Jean-Luc Godard remembered by Caroline Champetier | Jean-Luc Godard

I didn’t grow up in a film-loving family – we rarely went to the cinema. However, I had this strange habit as a young teenager: I avidly read French weekly Le Nouvel Observateurhis film reviews. Once I asked my parents for permission to go see Godard Pierrot le Fou. They said, “Absolutely not.” I asked why. “Because it’s violent,” came the reply. I finally watched Pierrot le Fou when I was studying at the national film school. The movie wasn’t violent as they saw it, but it was a shock nonetheless. Little did I know then that I would spend a few years working side by side with Jean-Luc Godard.

In fact, I began to gravitate toward his circle from film school through my 20s, thanks to the great cinematographer William Lubtchansky, for whom I worked as an assistant. Lubtchansky had been director of photography for Godard, Agnès Varda, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, among other famous names of the French New Wave. They all felt old to me; however, they were only in their 50s and very active. At film school we had absorbed the New Wave; they were our masters in cinema. But you had to take sides. There were Rohmerian (after Eric Rohmer), Godardian and Truffaldian. I was a true Godardian. I was drawn to his radicalism. At the time, Godard and Truffaut had fallen out with each other, and would never patch up their differences. The main difference between Godard and the others was how he made films. Godard had his own way of writing, producing, shooting and editing a film. Also, unlike other film directors of his generation, he did not believe in characters, he only believed in actors who responded to his direction.

Jean-Luc Godard directed Brigitte Bardot on the set of Contempt, in 1963. Photo: Jean-Louis SWINERS/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

I was 28 when I read Cahiers du Cinema sent me on the film set to detective to make a photo reportage. I was struck by how physical Godard was. He placed so much value and importance on props, carefully placing them on the set. To me he looked like a painter, overseeing the composition of a still life. I told him I thought he was a manual laborer rather than an intellectual. He smiled. I think he liked it. The following summer he called me. At first I thought it was a joke. We met in his office. He said, “I’m looking for someone who knows a little, but not too much.” I said yes immediately. He needed a director of photography by his side full-time for a few years. He had many projects and assignments for TV, commercials and cinema, and I was to supervise the “image” department, from the purchase of equipment to the lighting of his films. This also sometimes meant being filmed by him doing my job – in other words, playing my own role. He also wanted to see every movie that was released and I had to arrange this. Not an easy task. I remember we went together to see four movies in one day and there was one movie that he thought was so bad that he left the theater literally crawling on the floor. It was a gut reaction.

Film was his whole life, there was little else beside it. He didn’t even find time to eat properly. As far as I can remember, all he ate and drank was omelettes and beer, and an apple for breakfast. He barely had time to go to the cafe and read the newspaper every day, but apart from that, cinema occupied all his thoughts. I once asked him how his film footage looked distinctly “by Godard”. He replied, as a way of explaining, “It’s because I frame, while others mostly reframe.” He drew each and every frame of his films precisely decoupage. I have never experienced such a clear and distinct way of filming cinéaste. What was also striking is that he spoke very little about the past, he was very much in the present, surrounded by a young crew that gave him energy but also a sense of innocence.

Was he a difficult man? He was very focused, precise, diligent, smoked cigars constantly and reflected. He cut a rather solitary figure, expressing his feelings in quiet ways. There was also a great melancholy about him; he kept saying “cinema is dead”. I was too young to hear this. After two years I told him I had to break apart and spread my wings. I worked with him again in the early 90s and we saw each other regularly until he died. He chose to end his life by dying, and I am not at all surprised by his choice. Comparing Godard to Picasso is apt. In each of his different artistic periods, he recreated a completely new cinematic world.

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