The Eras of Godard: A Phenomenological Approach

Thursday, May 25 •  – 3

With the recent passing of Jean-Luc Godard, assessments of his cinematic legacy have begun. For example, the American Cinematheque’s recent “Jean-Luc Godard: L’influenceur” series seeks to “trace his inimitable influence throughout time” by concentrating on early films such as  À bout de souffle (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), Bande a part (1964), and Pierrot le fou (1965), revealing their direct influence on directors such as Arthur Penn, Joachim Trier, Quentin Tarantino, and Chantal Akerman. The series is advertised with a tweet which states: “We love Godard! Tarantino loves Godard! We love Tarantino!” Yet, which Godard do they claim to love? The idea that there is one Godard whose influence is contained to a specific, narrow period distorts a full understanding of his multiplicity, or as I contend, his “eras”.

Admittedly, much work has already been done toward canonizing Godard’s eras. However, this paper will seek to expand this understanding via a phenomenological approach. Such an approach moves away from well-trodden auteurist ideas about his influential worldview, signature style, penchant for reflexivity, revolutionary aims, focus on cinematic history, and the like. Instead, my attention is drawn to a phenomenon I’ve experienced throughout his work which I can only describe as the continual disavowal of his past eras, and perhaps his past selves.

The notorious difficulty of comprehending much of Godard’s work beyond his early influential period may seem to require a certain interpretive code or expert knowledge. Yet when we pull back—in the manner of the phenomenological epoché—from the overriding need to decode each and every aspect of his work, a periodized continuum appears. Just as every utterance from his characters is also perceived as coming from Godard himself, so too is my experience of disavowal both a diegetic element of his work and an extra-textual expression of his multiplicity. This doubled perceptual act on my part reveals multiple, self-critical Godards. Key works clarifying this disavowal—Vivre sa vie (1962), La Chinoise (1967), Ici et ailleurs (1970-76), Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979), Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-98), Le livre d’image (2018), to name but a few—can be assessed not so much as individual expressions but as disavowals of the primary ideas and intentions of previous eras. Most importantly, this phenomenon allows me to characterize Godard’s oeuvre as a self-correcting, thinking entity, one understood as such only through direct experience.

At bottom, a phenomenological approach reveals not a singular but multiple, self-critical Godards, each one contributing in their own way to solidifying his place amongst the most profound thinkers both about and with images since their technological invention.

CA 🇨🇦 • Contract Academic Faculty, WLU academia || Full bio

Glen W. Norton teaches in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), Ontario, Canada. The digital curator of Cinema=Godard=Cinema, his research focuses on phenomenological approaches toward the study of cinema. Lived Moments: Phenomenology, Neorealism is his forthcoming book.

Comments are closed.