Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Rette sich, wer kann [das Leben]), 1980, Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard

March 4 to April 6, 2016


As formal innovator and intellectual pop star of the New Wave, in the years following his trailblazing debut Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard became the most talked-about figure in the film world. Yet, in Week-End, almost concurrent with May 1968, he announced the “end of cinema” and subsequently began a string of constant self-reinvention – initially with provocative essay films and as a radically politicized filmmaker working in a collective.
This thrust in Godard’s work brought about ample new evidence for his ongoing special status: few other filmmakers were so inventive in plumbing the depths of their artistic means. The medium of video was to play a crucial role in this, as in the case of his key work Numéro deux (1975). In 1980, Godard’s self-proclaimed “second first film” Sauve qui peut (la vie) brought about another move towards narrative cinema, already heralding his late work which would often be subsumed under the term “transcendent”. This concept does justice to the remarkable beauty of Godard’s highly complex collages of images and sounds, while also suggesting an appropriate capitulation vis-à-vis their inconceivable density and versatility.
In the wake of Godard’s canonical nouvelle vague works – showcased last year at the Film Museum – a voyage of discovery through his lesser-known artistic period begins: films that have long been neglected due to their unavailability, but have in the meantime garnered more critical attention than his 1960s “classics”. The presentation of Godard’s works made between 1968 and 1986 will bring the most diversified phase in this exceptional director’s oeuvre to the screen – along with revealing an individual reaction to the rushes of revolutionary 1968 and its after-effects in both art and cinema.
From 1968 on, Godard drew consistency from his credo “not to make political films, but make films politically.” The low-key chamber play Le gai savoir, in particular, marked a shift from the playful aesthetics of his hits – a “return to zero” and a fundamental critique of capitalist culture. The manifest Que faire? (What Is to Be Done?), the manuscript of which is kept in the Film Museum’s collection and will be reprinted on the occasion of the retrospective, testifies to this. “In a word, the bourgeoisie creates a world in its image. Comrades! We must destroy that image,” says the narrator of British Sounds, one of the collective films Godard made with like-minded filmmakers (above all Jean-Pierre Gorin) as part of the Dziga Vertov Group. They systematically examined cinema as a product and manipulation machine – and they did so with a polemical fury that ran counter to Godard’s individuality and originality. However, the deconstructive intention of these works soon gave rise to startling new options of reconstruction, carrying Godard’s unmistakable signature. In paradoxical leaps and bounds, he expanded in other directions: in the essay film Letter to Jane (1972), he and Gorin transformed a photograph of Jane Fonda into the focus of biting ideological criticism – while at the same time directing Tout va bien (starring Fonda and Yves Montand), a highlight of political cinema in the spirit of Mao and Jerry Lewis.
It was around this time that Godard met Anne-Marie Miéville, his partner to this day. After returning to his Swiss homeland, they founded the company Sonimage and Godard began to put the experiences of the Vertov Group as well as the simplicity and “flexibility” of the video medium to such use that he became a pioneer again, just like 15 years earlier. A pioneer of autonomous media practices in which technical, aesthetical and political reflections fall in together, as in the Miéville-Godard-Gorin masterpiece Ici et ailleurs (1974/76). Sonimage became the model for numerous similar (post-Fordist or postcolonial) “workshops” and individual stances of the 1970s and ’80s – from the British film workshop movement to Harun Farocki’s work.
Godard’s second career as an acclaimed art house filmmaker in the early 1980s was by no means a rejection of this autonomy, but rather a consistent addition. Along with the publication of important books on his thought and working method it turned “JLG” into an important shorthand for the most critical version of postmodern cinema. Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), Passion (1982), Prénom Carmen (1983), as well as Je vous salue, Marie and Détective (both 1985) reveal Godard as a newborn collage artist: with their shimmering soundtracks and distinctive, breathtakingly beautiful imagery, they spin a web as fascinating as it is cryptic. Pessimistic social analysis and undiluted artistic zeal, referring back to the entire history of the arts, are woven together. Meanwhile, he remained entranced by the short form, with the sketch-like but highly skillful Scénario videos, among others. These works would set off further waves in the “Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard”, which will strike the shores of the Film Museum in the spring of 2017.
The retrospective is kindly supported by the Swiss Embassy in Austria.

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