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Multiplying the Possibilities of Cinema

Associate Professor Don E. Levine on Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard 


Close-up of a short-haired feminine face with finger raised, poised to bite a fingernail

Frame from A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), 1959 

For about a half century, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Don E. Levine has been screening the films of Jean-Luc Godard, the innovative director who shaped the French New Wave of cinema. So when Godard died in September at age 91, Levine’s thoughts naturally went to the legacy of the enigmatic director.  

“He had a productive life,” says Levine, who began screening A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), the director’s groundbreaking first film for students in 1973. “He found a way out the other end from what he had started. He leaves us with hope at the end of his last film,” Levine adds, referring to Le Livre d’Image (The Image Book, 2018), the director’s self-reflexive homage to the literary and the cinematic.  

With an oeuvre of nearly forty films, Godard threw out Hollywood rules by quoting history, philosophy, politics, and poetry alike. He implements the jump cut when we expect the steady shot, with characters who simultaneously repel and move us. His disjointed storytelling frustrates and endears. Levine has been a guide to Godard for nearly three generations of students in his avant-garde film classes at UMass, and he recommends several works in particular for those looking to experience the influential director’s vision. 

Frame from A Bout de Souffle (Breathless): A short-haired feminine face with finger raised, poised to bite a fingernail

A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) 

Shot with a handheld camera in real locations, the characters in this film—a young European man on the run with a naive American woman—leap from slang to quoting the poet Rilke, with ideas and emotions that come and go in a heartbeat. Levine calls it a “cultural object you can’t get around.” He says, “Breathless geometrically multiplied the possibilities of cinema, from separating the soundtrack from the visual track to talking about ideas to incorporating language itself.” 

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Frame from Vivre Sa Vie (Live One’s Own Life) shows a woman holding a cigarette and leaning against a wall on a street plastered over with posters and handbills

Vivre Sa Vie (Live One’s Own Life, 1962) 

An anti-melodrama featuring a young Parisian woman disillusioned by poverty and a crumbling marriage who turns to her dreams of acting and eventually becomes a sex worker. “The truth isn’t in the soppy story,” says Levine. “The truth of film lies in the filmmaking itself, that films can be immensely moving and teach us something rather than leading around by our emotional noses.” 

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Frame from Le Mepris (Contempt) showing a man and woman in an open window; another man peers at them from the roof of the building

Le Mepris (Contempt, 1963) 

A star-studded CinemaScope epic in which a screenwriter creating a version of The Odyssey is torn between the demands of a European director (played by the legendary Fritz Lang), an arrogant American producer (Jack Palance), and his disillusioned wife (Brigitte Bardot). “What Godard says in the film is inseparable from the way he’s saying it,” says Levine. “A prime example of a director for whom form is content and content is form.” 

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Frame from Le Livre d'Image (The Image Book): A bright, almost abstract image of rolled film

Le Livre d'Image (The Image Book, 2018) 

Godard’s final feature is a collage-style essay film featuring clips from other films (Godard’s and others), documentary footage, still images of paintings and photographs, and other graphics, with music, sound clips from other films, and copious voiceovers by Godard himself. Says Levine, “The only thing I can compare it to is that if you were a sociological explorer coming upon a new tribe, you’d see the similarities in eating, breathing, sleeping, but beyond that, it’s unrecognizable. Yet you can’t turn your mind and eyes away from it.” 

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