Godard was born to Franco-Swiss parents in Paris. He attended school in Nyon, Switzerland, and at the Lycée Rohmer, and the Sorbonne in Paris. During his time at the Sorbonne, he became involved with the young group of filmmakers and film theorists that gave birth to the New Wave.
Many of Godard's films challenged the conventions of Hollywood cinema, and he was often considered the most extreme New Wave filmmaker. His films often expressed his political ideologies as well as his knowledge of film history. In addition, Godard's films often cited existential and Marxist philosophy.
Despite its intricate manifesto, the guiding principle behind the movement was that "Realism is the essence of cinema." According to Bazin and other members of the New Wave, cinematic realism could be achieved through various aesthetic and contextual media. They favored long shots that embodied a more complete scene, where visual information could be transmitted consistently, and avoided "unnecessary editing"; they did not want to disrupt the illusion of reality by constant cuts. This technique can be seen in some of Godard's most celebrated action sequences, though there are equally famous sequences in his films featuring fastcutting, especially those where jump cuts proliferate.
An interesting aspect of Godard's philosophy on filmmaking was his inherent and deliberate embrace of contradiction. In short, Godard used "mass-market" aesthetics in his film to make a statement about capitalism and consequent societal decline.
His approach to film began in the field of criticism. Along with Éric Rohmer and Rivette, he founded the film journal, Gazette du cinéma, which saw publication of five issues in 1950. When André Bazin founded his critical magazine Cahiers du cinéma in 1951, Godard, with Rivette and Rohmer, were among the first writers. Most of the writers for Cahiers du cinéma started making some brief forays into film direction in the years before 1960.
Godard, while taking a job as a construction worker on a dam in 1953, shot a documentary about the building, Opération béton (1955). As he continued to work for Cahiers, he made Une femme coquette (1955), a ten-minute black and white picture; Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick (1957) another short fiction piece; and Une histoire d'eau (1958), which was created largely out of footage shot by Truffaut that had gone unused.
After seeing Orson Welles' Touch of Evil at the Expo 58, Godard was influenced to make his first major feature film, Breathless (1960), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. The film distinctly expressed the French New Wave's style, and incorporated quotations from several elements of popular culture — specifically American cinema. The film employed various innovative techniques such as jump cuts, real locations rather than studio locations, character asides and mismatched eyeline matches. François Truffaut, who co-wrote Breathless with Godard, suggested its concept and introduced Godard to the producer who ultimately funded it, Georges de Beauregard.
From the beginning of his career, Godard crammed more film references into his movies than any of his New Wave comrades. In “Breathless,” his citations include a movie poster showing Humphrey Bogart (whose expression the lead actor Jean-Paul Belmondo tries reverently to imitate); visual quotations from films of Ingmar Bergman, Samuel Fuller, Fritz Lang, and others; and an onscreen dedication to Monogram Pictures, an American B-movie studio. Most of all, the choice of Jean Seberg as the lead actress was an overarching reference to Otto Preminger, who had discovered her for his Saint Joan, and then cast her in his acidulous 1958 adaptation of Bonjour Tristesse. If, in Rohmer’s words, “life was the cinema,” then a film filled with movie references was supremely autobiographical.
The same year, Godard made Le Petit Soldat, which dealt with the Algerian War of Independence. Most notably, it was the first collaboration between Godard and Danish-born actress Anna Karina, whom he later married in 1961 (and divorced in 1965). The film, due to its political nature, was banned from French theaters until 1963. Karina appeared again, along with Belmondo, in A Woman Is a Woman (1961), which was in many ways an homage to the American musical. Karina desires a child, prompting her to leave her boyfriend, played by actor Jean-Claude Brialy, and seek out his best friend (Belmondo) as its father.
Godard's next film, Vivre sa vie (1962), was one of his most popular among critics. Karina starred as Nana, a mother and aspiring actress whose poor circumstances lead her to the life of a streetwalker. It is an episodic account of her trials. The film's style, much like that of Breathless, boasted the type of experimentation that made the French New Wave so influential.
