Jean-Luc Godard, Father of French New Wave, Dead at 91

Jean-Luc Godard. Photo: John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images

Jean-Luc Godard, a giant of cinema whose work helped pioneer the French New Wave, is dead at the age of 91. French newspaper Libération reported on Tuesday, September 13, that Godard had died in his home in Rolle, Switzerland, by assisted suicide. “He was not sick; he was simply exhausted,” an unnamed family member reportedly said. “So he had made the decision to end it. It was his decision, and it was important for him that it be known.” Godard had told a Swiss radio program in 2014 that he was open to pursuing this option — available to him as a longtime resident of Switzerland and dual citizen.

Born to a prominent family in Paris in 1930, Godard spent his childhood in Switzerland and returned as a young man to France, where he began his career in cinema as an enthusiast and critic. He launched his own short-lived film journal with peers Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer before writing for the now-legendary Cahiers du Cinéma. Through Godard’s early Paris years of film fandom, he met fellow auteur François Truffaut.

Godard’s first feature is one of his most influential: Breathless (1960) launched its star Jean-Paul Belmondo to fame and, along with films like Truffaut’s 1959 The 400 Blows, introduced the world to an emerging style of French cinema. Breathless challenged the staid sanctity of the shot and reverse shot with its jump cuts and mismatched eyelines — all while introducing a new type of stylishness, toying with existentialism, playing with signifiers of American film noir, and looking extremely cool. Godard followed the success of Breathless with a run of films including A Woman Is a Woman, Vivre sa vie, Le petit soldat, Alphaville, and Pierrot le Fou. All of these starred his collaborator and wife, Anna Karina, to whom he was married from 1961 to 1965.

Godard’s work grew more directly political around the time of the 1968 student protests, and much of his output tilted experimental and engaged more directly with Marxist themes and criticisms of the Vietnam War. These include collaborations like Tout va bien and Letter to Jane with Jean-Pierre Gorin and indie output with his long-term partner Anne-Marie Miéville.

In 2002, a Sight & Sound critics poll named Godard one of the greatest directors of all time — after Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. But unlike Welles and Hitchcock, Godard was still alive, creating, and continuing to push formal boundaries. A notable later work, 2014’s Goodbye to Language, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film FestivalGodard released his final film, The Image Book, in 2018, which was awarded a Special Palme d’Or at Cannes that year.

Jean-Luc Godard, Father of French New Wave, Dead at 91