Influential French film director Jean-Luc Godard dead at 91

Film director Jean-Luc Godard, the godfather of France's New Wave cinema who pushed cinematic boundaries and inspired iconoclastic directors decades after his 1960s heyday, died on Tuesday at the age of 91, his family said.

'We are losing a national treasure,' French President Macron says of pioneer of New Wave cinema

Director Jean-Luc Godard is shown during a film event in Zurich on Nov. 30, 2010. The icon of French New Wave cinema chose an assisted death, his family said in a statement. (Gaetan Bally/Keystone/The Associated Press)

Film director Jean-Luc Godard, the godfather of France's New Wave cinema who pushed cinematic boundaries and inspired iconoclastic directors decades after his 1960s heyday, died on Tuesday at the age of 91, his family said.

Godard was among the world's most acclaimed directors, known for such classics as Breathless and Contempt, which broke with convention and helped kick-start a new way of filmmaking — with handheld camera work, jump cuts and existential dialogue.

"It's not where you take things from — it's where you take them to," Godard once said.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a Twitter post, said: "We are losing a national treasure."

Godard died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement. The statement gave assisted suicide as the cause of death.

A medical report recently revealed the director had "multiple invalidating pathologies," according to the family statement, which did not specify the conditions.

Face of New Wave movement

Godard was not alone in creating France's New Wave, a credit he shares with at least a dozen peers, including François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, most of them pals from the trendy, bohemian Left Bank of Paris in the late 1950s.

Godard is seen in March 1960 with actress Jean Seberg, the co-star of Breathless. (AFP/Getty Images)

However, he became the face of the movement, which spawned offshoots in Japan, Hollywood and, more improbably, in what was then Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, as well as in Brazil.

"We owe him a lot," former French culture minister Jack Lang wrote in an emailed statement to Reuters. "He filled cinema with poetry and philosophy. His sharp and unique eye made us see the imperceptible."

Among those he influenced were American directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.

British director Edgar Wright said on Twitter on Tuesday that "perhaps no other director inspired as many people to just pick up a camera and start shooting."

Godard was born into a wealthy Franco-Swiss family on Dec. 3, 1930 in Paris. His father was a doctor, his mother the daughter of a Swiss man who founded Banque Paribas, then an illustrious investment bank.

This upbringing contrasted with his later pioneering ways. Godard fell in with like-minded folk whose dissatisfaction with humdrum movies that never strayed from convention sowed the seeds of a breakaway movement that came to be called the Nouvelle Vague.

'Sometimes reality is too complex'

With its more forthright, offbeat approach to sex, violence and its explorations of the counter-culture, anti-war politics and other changing mores, the New Wave was about innovation in the making of movies.

"Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form," Godard said.

After working on two films by Jacques Rivette and Rohmer in 1951, Godard tried to direct his first movie while traveling through North and South America with his father, but never finished it.

Back in Europe, he took a job in Switzerland as a construction worker on a dam project. He used the pay to finance his first complete film in 1954, Operation Concrete, a 20-minute documentary about the building of the dam.

Returning to Paris, Godard worked as spokesman for an artists' agency and made his first feature in 1957 — All Boys Are Called Patrick, released in 1959 — and continued to hone his writing.

He also began work on Breathless, based on a story by Truffaut. It was to be Godard's first big success when it was released in March 1960.

The movie stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a penniless young thief who models himself on Hollywood movie gangsters and who, after he shoots a police officer, goes on the run to Italy with his American girlfriend, played by Jean Seberg.

In 1961, Godard married Danish-born model and actress Anna Karina, who appeared in a string of movies he made during that decade, including My Life to Live, Alphaville and Crazy Pete — which also starred Belmondo and was rumoured to have been shot without a script. The marriage to Karina ended in 1965.

Godard is shown between Bill Wyman, left, and Mick Jagger while directing Sympathy for the Devil, on July 30, 1968. (Huton Archive/Getty Images)

In Week End, his characters lampoon the hypocrisy of bourgeois society even as they demonstrate the comic futility of violent class war. It came out a year before popular anger at the establishment shook France, culminating in the iconic student unrest of May 1968.

That same year he directed an experimental documentary featuring the Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil.

Godard also launched what was to be a career-long participation in collective film projects, with directors such as Roger Vadim, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini.

Films steeped in politics

He switched to directing films steeped in leftist, anti-war politics through the 1970s. His controversial modern nativity play Hail Mary grabbed headlines when Pope John Paul II denounced it in 1985.

Godard harboured a life-long sympathy for various forms of socialism depicted in films ranging from the early 1970s to early 1990s. In December 2007 he was honoured by the European Film Academy with a lifetime achievement award.

Godard, seen at the 50th Cannes Film Festival in France in 1997, rarely ventured outside of Europe for work. (Getty Images)

Godard took potshots at Hollywood over the years.

He remained home in Switzerland rather than travel to Hollywood to receive an honorary Oscar at a private ceremony in November 2010, alongside film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, director-producer Francis Ford Coppola and actor Eli Wallach.

Recent works, however — among them Goodbye to Language in 2014 and The Image Book in 2018 — were more experimental and slimmed the audience largely to Godard geeks.

Godard married his second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, in 1967. He later started a relationship with Swiss filmmaker Anne-Marie Mieville.

Godard divorced Wiazemsky in 1979, after he had moved with Mieville to the Swiss municipality of Rolle, where he lived with her for the rest of his life.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?