Kerala’s love affair with French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard

The filmmaker, often credited with revolutionising cinema, passed away by assisted death in Switzerland on September 13.
Godard with a cigar
Godard with a cigar
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No one had expected 90-year-old Jean-Luc Godard to show up on stage in Thiruvananthapuram, when Kerala’s most cherished film festival – International Film Festival of Kerala – was belatedly held in February last year. Godard, a pioneer of the new wave French cinema in the 60s, was declared the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the fest, held two months too late because of COVID-19. But when the big screen at the Nishagandhi Auditorium lit up to show his face, a Cuban cigar in his hands, the crowd sat bewildered. They broke into laughter and applause at his first line: “Ok I will speak with the tongue of the dominators, I will speak in English.” Godard, a beloved of the festival crowd of Kerala, accepted the award, mocked the language of the colonisers one more time, before wrapping up his two-minute speech.

A year and a half later, on September 13, when news of his assisted death reached the people of Kerala, many made heartwarming tributes, listing down his movies and recounting the influence he has had on them.

In his acceptance speech of 2021, Godard thanked the Kerala film festival for the award and said that “even if it [the fest] is only distribution, it might help the production of good and sensible films too”. “Sorry for my English,” he said after a few broken sentences, but then added, “In fact I am not sorry at all about English.” On cue came another thunderous applause from the IFFK crowd.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kerala’s own auteur, had accepted the award on behalf of Godard on stage that day. He said on Tuesday, after the news of Godard’s death came, that the French filmmaker had changed the grammar of filmmaking and created a path of his own. One of the films he mentioned is Breathless, a crime drama that was released in 1960, marked by its unconventional making, including the use of jump cuts and asides [where characters talk to the audience]. Unfortunately, it is currently not available on any of the streaming platforms in India. A couple of his films available for streaming on Mubi are Masculin Féminin (1966) and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). The first is a romantic drama, where you see young people making conversation and at one point take a stand against the Vietnam war. The second is very avant-garde, with the 'her' in the title referring to Paris. Godard does a whispered voiceover across the film.

My Life to Live, A Woman is a Woman, Contempt, Pierrot Le Fou, Tout Va Bien, Film Socialisme, and Goodbye to Language are some of his other notable works across the decades. He never really stopped making films, and that is why it pained his fans and followers so much to hear that he chose to die. The medical report said that it was a “voluntary departure” in Switzerland, the country Godard made home in the last many years.

Watch: Trailer of the restored classic, Breathless

GP Ramachandran, a film critic who wrote a book on Godard last year – The Many Journeys of Godard – posted this worrying news on social media, observing that few in the Indian media had revealed the information about his assisted death. This triggered more emotional posts. Videos of his cigar-holding figure from the IFFK got reposted. Some found the AFP copy about his death, also making an emotional note: “Godard’s house, with green shutters and a green bench out front, looked empty on Tuesday, its shades drawn, with an abandoned ashtray and a teapot on the windowsill.”

The Guardian reported that Godard chose to die because he “was stricken with multiple incapacitating illnesses”. You’d wonder if that’s all it was. In a 2017 film called Redoubtable, which Academy Award winning director Michel Hazanavicius made on Godard, the French filmmaker is shown to have lost interest in the earlier films he made. “Those movies are dead,” the character playing Godard is shown telling a fan who interrupts his shooting. The film is based on a book Un an après (One Year After), written by Godard’s wife Anne Wiazemsky, about her life with Godard. In the film, a young Godard is portrayed as taking part in the demonstrations and strikes in France in the late 1960s, against capitalism, consumerism and American imperialism. Many critics have inferred a Marxist reading of Godard’s early works. Perhaps a reason that Godard, who had famously refused the Oscar honorary award in 2010, gladly accepted Kerala’s accolade in 2021.

Watch: Trailer of Redoubtable

Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who appreciated Godard’s take on the Vietnam war and the Palestine cause while conferring the award on him last year, left a short and telling tribute on Twitter yesterday. “With his passing, iconic French film director and theorist #jeanlucgodard has left a huge void in world cinema. He was instrumental in realising the idea of a political cinema with Marxist outlook and free from the existing modes of cinematic production. Farewell legend!”

There are of course many more reasons for Kerala to love Godard. This is the state that embraced world cinema with its film society movement in the 60s. Godard was a name thrown around among young connoisseurs, as casually as a household name. You can spot it in literature – Vilasini’s Yathramukham has passages of a young film enthusiast speaking on Godard films. You can spot it in everyday life. Journalist Nidheesh MK has written a thread on Malayali’s love for the filmmaker, which made one parent name his child Godard. While this young namesake grew up to be a rocket scientist, his brother Fellini did become a filmmaker (Theevandi, Ottu).

Young filmmaker Don Palathara, who has won several international recognitions for his films, wrote on The Cue about how he named one of his films (Everything is Cinema) after Richard Brody’s book about Godard’s life. Another filmmaker, Prasanth Vijay, wrote how he had been impacted by Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, and fancied for a while about including “a similar scene in some film I make”. 

Others go to the extent of saying, “There is no god, only Godard, in cinema.”

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