French New Wave film pioneer Jean-Luc Godard dies aged 91

His debut, Breathless, began an ingenious and provocative career as an ‘enfant terrible' of world cinema.

Director Jean-Luc Godard, a pioneer of French New Wave film who revolutionised popular 1960s cinema, has died at the age of 91.

Swiss news agency ATS quoted Godard’s partner, Anne-Marie Mieville, and her producers as saying he died peacefully and surrounded by his loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva, on Tuesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Godard as “the most iconoclastic of the New Wave directors” who “invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art form”.

He added: “We have lost a national treasure, the eye of a genius.”

Godard defied convention over a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic. He rewrote rules for camera, sound and narrative.

He worked with some of the best-known names of French cinema like Brigitte Bardot and bad-boy Jean-Paul Belmondo, who was propelled to stardom through Godard’s films.

The director also profiled the early Rolling Stones, and gave a voice to Marxist, leftist and 1960s-era Black Power politics.

Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard
French actress Anna Karina with Godard (AP)

Born into a wealthy French-Swiss family on December 3 1930 in Paris, the ingenious “enfant terrible” stood for years as one of the world’s most vital and provocative directors in Europe and beyond — beginning in 1960 with his debut feature, Breathless.

Referencing Godard’s breakout first feature, Bardot, 87, paid homage to his genius on Twitter: “And it was breathless that he joined the firmament of the last great star creators.”

His films propelled Belmondo to stardom and his controversial modern nativity play Hail Mary grabbed headlines when Pope John Paul II denounced it in 1985.

But Godard also made a string of films, often politically charged and experimental, which pleased few outside a small circle of fans and frustrated many critics through their purported overblown intellectualism.

Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he was “sad, sad. Immensely so,” at the news of Godard’s death.

Godard grew up in Nyon, Switzerland, studying ethnology at the Sorbonne in France’s capital, where he was increasingly drawn to the cultural scene that flourished in the Latin Quarter “cine-club” after the Second World War.

He became friends with future big-name directors Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer and in 1950 founded the short-lived Gazette du Cinema. By 1952 he had begun writing for the prestigious movie magazine Cahiers du Cinema.

After working on two films by Rivette and Rohmer in 1951, Godard tried to direct his first movie while travelling 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.

Jean-Luc Godard
Godard at the festival palace in Cannes, France, in May 2001 (AP)

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 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 Seeberg.

Like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, released in 1959, Godard’s film set the new tone for French movie aesthetics. Godard rejected conventional narrative style and instead used frequent jump-cuts that mingled philosophical discussions with action scenes.

France Obit Godard
Berangue Allaux, director Jean-Luc Godard and Madaleine Assas pose at the unveiling of the movie For Ever Mozart in Venice in September 1996 (AP)

He spiced it all up with references to Hollywood gangster movies, and nods to literature and visual art.

In 1961, Godard married Danish-born model and actress Anna Karina, who appeared in a string of movies he made during the remainder of the 1960s, all of them seen as New Wave landmarks.

Notable among them were My Life To Live, Alphaville and Crazy Pete — which also starred Belmondo and was rumoured to have been shot without a script.

Godard also launched what was to be a career-long participation in collective film projects, contributing scenes to The Seven Deadly Sins along with directors such as Claude Chabrol and Roger Vadim.

He also worked with Ugo Gregoretti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini on the Italian movie Let’s Have A Brainwash, with Godard’s scenes portraying a disturbing post-apocalypse world.

Godard, who was later to gain a reputation for his uncompromising left-wing political views, had a brush with French authorities in 1960 when he made The Little Soldier. The movie, filled with references to France’s colonial war in Algeria, was not released until 1963, a year after the conflict ended.

His work turned more starkly political by the late 1960s. 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 but short-lived student unrests of May 1968.

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 took potshots at Hollywood over the years.

Godard and Israeli producer Menahem Golan
Godard and Israeli producer Menahem Golan in 1987 (AP)

He remained at 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.

His lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian cause also brought him repeated accusations of antisemitism, despite his insistence that he sympathised with the Jewish people and their plight in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Though the Academy received some complaints about Godard being selected to receive the award, Academy President Tom Sherak said the director was recognised solely “for his contributions to film in the New Wave era”.

In 2010, Godard released Film Socialisme, a film in three chapters first shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

He spent his last years living in Rolle, Switzerland, near where he grew up along the shores of Lake Geneva.