Les Carabiniers (1963) was about the horror of war and its inherent injustice. It was the influence and suggestion of Roberto Rossellini that led Godard to make the film. It follows two peasants who join the army of a king, only to find futility in the whole thing as the king reveals the deception of war-administrating leaders. His most commercially successful film was Contempt (1963), starring Michel Piccoli and one of France's biggest female stars, Brigitte Bardot. A coproduction between Italy and France, Contempt became known as a pinnacle in cinematic modernism with its profound reflexivity. The film follows Paul (Piccoli), a screenwriter who is commissioned by the arrogant American movie producer Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the script for an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, which German director Fritz Lang has been filming. Lang's "high culture" interpretation of the story is lost on Prokosch, whose character is a firm indictment of the commercial motion picture hierarchy. Another prominent theme is the inability to reconcile love and labor, which is illustrated by Paul's crumbling marriage to Camille (Bardot) during the course of shooting.
In 1964, Godard and Karina formed a production company, Anouchka Films. He directed Bande à part (Band of Outsiders), another collaboration between the two and described by Godard as "Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka." It follows two young men, looking to score on a heist, who both fall in love with Karina, and quotes from several gangster film conventions.
Une femme mariée (1964) followed Band of Outsiders. It was a slow, deliberate, toned-down black and white picture without a real story. The film was entirely produced over the period of one month and exhibited a loose quality unique to Godard. Godard made the film while he acquired funding for Pierrot le fou (1965).
In 1965, Godard directed Alphaville, a futuristic blend of science fiction, film noir, and satire. Eddie Constantine starred as Lemmy Caution, a detective who is sent into a city controlled by a giant computer named Alpha 60. His mission is to make contact with Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon), a famous scientist who has fallen mysteriously silent, and is believed to be suppressed by the computer. Pierrot le fou (1965) featured a complex storyline, distinctive personalities, and a violent ending. Gilles Jacob, an author, critic, and president of the Cannes Film Festival, called it both a "retrospective" and recapitulation in the way it played on so many of Godard’s earlier characters and themes. With an extensive cast and variety of locations, the film was expensive enough to warrant significant problems with funding. Shot in color, it departed from Godard’s usual black and white minimalist works (typified by Breathless, Vivre sa vie, and Une femme mariée). He solicited the participation of Jean-Paul Belmondo, by then a famous actor, in order to guarantee the necessary amount of capital.
Masculin, féminin (1966), based on two Guy de Maupassant stories, La Femme de Paul and Le Signe, was a study of contemporary French youth and their involvement with cultural politics. An intertitle refers to the characters as "The children of Marx and Coca-Cola."
Godard followed with Made in U.S.A (1966), whose source material was Richard Stark's The Jugger; and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), in which Marina Vlady portrays a woman leading a double life as housewife and prostitute.
La Chinoise (1967) saw Godard at his most politically forthright yet. The film focused on a group of students and engaged with the ideas coming out of the student activist groups in contemporary France. Released just before the May 1968 events, the film is thought by some to foreshadow the student rebellions that took place.
That same year, Godard made a more colorful and political film, Week End. It follows a Parisian couple as they leave on a weekend trip across the French countryside to collect an inheritance. What ensues is a confrontation with the tragic flaws of the over-consuming bourgeoisie. The film contains some of the most written-about scenes in cinema's history. One of them, a ten-minute tracking shot of the couple stuck in an unremitting traffic jam as they leave the city, is often cited as a new technique Godard used to deconstruct bourgeois trends. Week End's enigmatic and audacious end title sequence, which reads "End of Cinema," appropriately marked an end to the narrative and cinematic period in Godard's filmmaking career.
Politics are never far from the surface in Godard's films. One of his earliest features, Le Petit Soldat, dealt with the Algerian War of Independence, and was notable for its attempt to present the complexity of the dispute rather than pursue any specific ideological agenda. Along these lines, Les Carabiniers presents a fictional war that is initially romanticized in the way its characters approach their service, but becomes a stiff anti-war metonym. In addition to the international conflicts Godard sought an artistic response to, he was also very concerned with the social problems in France. The earliest and best example of this is Karina's potent portrayal of a prostitute in Vivre sa vie.
In 1960s Paris, the political milieu was not overwhelmed by one specific movement. There was, however, a distinct post-war climate shaped by various international conflicts such as the colonialism in North Africa and Southeast Asia. The side that opposed such colonization included the majority of French workers, who belonged to the French communist party, and the Parisian artists and writers who positioned themselves on the side of social reform and class equality. A large portion of this group had a particular affinity for the teachings of Karl Marx. Godard's Marxist disposition did not become abundantly explicit until La Chinoise and Week End, but is evident in several films — namely Pierrot and Une femme mariée.
