In honor of their centennial, last week TNR reposted a classic 1966 piece by the great critic Pauline Kael. In the essay, she reserves special praise for Jean-Luc Godard, whom she hails as a hero to a new generation of independent-minded filmmakers:
There is a disturbing quality in Godard’s work that perhaps helps to explain why the young are drawn to his films and identify with them, and why so many older people call him a “coterie” artist and don’t think his films are important. His characters don’t seem to have any future. They are most alive (and most appealing) just because they don’t conceive of the day after tomorrow; they have no careers, no plans, only fantasies of the roles they could play, of careers, thefts, romance, politics, adventure, pleasure, a life like in the movies.
Even his world of the future, Alphaville, is, photographically, a documentary of Paris in the present. (All of his films are in that sense documentaries—as were also, and also by necessity, the grade B American gangster films that influenced him.) And even before Alphaville, the people in The Married Woman were already science fiction—so blank and affectless no mad scientist was required to destroy their souls.
His characters are young; unrelated to families and background. Whether deliberately or unconsciously he makes his characters orphans who, like the students in the theaters, feel only attachments to friends, to lovers—attachments that will end with a chance word or the close of the semester. They’re orphans, by extension, in a larger sense, too, unconnected with the world, feeling out of relationship to it. They’re a generation of familiar strangers.
An elderly gentleman recently wrote me, “Oh, they’re such a bore, bore, bore, modern youth!! All attitudes and nothing behind the attitudes. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, I went places and did things. The reason they all hate the squares is because the squares remind them of the one thing they are trying to forget: there is a Future and you must build for it.”
(Video: Trailer for The Married Woman)