Born in France to a wealthy Swiss family, Jean-Luc Godard entered the Sorbonne to study ethnology, but instead spent his time in the Parisian Ciné Clubs, where he met François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer—the young turks of film criticism—who would later become some of the leading lights of the Nouvelle Vague or French New Wave. Deeply impressed by the movies of Renoir and Vigo, and well-versed in international film, Godard and his contemporaries espoused ‘auteur theory’ through the critical journal Cahiers du Cinéma - a theory which advocated the primacy of the director as the shaping force behind any film, such that the presence of the director is recognisable in themes that recur throughout his or her body of work. Moving into filmmaking themselves, they began to commit their critical theories to celluloid.
Making his feature debut in 1959 with À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), Godard, along with Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, revolutionized French cinema. Focussing on youth culture, shot quickly and on a low budget, À Bout de Souffle displayed Godard’s formal ingenuity, introducing such features as the jump cut, cinematic homages and the verité style, comtinuing to innovate with such films as the highly-structured and intertextual Vivre Sa Vie (film en douze tableaux) (1962), and the rowdy crime-musical Bande à Part (1964).
By the end of the 1960s he had redefined the protagonist, popularised hand-held camera and turned concepts of continuity editing on their head. Pierrot le Fou (1965) marked a turning point in Godard’s work; hence forward he would pursue ideological goals through overtly political films such as La Chinoise (1967) and Le Vent d’Est (The Wind from the East, 1968)—his Revolutionary period, marked by his membership of the Dziga Vertov Group, named after the iconoclastic Polish-born Soviet filmmaker.
His subsequent filmmaking falls into two distinct categories—the vidéoaste of the mid- to late 1970s and the contemplative essayist from then on. Though recent films have proven too obscure for most audiences, it is clear that Godard is an auteur intent on discovering the nature of film, and his prodigious sense of exploration has resulted in some of the best cinema ever made. Often hailed as the most significant of the French New Wave, Godard’s influence has reached as far as Altman, Scorsese, Jarmusch and Tarantino.