Godard’s work rate was always fast-paced, even furious, yet serene, and increasingly perverse; he was always both dead serious and putting us on. A repertory theater can still pack in young audiences for the modernist Godard films of the 1960s, which still carry a kind of bad-boy seductiveness and visual glamour that puts across most of their ever-shifting play of ideas; that same audience does not come out for his later work because it lacks that ‘60s visual pop.
Godard was alive in but entrapped by a sea of quotations and points of comparison, and it could be said that he was the James Joyce of modernist cinema; in his middle period he tried to be the Bertolt Brecht of the cinema, too, but that didn’t really take, and after that he was a very gnarly purveyor of erudite futility. His mind was full of intellectual bric-a-brac, a sensitive young loner’s defense system, and so he was protected by all his references but also walled in. It could have gone on forever, and it nearly did, but Godard chose to leave on his own terms via assisted suicide: “It was his decision and it was important for him that it be known,” reads a statement from his third wife and collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville.
In “Vivre Sa Vie” (1962), which is maybe Godard’s finest or most touching early film, Anna Karina plays a girl who stares up at Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) and wants to be in a film, but she isn’t; the irony is that Karina’s character is in a movie herself, and a top-tier Godard movie, yet she isn’t aware of that. But Godard is. And that explains his secret and deep satisfaction and why he made as many movies as he did, as if he had found a secret to eternal life for himself and for Karina, his ultimate girlfriend. She struggled with her own passivity and finally needed to find the strength to escape his gaze, even if she was forever marked by it, and not necessarily unhappily. Karina spoke of Godard very fondly in interviews as an older woman.
Godard and Karina were lovers and collaborators in the 1960s, and Godard’s films with Karina are about how he wants to love her and how he finally fails to do so, and that can get to be extremely depressing even as a tacit subject matter, because this lack of feeling and awareness of that lack underlies everything else in their work together. Her character in “Vivre Sa Vie” is shot down at the end, as in a cheap gangster film, not a Dreyer masterwork.
There was a romantic in Godard, but this romanticism was boyishly alien and withholding even in his extreme old age. In all the eras of his long career, Godard makes us aware of film as film and feels no need to create a facsimile of reality for us; his movies are about movies and how life doesn’t measure up. In many of his pictures he plays lush, emotional music on the soundtracks and abruptly cuts it off, as if we don’t deserve it. (Beethoven’s string quartets are perceived by Godard as the highest of artistic accomplishments.) The fact that music comes on and plays uninterrupted after the blackout at the end of “Vivre Sa Vie” is a sign from Godard that death might be more beautiful or elevated than life has been.