In the same film, the lovers accost a group of American sailors along the course of their liberating crime spree. The two’s immediate reaction, expressed by Marianne, is "Damn Americans!" an obvious outlet of the frustration so many French communists felt towards American hegemony. Ferdinand then reconsiders, "That’s OK, we’ll change our politics. We can put on a play. Maybe they’ll give us some dollars." Marianne is puzzled but Ferdinand suggests that something the Americans would like would be the Vietnam War. The ensuing sequence is a makeshift play where Marianne dresses up as a stereotype Vietnamese woman and Ferdinand as an American sailor. The scene ends on a brief shot revealing a chalk message left on the floor by the pair, "Long live Mao!" (Vive Mao!).
Notably, he also participated in Loin du Vietnam (1967). An anti-war project, it consists of seven sketches directed by Godard (who used stock footage from La Chinoise), Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda.
For example, Breathless' elliptical editing, which denies the viewer a fluid narrative typical of mainstream cinema, forces the viewers to take on more critical roles, connecting the pieces themselves and coming away with more investment in the work's content. Godard also employs other devices, including asynchronous sound and alarming title frames, with perhaps his favorite being the character aside. In many of his most political pieces, specifically Week End, Pierrot le fou, and La Chinoise, characters address the audience with thoughts, feelings, and instructions.
In an essay on Godard, philosopher and aesthetics scholar Jacques Ranciere states, "When in Pierrot le fou, 1965, a film without a clear political message, Belmondo played on the word 'scandal' and the 'freedom' that the Scandal girdle supposedly offered women, the context of a Marxist critique of commodification, of pop art derision at consumerism, and of a feminist denunciation of women’s false 'liberation', was enough to foster a dialectical reading of the joke and the whole story." The way Godard treated politics in his cinematic period was in the context of a joke, a piece of art, or a relationship, presented to be used as tools of reference, romanticizing the Marxist rhetoric, rather than solely being tools of education.
Une femme mariée is also structured around Marx's concept of commodity fetishism. Godard once said that it is "a film in which individuals are considered as things, in which chases in a taxi alternate with ethological interviews, in which the spectacle of life is intermingled with its analysis". He was very conscious of the way he wished to portray the human being. His efforts is overtly characteristic of Marx, who in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 gives one of his most nuanced elaborations, analyzing how the worker is alienated from his product, the object of his productive activity. Georges Sadoul, in his short rumination on the film, describes it as a "sociological study of the alienation of the modern woman".
According to Elliott Gould, he and Godard met to discuss the possibility of Godard directing Jules Feiffer's 1971 surrealist play Little Murders. During this meeting Godard said his two favorite American writers were Feiffer and Charles M. Schulz. Godard soon declined the opportunity to direct; the job later went to Alan Arkin.
Between 1968 and 1973, Godard and Gorin collaborated to make a total of five films with strong Maoist messages. The most prominent film from the collaboration was Tout va bien, which starred Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, at the time very big stars. Jean-Pierre Gorin now teaches the study of film at the University of California, San Diego.
His later films have been marked by great formal beauty and frequently a sense of requiem — Nouvelle Vague (New Wave, 1990), the autobiographical JLG/JLG, autoportrait de décembre (JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December, 1995), and For Ever Mozart (1996). Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991) was a quasi-sequel to Alphaville but done with an elegiac tone and focus on the inevitable decay of age. During the 1990s he also produced perhaps the most important work of his career in the multi-part series Histoire(s) du cinéma, which combined all the innovations of his video work with a passionate engagement in the issues of twentieth-century history and the history of film itself.
In 1997, Godard produced Rob Tregenza's third feature, Inside / Out. This is the only feature Godard has produced but not directed; previously, he produced the Eric Rohmer short La Sonate à Kreutzer in 1956. Godard's work on that film was uncredited.
In Notre Musique (2004), Godard turns his focus to war, specifically, the war in Sarajevo, but with attention to all war, including the American Civil War, the war between the US and the Native Americans, the struggles between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The film is structured into three Dantean kingdoms: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Godard's fascination with paradox is a constant in the film. It opens with a long, ponderous montage of war images that occasionally lapses into the comic; Paradise is shown as a lush wooded beach patrolled by US Marines.