From his foreshadowing of the May ’68 downfall to the crime story that inspired Tarantino, five Godard films all fans should see

When we hear the name Godard, we can all picture the mysterious man with Ray-Ban shades and a constantly lit cigarette between his lips. As a pioneer of French Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard turned the film world upside down with his first feature A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) in 1959, and soon rose to fame abroad with movies starring big names like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Brigitte Bardot. With Le Week-End (1967), his Brechtian omen of the downfall of France’s May ‘68 revolution, Godard broke all the rules and never looked back. From then until today, in a career now spanning more than 50 years, his cinema of anarchy reigned, relentlessly challenging even his most hardcore fans.

I was 16 when I first saw A Bout de Souffle in high school. I wish I could say it was love at first sight but it wasn’t. As a kid, I watched countless old gangster movies with my grandfather, but this one didn’t make sense to me. When I saw it again two years later, though, I was hooked. I collected all Godard’s DVDs and books. There were posters of the director and his movies all over my first studio apartment. I started film school with an unrealistic goal: to become the new female version of Godard.

After all those years, I still don’t think I fully understand his work. His movies can be frustrating. He can be too intellectual. I’ll never know enough about politics, history, and classical literature to comprehend the gamut of his references. But everything aside, his movies made me feel something no other filmmaker ever had—an excitement sparked by his belief that cinema belongs to the youth, not to some old rich producer. Godard paved the way for younger generations to reinvent the medium, reminding us that the only thing you need to make a movie is a camera, the rest is just rules waiting to be broken. While people are familiar with his early, more accessible work, getting to know the true Godard isn’t an easy journey, but here’s a guide to getting started.

1. A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) – 1959

Let’s start with the basics. If you haven’t yet seen this movie, you’re missing out. What is sexier than America’s favourite gangster couple Bonnie and Clyde? The French version starring the irresistible Jean Seberg and absolute stud Jean-Paul Belmondo, of course! Raoul Coutard, Godard’s right hand, captures Paris at the end of the ‘50s in the most beautiful black and white. The cars, the outfits, the music… it’s the nostalgic time capsule we all need during this sad lockdown. Constantly referencing classic literature and Old Hollywood, Godard sets the mood for the rest of his career: an uncompromising ode to art and life. About one third of the movie takes place in Patricia’s iconic little studio apartment where she is hiding her gangster lover Michel. They lounge around in bed, chain-smoke cigarettes, and make fun of each other—a big quarantine mood. A Bout de Souffle is funny, romantic, tragic, and poetic; a perfect hour-and-a-half escape from reality.

2. Alphaville (1965)

It’s not only the name of your favourite punk hangout in Bushwick, it’s Godard’s sci-fi noir masterpiece. Though it also winks to Old Hollywood, Alphaville does so with Godard’s radical signature touch. It’s an evermore relevant critique of our capitalist society and authoritarian governments that makes you realize some things never change. Don’t expect to be left feeling totally depressed though; this movie is also a poem to love and life, featuring one of my all-time favourite moments in cinema. The cinematography is hauntingly beautiful, and Godard’s muse and wife at the time, Anna Karina, shines like never before in stark black and white. From the captivating opening scene through to the thrilling end, this movie is a feast for both your eyes and your soul.

3. Masculin Féminin (1966)

Masculin Féminin is not your average coming-of-age love story. It’s a portrait of French youth during one of the country’s most important eras: the revolutionary ‘60s. Radical times ask for radical cinema. Starring yé-yé girl Chantal Goya and nouvelle vague sweetheart Jean-Pierre Léaud, this movie is the perfect love child of its zeitgeist. Godard’s answer to pop-art. There’s no linear plot because no script was involved, just a notebook filled with ideas and loose pieces of dialogues, which wasn’t uncommon for the director. References to pop culture and cinéma-vérité-style interviews intertwine with endearing scenes of young lovers. It caught quite a lot of wind after its release because it portrayed minors talking about sex. The target audience got banned from watching it in the theatres. If you need to go back in time to satiate your coming-of-age addiction after Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird, look no further. Godard got you.

4. Le Week-end (1967)

1967 was an inventive year for Godard, even though he got divorced from Anna Karina. He usually made two movies a year (which is already enough to feel bad about your own productivity), but that year he made three. They’re all great yet completely different. Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her) and La Chinoise are definitely worth watching if the movies above have converted you to a Godard groupie, but Le Week-end really marks the beginning of Godard’s groundbreaking work in the ‘70s and ‘80s, while still keeping one foot in the romantic ‘60s. Godard sets the mood of Le Week-end with a note that reads, in his trademark font, “A film found in a dump.” The following 15-minute-long continuous take is a legendary moment in film history. I can assure you your patience will be tested but it will totally be worth it. The second half of the movie is different from anything you would expect it to be. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s absurdism at its finest. If you didn’t already know where Tarantino gets his inspiration from, now you will.

“It’s as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.” a critic once wrote about Godard. When Tarantino read that, he knew exactly that’s what he wanted to do too. Both directors are driven by an unquenchable love for cinema. Tarantino is well known for knitting bits and pieces of forgotten movies into his own to revive mainstream interest. His movies are drenched with references to Old Hollywood, the French New Wave, spaghetti westerns, and B-horror. Just like Godard, Picasso, and Warhol, he claimed that theft is part of all great art. I won’t blame him—he learned it from the best.

5. Adieu au Language (2014)

I’m skipping three decades and introducing you to the second part of Godard’s latest trilogy: Adieu au Language. I saw this movie in a small theater in the Quartier Latin district in Paris the summer it came out. The only other person there, besides my friend, was an old lady who wore her 3D glasses on top of her regular ones. 70 minutes later I left the theater confused and blinded by the sun. What on earth did I just watch? I’m not sure if I’ll ever find out and I don’t know if that’s the weakness or the strength of this movie.

All of Godard’s later films are puzzles that every viewer can assemble in their own unique way, which is, to me, a mirror of life itself. The director was in his 80s when he made this movie. This year he turns 90, one year younger than my grandmother, and the most advanced piece of technology she has ever owned was a Nokia. Yet Godard used smartphones and prototype 3D cameras in a way few film students dare to. I could go on endlessly how he keeps reinventing the medium like no one else. It comes down to this: we don’t expect the meaning of our poetry or abstract paintings to be clear, so why do we expect this from cinema?

Streaming info:

Breathless: Criterion Channel
Alphaville: Criterion Channel
Masculin Féminin: Criterion Channel
Le Week-end: Criterion Channel
Adieu au Language: available for rent on Youtube, iTunes and Google Play