JEAN-LUC GODARD has an obligatory place on any list of Europe's greatest filmmakers.
A founding member of the New Wave movement in France, where he directed such groundbreaking classics as ``Breathless'' and ``Alphaville,'' he sparked radical new views of narrative form, film editing, and even movie criticism during the 1960s and '70s.
Today he still marches to a drummer very much his own, directing such unconventional works as ``JLG by JLG,'' a cinematic self-portrait, and ``Histoire(s) du Cinema,'' an expressionistic video series on the history of world film.
Once a familiar face on the international film-festival circuit, Mr. Godard has become a somewhat elusive figure of late, keeping a low profile even when his visually stunning ``Nouvelle Vague'' was featured at the New York filmfest a few seasons ago.
He continues to generate a good deal of film and video work, however. His three latest productions are included in a touring program celebrating France's venerable Gaumont studio. To support this, he dropped into Manhattan recently for a few interviews with interested critics. I took advantage of his visit to renew acquaintance after a long gap, and found him as modest, thoughtful, and passionate about cinema as the first time we met nearly 15 years ago.
A key characteristic of many Godard films is their great complexity, as if he were trying to pack entire worlds of thought, feeling, and imagination into every scene. I began our talk by asking if he expects moviegoers to grasp everything in a single viewing, or if he wants us to view the films repeatedly and gradually tease out their meanings.
``Most of the films won't be seen more than once,'' he answered ruefully, ``because the distribution system doesn't make them available. So people miss half the things that are there. But it's like music: You don't understand all the notes, yet there is still enough to make it worthwhile.''
Musing further about the density of his style, Godard says his works are ``complex in a scientific sense.'' A century ago, he notes, ``scientists believed the atom was the ultimate matter. Then they discovered that in one atom there are many things, and in one of those there are many more things, and so forth.... In films, we are trained by the American way of moviemaking to think we must understand and `get' everything right away. But this is not possible. When you eat a potato, you don't understand each atom of the potato!''
Few critics would think of a Godard film as a potato, but sometimes it's difficult to put a precise label on his extremely innovative approach to style and content. While he often seems interested in constructing a sort of cinematic essay, he rarely leaves storytelling completely behind, merging his innovative formal experiments with the traditional devices of narrative fiction.
Asked for his comments on this, Godard answers thoughtfully. ``I think I am making more-or-less documentaries,'' he says in lightly accented English, ``but I don't see much difference between these categories. Maybe it's my education. I'm very classical in a sense. I'm a great admirer of the novel, mainly of the 19th century.... There can be different kinds of narrative - in a novel, or a painting, or a piece of music.''
Motion pictures, he continues, ``were invented to look, tell, and study things. They were mainly a scientific tool ... for seeing life in a different way. To be only spectacular should be 5 or 10 percent of cinema. All the rest should be documentary study ... in a broad sense [meaning] research and essays. I'm half a novelist and half an essayist - which is not admitted in the motion-picture world, and is very awkward.''
In any case, Godard says, his approach to cinema calls more for exploring themes than spinning out plots as commercial movies do. ``I'm not able to write a good script,'' he says with one of his ironic smiles. ``I would do it if I could ... but I'm not able to put a beginning and end together, to build it, to shoot it.''
Instead, he continues, ``I must have an idea and then discover it. It's like painting ... but it's also different from painting, because you use not just space but time ... imagining what comes before and what comes afterward. I start with an idea, but I don't know if it's the beginning of a story. It's what [sculptor Alberto] Giacometti called an opening.''
Godard is emphatic about his preference for interesting ideas over clever plots. ``To have a good script is very rare,'' he insists. ``To have this is not only to have a story, but to have a subject - a meaning, a belief in something. American pictures usually have no subject, only a story.... A pretty woman is not a subject. Julia Roberts doing this and that is not a subject. JFK is not a subject - the relationship between a Kennedy and the American people may be a subject, but `JFK' does not deal with that. I call it a good script when you know the subject and try to [explore] it.''
Is this primarily an intellectual process, or an intuitive one?
``I don't see any difference,'' Godard replies. ``Intelligence and sensibility are the same. You have to be logical, like a novelist, because if [a character] is doing this he can't be doing that. But you may also work [instinctively] like a painter, and then discover at the end that [what you did] was logical. Things may be done unconsciously, and in the final editing you realize they were OK - or were not!''
Godard labored hard in the 1950s and '60s to promote the idea that some Hollywood directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, were creative auteurs with profound artistic abilities. His view of American film today is less enthusiastic, however. ``Movies in Hollywood now, for the past 20 or 30 years, are made mainly by lawyers or agents,'' he says.
This notion is connected with a historical misuse of film and video that Godard traces in his ``Histoire(s) du Cinema'' series. ``Movies were invented to show reality,'' he says, ``but they have not been used that way. They have been used to show dancing girls, killers, machine guns, lovers.... Television discovers nothing, even though it could, it should. I think I'm the only one interested in film and video this way - to sometimes make a show, but other times an experimentation.''
Taking full advantage of the opportunities for choice allowed by the film medium, Godard frequently uses a highly artificial approach to image and sound, rejecting the view that cinema is a direct reflection of the world.
``Why not?'' he asks. ``It's like [conducting] an orchestra - you put a violin here, a piano there. I like to separate the sound from the image sometimes, or let the screen go silent, or use an intimate piano for an intimate feeling - which is the exact opposite of what the Americans do. They want to surround you, to make a `surrounding effect' so you are lost. I don't want people to be lost! I think they should find things about themselves.''