Jean-Luc Godard, an Icon of the French New Wave, Has Died at 91

The groundbreaking filmmaker helped set the stage for modern cinema

Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard
Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard Photo by Christophe D Yvoire / Sygma via Getty Images

Jean-Luc Godard, the visionary film director who shaped cinematic history with his provocative contributions to the French New Wave, died on Tuesday at the age of 91.

Patrick Jeanneret, Godard’s legal advisor, tells the New York Times’ Dave Kehr and Jonathan Kandell that Godard died by assisted suicide at his home in Switzerland, where the practice is legal. He had been suffering from “multiple disabling pathologies,” says Jeanneret.

Over the course of a dynamic career that spanned more than six decades, Godard changed the course of modern cinema with his spontaneous style of filmmaking. He “invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art form,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote in a Twitter tribute after news broke of Godard’s death. “We have lost a national treasure, the eye of a genius.”

Born in Paris in 1930, Godard was the second of four children born to “extravagantly wealthy” parents, according to the Times. His father, a physician, opened a clinic in Nyon, Switzerland, where the family lived during the course of World War II. Godard returned to Paris after the liberation of France to attend secondary school, and later enrolled in the Sorbonne with the intention of studying ethnology—though he ultimately found the film societies that were flourishing in the city’s Latin Quarter more enticing.

Godard filming Contempt in 1963 in Italy
Godard filming Contempt in 1963 in Italy Photo by Jean-Louis Swiners / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Godard fell in with a circle of other cinephiles who would become vanguards of the French New Wave, among them Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. In 1952, according to Jamey Keaten and Thomas Adamson of the Associated Press (AP), Godard began writing for the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema.

His parents, unimpressed by the trajectory of their son’s career thus far, refused to support Godard financially. He stole money from various sources, including the Cahiers du Cinema, to support himself, sometimes doling out the money to other fledgling directors. “I had no choice,” Godard told the Guardian’s Mark Hooper in 2007. “Or at least it seemed that way to me.”

He took a job as a construction worker on a dam in Switzerland and used his pay to finance his first film in the 1950s: Operation Concrete, a 20-minute documentary about the building of the dam. Soon after, he released the short film All the Boys Are Called Patrick, which follows a man who makes dates with two college students on the same day, not realizing that they are friends. But it was the 1960 film Breathless that catapulted Godard to the forefront of the French New Wave, a movement “characterized by a fresh brilliance of technique that was thought to have overshadowed [the directors’] subject matter,” as Encyclopedia Britannica writes.

Breathless, which stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and American actress Jean Seberg, follows a thief who goes on the run with his girlfriend after shooting a police officer. The film was remarkable for its use of hand-held cameras, natural light and jump cuts that marked abrupt transitions in the narrative, writes the Los Angeles Times’ Dennis McLellan.

“Modern movies begin here,” the late critic Roger Ebert opined of Breathless in 2003. He added, “No debut film since Citizen Kane in 1942 has been as influential.”

Following the success of Breathless, Godard went on to flex the breadth of his directorial skills, helming such disparate works as the 1960 film The Little Soldier—which criticizes France’s conduct in the Algerian War of Independence and was banned in the country for three years—and 1961’s A Woman Is a Woman, which pays homage to Hollywood musicals.

Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo shooting Pierrot le Fou
Godard, with Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo, shooting Pierrot le Fou in 1965 Photo by Reporters Associes / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Godard’s radical politics became a fixture of his films in the late 1960s. A Film Like Any Other, for instance, analyzed student and worker protests that rocked France in 1968 and found a passionate sympathizer in Godard; he was “lashing out” at other filmmakers for not showing solidarity with the protestors, writes the Times.

The director’s propensity for prickliness amplified as he grew older. He fought with his old friend Truffaut, complained that large studios stifled the artistry of cinema and accused Steven Spielberg, the Jewish director of Schindler’s List, of having “no idea” about the Holocaust. Godard’s 2001 film In Praise of Love features representatives of the Spielberg company trying to buy the memories of Holocaust survivors, among other jabs at the director—attacks that Ebert deemed “painful and unfair.”

Godard faced repeated accusations of anti-Semitism, particularly after he would be awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2010. One of the comments that critics found disturbing came from a 1985 interview, in which “Godard spoke of the film industry as being bound up in Jewish usury,” reported the Times’ Michael Cieply at the time.

Godard continued to make acclaimed films into his older age, though he at times seemed surprised by the enduring nature of his legacy. “I never understand why I’m remembered,” he once told the L.A. Times. “I always wonder why I’m still known because nobody sees my movies now. Well, almost nobody.”

And yet, for those who know and love Godard’s work, the power of his vision is undeniable. “The important thing about Godard is he broke all the rules, and he showed that everything could be cinematic if your conceptualization—your ideas—were bold enough,” Marsha Kinder, a film scholar at the University of Southern California, told the L.A. Times in 2006. “He just redefined what kind of pleasures cinema could give you.”