are difficult for the human eye to see.

When I was a little confused about the intermingling and overlapping of the characters, filmmaker Goutam Ghose explained how to watch and understand a Godard film. “Every frame in Godard is a film unto itself. It may or not relate to the other frames, might overlap, or get distanced not just visually but also in terms of splicing the shots, creating a design in music and sound and the pieces in the huge jigsaw puzzle just fall in place.”

Godard knew his cinema history, too. He knew exactly what the ‘rulebook’ was, and also created his own account of why it was so. His cinema was all created in relation to, and in opposition to it. To claim he didn’t know what he was doing is a ridiculous claim. Unlike the women in Masculin Feminin, women in most of Godard’s films had a mind and a will of their own. Patricia in Breathless, for instance, did not bother about selling copies of a newspaper on the streets of Paris. She did a job she opted for with a spirit of gay camaraderie that is no indicator of her taking life lightly.

Breathless narrates the story of a wandering French gangster and his American girlfriend. The character of Michel Poiccard is based on real-life Michel Portail and his American girlfriend and journalist Beverly Lynette. In the film she is called Patricia. In November 1952, Portail stole a car to visit his sick mother in Le Havre and ended up killing a motorcycle cop named Grimberg. I particularly fell in love with the free-flowing way the camera captured Michel and his girlfriend as the latter is selling her newspapers on the streets of Paris. Jean-Paul Belmondo who portrayed Michel became an overnight heartthrob after this film was released.

Godard’s Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, or It’s My Life) is about Nana enacted by Anna Karina who gives a breath-taking performance. Nana is a woman forced by circumstances to choose the life of a sex worker after leaving a marriage in the hope of becoming an actress. This film is far ahead of its time as it very boldly demonstrates how Nana cherishes her independence and tries to cling to it as closely as she possibly can. But time and circumstances were against her.

October – December 2022