In the last fifteen years, no less than three biographies have been dedicated to Jean-Luc Godard. Of the three, Richard Brody’s Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard from 2008 is indisputably the most objectionable – not least due to his baseless and unsubstantiated accusations that the filmmaker harbours latent anti-semitic views and paedophilic desires. A much more defensible aspect of his study, however, is the light he shed on the influence exerted on Godard by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre – particularly during the former’s Parisian youth in the late 1940s and 1950s, when a callow Godard, yet to launch his filmmaking career, was already dreaming of the intervention he would make into the post-war French cultural scene.

As Brody chronicles, much of Godard’s conception of the role that could be played by a public intellectual was inspired directly by the model developed by Sartre, a model with which Godard has wrestled ever since this time, alternating between exploiting his media profile to the full and violently rejecting it, or withdrawing into hermitic solitude. Reviewers of Brody’s work may have found the analogies the writer draws between Sartre and Godard to be “forced”,1 but in fact it is a relationship that has manifested itself in multiple guises over the course of Godard’s seven decades (and counting) of activity in the cinema. The relationship has taken multiple forms: parallels between their respective lives and artistic careers, biographical intersections, when the two figures came into direct contact with each other, and influences – although for the most part this last relation was a one-way affair, with Godard inescapably affected by the actions and stances of his elder. Indeed, given Sartre’s colossal stature in French intellectual life in the years after the Libération – a clout that was not limited to the world of Parisian letters which the philosopher had made his home, but radiated out to take in the nation as a whole – it would be more surprising if Godard had not been subject to the philosopher’s influence. And yet, Brody’s remarks aside, seeking to trace out the connections between Sartre’s aesthetic praxis and that of the nouvelle vague filmmaker is an avenue of research that few “Godardologists” have pursued.

This is not to say that Godard has adhered slavishly to the Sartrean model of artistic engagement. In fact, Godard has often been distinct from the figure of the politically committed intellectual promoted by Sartre, often cultivating a stance of apolitical detachment, or, in his more radical phases, devoting himself wholeheartedly to a revolutionary project that tended to negate the very role of the intellectual in political struggle. On another level, however, a deeper parallel can be drawn between the form of engagement practised by each of these cultural icons of post-war France. As he articulated in the grand polemical texts of What is Literature?, where his notion of the engaged artist was fully fleshed out, Sartre conceived of the goal of the writer as being, above all, a commitment to words, to their true meaning, the real effects they can have, and a resistance against the mystificatory misuse of the written word for the purposes of manipulative political propaganda and anaesthetising consumerism. The “first duty” of a writer, Sartre declares, “is thus to re-establish language in its dignity.” If “words are sick”, he contends, then “it is up to us to cure them”.2 Godard, particularly in the latter part of his career, has cultivated a similar outlook, while relating it more directly to his chosen medium of expression. For Godard, it is a defence of the dignity not of words, but of images – in all their polysemic power – which is fundamentally at stake in his work, and which has been at the centre of his aesthetic project. It is in this sense that he can truly be considered an engaged artist.

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Before the onset of World War II, Sartre had already gained a certain renown for his literary output: most notably from the novel Nausea (published in 1938), a diaristic account of Antoine Roquentin, a young man living in the fictional harbour town of Bouville who contends with the absurdity of existence, and The Wall, a collection of short stories published the following year. His philosophical writings at this time were not as well-known, although the phenomenological diptych of The Imagination: A Psychological Critique (1936) and The Imaginary (1940) would be of lasting importance to the development of French film theory in the post-war period, particularly in the work of André Bazin. During the conflict Sartre was briefly interned as a prisoner-of-war, and was active, to a limited degree, in the Resistance after his release. But writing still consumed the bulk of his time, and this period also saw the publication of the work that is now regarded as his philosophical magnum opus, Being and Nothingness (1943). The 800-page volume is mostly concerned with ontological questions (Sartre subtitled his tome “A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology”), but concludes with a discussion on the ethical implications that can be derived from his understanding of being. Humans, in this conception, are unavoidably thrown into situations that require fundamental ethical choices to be made. Authentic being thus entails facing up to these choices, rather than shirking the responsibility for making them or ascribing such decisions to outside forces, which would constitute a form of existential “bad faith”. The ability to act on this free choice, doing, thus reveals the nature of being. Moreover, the underlying basis for judging these actions is whether or not they contribute to the preservation and extension of human freedom, and whether or not they seek to overcome the systems of oppression and exploitation that still dominate the world.

