Jean-Luc Godard, a director of French New Wave cinema, dies Godard, the "enfant terrible" of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his debut feature Breathless, stood for years as one of the most vital and provocative directors.

Film director Jean-Luc Godard of the French New Wave has died at 91

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The influential critic and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard has died in Switzerland. His family said the 91-year-old Godard had multiple illnesses and died from assisted suicide. The director spent his entire career pushing boundaries, reinventing cinematic form through films like the French New Wave classic "Breathless," the Rolling Stones film "Sympathy For The Devil" and the controversial modern take on the Nativity, "Hail Mary." Critic Bob Mondello offers this remembrance.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: What greeted audiences in Godard's first feature film - the 1960 crime drama "Breathless" - was the shock of the new.


JEAN SEBERG: (As Patricia Franchini) New York Herald Tribune.

MONDELLO: America's Jean Seberg, opposite an unknown with a cigarette dangling sexily from his lip, Jean-Paul Belmondo...


JEAN-PAUL BELMONDO: (As Michel Poiccard, speaking French).

MONDELLO: ...He a professional car thief and existential killer, she a free spirit - Hollywood archetypes, but reconceived - the very essence of cool.


SEBERG: (As Patricia Franchini, speaking French).

BELMONDO: (As Michel Poiccard, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Godard was a fan of Hollywood films. As a critic, he'd champion directors Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. And in "Breathless," there's a poster of Humphrey Bogart to underline what Belmondo is going for. But with jump-cut editing and actors interacting with the camera, the filmmaker was part of a new wave in storytelling, one filled with experimentation and a rejection of accepted technique.

DAVID THOMSON: He comes along in 1960...

MONDELLO: Critic David Thomson, author of "The Biographical Dictionary Of Film."

THOMSON: ...And says, in effect, I have seen all the films ever made. I love them - most of them - but I abandon them because they're all out of date. I am going to make a new kind of film, and I am going to combine the energy and the novelty of ideas of a student with the story forms of the old films. And for six or seven years - two films a year, so we're talking about a fair number of movies - he pulls it off.

MONDELLO: In pictures like "Contempt," with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance, in which he indicts commercial filmmaking; in his science fiction film "Alphaville," about a society run by a computer; and most memorably, in his scathing satirical takedown of middle-class materialism, "Weekend," a black comedy involving murder, cannibalism and an eight-minute single shot traffic jam on a country road that is among the most celebrated film moments of the 1960s.


MONDELLO: "Weekend" premiered just weeks before a student and worker protest shut down much of France in May of 1968. Godard, leading a protest that closed the Cannes Film Festival that month, told the crowd that not one of the films in competition represented their causes. We are behind the times, said this leader of the French New Wave. And in that moment, his filmmaking took a turn.

He embarked on a decade of deliberately revolutionary movies - low-budget provocations, non-commercial - shot in Palestine, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and filled with a Marxist fervor - "Tout Va Bien," for instance, starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda in the story of striking workers in a sausage factory.


MONDELLO: This overt emphasis on politics was itself a phase, and by the 1980s, Godard was looking inward and looking at film itself. As his art matured, he grew less interested in narrative and more in experimenting - though he'd actually always been experimenting. In a public debate in 1966, he kept calling film grammar itself into question. An exasperated panelist finally sputtered, surely you agree that film should have a beginning, a middle part and an end? Yes, conceded Godard, but not necessarily in that order. Godard had come to film in his early 20s.


JEAN-LUC GODARD: My parents told me about literature. Some other people told me about paintings, about music. But no one told me about pictures.

MONDELLO: So he told others. He began as a critic, and in a sense, he remained one all of his life in famously quotable public statements. All you need to make a movie, he once said, is a girl and a gun. But as time went on, he was happy to dispense with both of those and with plot, too. A difficult man by nearly all accounts, he feuded with friends and fellow New Wave directors, and in his later years dismissed notions that contemporary Hollywood could ever make serious films, using as his example Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."


GODARD: Is it an honest moviemaking? I don't know. For him, probably. If he was really honest, his usual way should've made a T-shirt with Auschwitz, put it and try to sell it the way he made "Jurassic Park" - if he was honest.

MONDELLO: If Godard's own work was honest by his lights in his final decades, it mostly consisted of visual essays - collages of film and video clips that found smaller and smaller audiences. But what he achieved in the early 1960s is still with us - his innovations so absorbed by the mainstream that he has continued to influence filmmakers, some of whom may barely have heard of him, long after the New Wave got old.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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