Jean-Luc Godard is nowhere to be found at the Swiss apartment building where he lives and works. But he has left a note for his visitor, promising in the strong black strokes of his own pen to be "at your disposal" at 6 o'clock.
And, at the appointed hour, the genius of French cinema--a small, thin man of 64 with wiry, graying hair and tortoise-shell glasses--answers the door. He quietly leads the way up a flight of stairs to two large rooms clogged with videotapes and books. He settles behind a wooden desk, bare save for an old rotary dial phone and a green pencil sharpener. Pulling a Cuban cigar from his tweed jacket, he says, politely, "Let's start."
Thus begins a two-hour journey that resembles nothing so much as a Jean-Luc Godard movie, with sudden cuts, long diversions, bright insights, thoughtful ruminations on films and life, and dour predictions about the future of his medium.
"I like everything in movies," Godard says. "My main pleasure is every day, or every month, discovering a new one. I'd like to have done all sorts of films, to have been in all films, to be known and unknown. To do everything.
"I'd like to be one of the filmmakers who discovered sound in the 1930s," he adds, veering down a new road. "But I'd also like to have known the sadness of those people who discovered sound.
"Now I have that feeling, too--that feeling that I'm being thrown out. Because it's Apple computers that are doing movies today. Not me."
The world's critics hailed "Breathless," Godard's first feature film 35 years ago, as the work of a genius. He still makes movies as nobody else makes them. And the critics still enjoy dissecting his films. But he admits his audience these days is small.
More than anything else, Godard appears to be baffled, though one suspects he also is quietly pleased, that a world that has fallen in love with box office blockbusters is still interested in him.
"I never understand why I'm remembered," Godard says with a shrug. "I always wonder why I'm still known because nobody sees my movies now. Well, almost nobody." Maybe, he ventures, "it's just because at the beginning I was doing movies that people liked." Or, he adds, "maybe it's just because I loved movies in every sense. My only hope is that the camera and the 35mm film will survive until after I'm gone."
The movies that the French like these days are, by and large, made in America. For the first time in decades, French films claimed less than 30% of their home market last year. U.S. films took 60%.
Some French filmmakers are trying to inject mass appeal into their films while remaining true to their cinematic heritage. But it hasn't been easy, especially given the small audience for French films in America.
It hasn't been easy for Jean-Luc Godard, either. Although a treasured French icon, he is also a relic from the days when the most popular movies made audiences do some of the work. For Godard, "interesting" has always been high praise indeed. "I always begin with ideas, and that doesn't help with the audience," he says. "But I still prefer a \o7 good\f7 audience. I'd rather feed 100% of 10 people. Hollywood would rather feed 1% of 1 million people. Commercially speaking, my way is not better."
Looking back now, he prefers not to speak of success. "Sometimes," he says, "I feel I'm doing well. Sometimes not. But I'm too old to change."
Godard was just 29 years old and writing film essays for Cahiers du Cinema, the most influential film journal of its time, when he captured the world's attention with "Breathless." The 1959 film, which he wrote and directed, starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as a young hoodlum undone by his love for an American girl, played by Jean Seberg. It earned Godard a place in the New Wave of French directors, alongside Eric Rohmer and the late Francois Truffaut. "A generation of film critics had their lives changed by that film," the industry newspaper Variety has said.
The New Wave filmmakers greatly broadened the bounds of film theory at the time and, perhaps as importantly, showed that it was possible to make good films inexpensively. Godard and his New Wave colleagues, most of whom had begun as film critics, brought new ways of story-telling to the screen. Pieces of Godard's films--from the 10-minute tracking shot of a summer traffic jam in the 1968 film, "Weekend," to the mid-scene jump cuts in "Breathless"--remain an important part of cinema technique.
His body of work includes 100 television and feature films. ("I'd like to not remember some of them," he says.) Among his more famous films were "A Woman is a Woman" (1961), "A Married Woman" (1964), "Pierrot le fou" (1965) and "One Plus One" (1968). But "Breathless" was his first and, as it turned out, his last commercially successful film.
"All the other ones were not good results," says Godard, who has directed France's most celebrated actors, from Brigitte Bardot to Gerard Depardieu. "But there was a lot of praise and glory, aesthetic glory."