After the end of the German occupation in 1944, Sartre’s presence in French culture and politics could hardly have been more prominent, the product both of the appeal of his philosophical ideas in the political conjuncture of a nation rebuilding itself after the humiliation of war, occupation and collaboration, and a canny understanding of self-promotion on Sartre’s own part, taking advantage of the media outlets and cultural forums that proliferated after the end of hostilities, including his own journal Les Temps modernes (whose moniker derived, as we know, from the French title of Chaplin’s 1935 film Modern Times). As existentialism became a household word, Sartre sought to popularise the presiding ideas of Being and Nothingness and relate them to the contemporary political situation in the landmark public lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” (later published in book form), and related his broader philosophy to his literary practice in a series of articles collected in the volume What is Literature?. Rejecting both the art-for-art’s-sake standpoint of the symbolist and surrealist traditions, as well as bourgeois utilitarianism and its Stalinist equivalent (the “socialist realist” aesthetic championed by Zhdanov), Sartre argued that “the writer, a free man addressing free men, has only one subject – freedom”,3 and that artists were duty-bound to confront the major social and political problems of their era (“writing for one’s age”). His negative view of Zhdanovism, as well as other critical positions he articulated concerning the politics of the Soviet Communist Party and its French counterpart, did not stop Sartre from adopting a firm stance against the capitalist status quo in the West, and as the 1950s bled into the 1960s, his political views became increasingly radical, particularly when it came to Third World resistance to Western imperialism.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The Exploits of Elaine (1914)

Sartre also had an abiding fondness for the cinema. In his article for this dossier, Dudley Andrew writes of Sartre’s provocative act of defending the culturally disreputable practice of movie-going in a 1931 commencement address at the lycée where he taught.4  Three decades later, in the autobiographical musings of Words, he also dedicated a long passage to the thrill of watching films as a child: lapping up serials such as Fantômas, Maciste and The Exploits of Elaine in the Boulevard cinemas of Paris, he recalls his desire “to see the film as close as possible”, and even claimed that he had the same “mental age” as the cinema: “I was seven and could read; it was twelve and could not speak.”5 Sartre’s cinephilia also permeated his literary output. Nausea’s protagonist, Roquentin, is a habitué of Bouville’s movie-theatres, and explicitly mentions watching Henry Roussel’s 1924 film Violettes impériales (Imperial Violets).6 Nausea was a cipher, in many regards, for the experiences of the young Sartre, and the importance of the cinema in his life is underscored in a later scene where, working out how far he can stretch his modest inheritance, Roquentin calculates his monthly living expenses: “A room for three hundred francs, fifteen francs a day for food: that leaves four hundred and fifty francs for laundry, incidentals and the cinema.”7

Sartre’s fondness for the cinema did not, however, permeate through to his philosophical writings. The exhaustive taxonomy of image forms in The Imaginary failed to grant any specific qualities to the cinematic image (a lacuna that evidently fuelled Bazin’s motivation to address this question). In What is Literature? Sartre sees the main function of the cinema as a means for writers to convey their ideas to large audiences, following the pattern of Jean Delannoy’s Gide-adaptation La Symphonie pastorale (Pastoral Symphony, 1946), or the BBC’s radio version of Sartre’s own Huis clos.8 Later, in a talk on the relative merits of theatre and cinema, which has been preserved in the form of Sartre’s lecture notes, the philosopher distinguishes the cinema on the basis of the perceived proximity of the actor through the projection of close-ups of faces on the screen, which “crush” the spectator and result in the cinema being an art of “participation” where “observation and explanation” are excluded and any equivalent of Brecht’s practice of distancing is voided.9

But Sartre’s most notorious intervention on questions of cinema came in the form of a review of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) for the communist-aligned film review L’Écran français in 1946. The German occupation had prevented Welles’ debut film from receiving French distribution when it was initially made, and it did not gain a theatrical run until well after war’s end. Sartre, however, had already viewed Citizen Kane during a trip to the US in 1945, and was thus in a privileged position to set the terms of the film’s reception upon its French release. His attitude to the film was not a favourable one. In an article for Les Temps modernes, which is nowadays evoked (usually as a straw man) far more often that it is actually read, he critically lacerated the film. Citizen Kane was not, Sartre affirmed, “an example to be followed”. The problems he had with the film are worth unpacking. Although Sartre accepted Citizen Kane on a political level, understanding it as a contribution to the broader anti-fascist struggle, the stylistic techniques utilised by Welles met with Sartre’s ire. The film’s formal wizardry amounted to little more than abstract, intellectual pretension at odds with the qualities he preferred to associate the cinema with: its action, its liveliness, its immediacy. The innovative flashback structure of the film’s narrative may have been welcome in literature, but it was out of place in the cinematic medium, which was by its nature an art of the present tense. Or, as Sartre damningly put it:

