Starting this week and running all the way through March, the Gene Siskel Film Center is hosting a partial retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard films. Titled “Godard: The First Wave,” it includes most of the films from his seminal New Wave period, plus a small collection of later-period stuff, including Hail Mary and Every Man for Himself. The series runs concurrently with the master director’s latest film, Goodbye to Language 3-D, making its long-awaited Chicago debut with a monthlong run at the Film Center.
Godard, of course, is among the major figures in cinema history, and determining which five films of his are the best strikes me as completely impossible considering the singularity of his career. Rather than parse through his multiple phases—through his Maoist phase and his restorative phase and his transitional phase and his video phase—I resolved to stick with the 60s films, his most famous phase and, frankly, the least taxing one to write about on such short notice. You can catch my five favorite below.
5. Alphaville (1965) Noted for the experimental documentary techniques that envision the future as a sort of dystopian present day, this science fiction pastiche is one of Godard’s great examinations of love, a story of language and alienation in a distinctly modern setting. The intentionally simplistic narrative—a cheap approximation of dime-store detective novels, Voyage to Italy, and The Searchers—proves artfully paradoxical given the film’s fascinating sociocultural allegories.
4. Made in U.S.A./2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1966) Next to Week-end, these are the most rigorously political films of the director’s “prepolitical” phase. Made concurrently and with similar fervor, they’re perfectly complementary and essentially inseparable, but I tend to prefer the former, mostly because the tape recorder motif is one of Godard’s more wry inventions.
3. Contempt (1963) Having not yet seen Goodbye to Language 3-D, I find this to be Godard’s most nostalgic film, even more than In Praise of Love. Similar to that 2001 feature, it isn’t sentimentally or wistfully nostalgic as much as it is, well, contemptuously nostalgic, yet another uniquely Godardian paradox that lands somewhere between pessimism and optimism. Because, yeah, Contempt is about the “death” of cinema, but when has “death” been the final word on anything?
2. Week-end (1967) Speaking of the death of cinema (“fin du cinema,” to be exact), this exacting comedy is generally considered the director’s last “movie” movie before his brilliant Every Man for Himself, his “second first film.” Here, the “end” of cinema signifies the end of a certain kind of cinema (the bourgeois, naturally), and Godard doesn’t end it as much as he sets it on fire and boots it off a cliff, as if he truly planned on never returning.
1. Vivre Sa Vie (1962) Of this masterpiece, Godard said “the film was made by sort of a second presence.” He’s probably referring to the camera, which the director uses particularly inanimately here. Shifting his chaotic mise-en-scene to a more earthbound sensibility, Godard displays sincere reverence for the act of watching—specifically, watching movies, and the sort of spiritual connotations therein. We watch Karina watch Falconetti, their eyes watery, and we know that “at the cinema, we do not think, we are thought.”