Cool then cool now

With the reissue of French director Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless,' his star is rising again, and inspiring hip filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino.

Jean-Luc Godard is having a comeback, and movie buffs are having a celebration over his return to the spotlight.

Not so many years ago, this innovative French filmmaker helped revolutionize the screen with a string of dazzling, difficult works that changed the way directors, critics, and moviegoers thought about cinema itself. Then his fame took a downturn, leading one observer to label him "an invisible filmmaker" from the mid-1980s on.

Godard's energy and output never flagged, however, and there's a new wave of interest in his work. One sign of this is the current fascination with his first movie, "Breathless," released in 1960 and widely available on the home-video market.

To mark its 40th anniversary, New Yorker Films is reissuing it in theaters, starting with a special engagement at New York's prestigious Film Forum and spreading to cities across the United States in coming weeks.

Another indication of Godard's continuing impact is the influence he exerts on many of today's younger filmmakers. "Pulp Fiction" filmmaker Quentin Tarantino named his production company - A Band Apart - after "Bande part," a Godard comedy-drama of 1964. Directors as different as Hal Hartley and Harmony Korine mention him among their primary heroes.

Continuing the trend, two new movies arriving in American theaters this spring pay tribute to the French master's inspiration:

*"Set Me Free," directed by La Pool, tells the story of a 13-year-old girl coming of age in a French-Canadian household. At one point, the heroine goes to the movies where she sees a revival of Godard's drama "My Life to Live," a 1963 masterpiece about a Parisian woman defeated by the pressures and temptations around her.

Godard's heroine also goes to the movies where she sees "The Passion of Joan of Arc," a great silent film. "Set Me Free" includes an excerpt from this scene, leading to a superb cinematic moment: Pool's heroine sheds quiet tears while watching Godard's heroine shed quiet tears while watching a classic film about a suffering woman. This is a remarkably touching episode, and the power of Godard's images is central to its impact.

*"Beau Travail," directed by Claire Denis, focuses on men of the French Foreign Legion in a tale loosely adapted from "Billy Budd: Foretopman," the powerful Herman Melville story about a violent clash between good and evil personalities. One of the key characters is Bruno Forestier, who was also the protagonist of "The Little Soldier," directed by Godard in 1960 immediately after "Breathless" made him a cinematic star. "The Little Soldier" has never been one of Godard's most popular works, but the unexpected return of its main character could give its video edition a major boost on the sales charts.

Godard's career has been as unpredictable as any of his movies. He gained his first acclaim in the 1950s as a critic for the French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinma, where he helped develop the "auteur theory," calling for directors to "write" with their cameras as personally and spontaneously as a poet writes with a pen.

He and his gifted colleagues - Franois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette - became internationally renowned filmmakers before long. Known as the New Wave group, they were dedicated to the proposition that real-world authenticity, cinematic style, and the personal perspective of the director are equally important ingredients of motion-picture art.

"Breathless," with Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Paris gangster and Jean Seberg as his American girlfriend, had the most explosive impact of any New Wave film. It thrilled countless moviegoers - and influenced countless Hollywood directors - with its grainy atmosphere and unprecedented use of offbeat devices (abrupt cuts, moody music, edgy camera movements) to prevent its mobster-movie plot from slipping into overused commercial formulas. It also outraged countless traditionalists, who found more self-indulgence than self-expression in its meandering story and exuberantly slam-bang style.

The attention paid to "Breathless" cemented Godard's importance to the New Wave movement, and his success would have been assured if he'd simply repeated himself for the next few years.

What he did was just the opposite, though, bringing his continually self-inventing style to a series of different genres - the musical in "A Woman is a Woman," the war movie in "Les Carabiniers," science fiction in "Alpha-ville," and so on - and injecting his movies with political ideas that grew more aggressive with every new project.

Politics took over completely in "essay films" like "British Sounds" and "Letter to Jane," but Godard returned to storytelling with 1970s and '80s pictures like "Every Man for Himself" and "Hail Mary," a biblical drama that renewed his acquaintance with controversy. His recent output includes such internationally released features as "Oh Woe is Me," with French superstar Grard Depardieu, and "For Ever Mozart," partly about the Bosnian war. He has also completed what many consider his greatest achievement, "Histoire(s) du Cinma," a video series recapping all of film history from Godard's uniquely personal point of view.

Throughout his career, Godard has insisted on challenging his viewers, seeing them not as passive consumers but as active parts of the creative process - as long as they think actively and creatively about what they're watching, which Godard encourages with his fractured plots, unconventional themes, and soaring visual style.

As he approaches his 70th year, he remains more productive than many younger filmmakers. He also stays on the cutting edge of technology. The feature he's now completing, "loge de l'amour," is described as a drama with two interlocking stories: one shot on film, about a director named Edgar who wants to make a movie about three contrasting couples; and one shot on digital video, about Edgar's investigation of a French hero from the anti-Nazi movement.

The new film's title can be translated as "In Praise of Love," but Godard recently told Sight and Sound magazine that it refers to "a love of everything" rather than "love between human beings," noting that it has "a religious dimension."

His admirers will find out what that means when the movie has its premire - perhaps at next month's Cannes filmfest, which is already slated to open with a Godard short about the history of the 20th century. Until then, Godardians can stay happily occupied with the steadily growing number of DVDs, videocassettes, CDs, and books that keep his name and contributions energetically alive.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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