With films such as A Bout De Souffle/Breathless (1960), Le Mepris (1963) and Alphaville (1965) in his canon, Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most important – and influential – directors in the history of movies. At the forefront of the Nouvelle Vague, he’s a director whose work and personality have evoked both delight and fury in equal measure (and still does so to this day). In his biography of the legendary filmmaker, Colin McCabe attempts to place the director and his work in a political, historical and cultural context. What emerges is a book that is as much about a defining era in cinema history than it is about an individual.
Like most books of the kind, this begins with the birth and education of Godard. Born to a moderately wealthy family, Godard spent his formative years in Switzerland avoiding the horrors of World War II. Seeing the same newsreels dubbed in both German and English, he understood the power of both image and narrative at an early age. The book then charts his troubled teens in Paris and follows his burgeoning friendship with Francois Truffaut, Andre Bazin and the other denizens of the Cahiers du Cinema.
By the time we get into his filmmaking career, MacCabe eschews the more formal chronological approach and concentrates more on the philosophical and political ideas that influenced Godard soheavily. The professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh, McCabe obviously knows his film theory, but ensures the biography never turns into a textbook aimed solely at film students. His writing is clear and concise, and works as an excellent introduction to the Nouvelle Vague, Modernism and many other subjects for the uninitiated.
His previous dealings with Godard also means that MacCabe has unparalleled insight into the man himself. Whilst this makes for some interesting reading (his conversations with Godard over a special BFI project are especially good) it does sometimes feel that MacCabe is being a little too reverential for his own good. He seems to gloss over his relationship with Anna Karina and Anee Wiazemsky and it would have been nice to have some closer detail on his later career.
A comprehensive examination of Godard’s working methods and a engaging investigation of film history, it’s a fascinating biography, with a couple of minor flaws. Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 is wonderful for those who count themselves as the directors biggest fans or those who wish to discover him for the first time.