“I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy.” These words of Patricia (Jean Seberg) – the protagonist of the film Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) – express the elusive restlessness of director Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022), of his era and of his cinema.
The film – focused on the misadventures of a car thief, wanted for the murder of a policeman – is Godard’s first revolutionary feature film and a milestone in world cinema. The sentiment expressed by Patricia is unambiguous and can act as an open frame into which we can place and reread the multifaceted work of the French director. The restless search for a vital, total, unconditional freedom – the stylistic and thematic cornerstone of Godard’s cinema – clashes with the limits of being situated in a certain epoch and social context. At the basis of this difficulty we can explore the limits of language, communication and relationship with the other.
With Godard, then, we are faced with an unease that cannot be fully deciphered (as is true of his cinema, after all). However, the results of this complexity are dramatic, both on an individual level (many of his films end with the tragic, irrational death of the participants) and on a socio-political level (wars, social inequality and the tragedies of humanity are recurring themes in his cinema).
The painful and frustrated search for freedom is primarily thematic: it is the center of the lives, or attitudes, of his characters, often anarchic and illogical. Yet Godard’s freedom was above all stylistic. After Breathless, the French director never tired of playing with the language of cinema, breaking stylistic conventions in an almost exasperating search for new communicative possibilities.
But who was Godard? What was his contribution to the world of cinema? And, above all, why is it possible to love and hate him at the same time?