Kane might have been interesting for the Americans, [but] it is completely passé for us, because the whole film is based on a misconception of what cinema is all about. The film is in the past tense, whereas we all know that cinema has got to be in the present tense. ‘I am the man who is kissing, I am the girl who is being kissed, I am the Indian who is being pursued, I am the man pursuing the Indian.’ And film in the past tense is the antithesis of cinema. Therefore Citizen Kane is not cinema.10

The objection is a curious one. Despite Sartre’s openness to formal invention in other art forms, he is essentially, as Sam Rohdie has argued, advocating for a maintenance of conventional cinema.11 If Sartre’s great contemporary André Malraux, in the 1939 text “L’Esquisse pour une psychologie du cinéma”, saw the elevation of cinema as an art form in the rise of montage techniques that were able to give filmmakers artistic agency on a par with their counterparts in other art forms, Sartre prizes its capacity for recording actions and conveying them with such intensity that the images on the screen appeared to the viewer as if they were taking place in the present. Visual trickery and narrative artifice could only serve to strip the young art form of this quality. Such a viewpoint was mirrored in the scripts Sartre wrote, for mostly mercenary reasons, for Pathé between 1943 and 1945. Of the eight screenplays he turned out during this time, only two were produced as films, Les jeux sont faits (The Chips are Down, Jean Delannoy) in 1943, and Les Orgueilleux (The Proud and the Beautiful, Yves Allégret) in 1953.12 Although Sartre conceived his scripts in eminently cinematic terms, incorporating camera angles, movements and editing effects into his screenwriting, the films were overwhelmingly classical in their broader construction. As art historians Odette and Alain Virmaux wrote: “one is surprised to discover that there is very little in it that is revolutionary […] one might have hoped, however, that the author of Le Mur would, in his scripts overturn more decisively established film conventions.”13

Jean-Paul Sartre

Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)

Sartre’s negative response to Citizen Kane had a decisive effect on the film’s reception in France. For communist critics, it was a neat fit with their prevailing anti-Americanism, at a time when the French film industry was sundered by battles over the import quotas for films set by the Blum-Byrnes accords – although, ironically, Sartre’s opposition to the film was precisely due to its departure from the norms of conventional Hollywood filmmaking. Another strand of film criticism, however, leapt to the defence of Welles, and Bazin took up their cause. Writing in Les Temps modernes, Sartre’s own journal, the then 28-year-old critic effectively rebutted the philosopher’s takedown. Welles’ use of deep-focus photography, allowing multiple planes of action to take place simultaneously on the screen, was not an ornamental embellishment at odds with the innate promise of the cinema. Rather, Bazin contended that the “spiritual key” of the film was “built into the very design of the image.”14 Indeed, throughout Bazin’s writings on cinema, Welles was, along with Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini, one of the foremost filmmakers championed by the critic.

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Godard arrived in Paris from Switzerland in 1946, at the same time as this critical dispute was in full force. Falling in with the crowd of young post-war cinephiles, who numbered François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer among them, he could not help but lean more towards Bazin’s conception of the cinema, with the primacy it gave to form in determining the merits of a film. Politically, he flitted between apolitical detachment and the dandyish right-wing anarchism of his cinephilic confrères, and was thus poles apart from the political commitment demanded by Sartre. But the philosopher’s prestige nonetheless exerted a strong pull on the young Godard. In his twenties, he haunted the Café de Flore in the Saint-Germain-des-Près, one of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s regular hang-outs. When Godard turned to film criticism in the 1950s, Sartre is one of a vast constellation of writers, philosophers and artists frequently evoked in his playfully allusive prose. The existentialist was not always mentioned in a favourable light. In an early review of Roger Livet’s Histoire d’Agnès (1950), written under the pseudonym Hans Lucas for the short-lived magazine Gazette du cinéma, Godard writes provocatively, and perhaps disingenuously, that the film’s “pure artifice” bears “the taint of third-rate literature (that of Sartre).”15 Later, Godard retrospectively recognised his youthful infatuation with Sartre’s writing: “I wanted to read everything. I wanted to know everything. Existentialism was at its peak at that time. Through Sartre I discovered literature, and he led me to everything else.” In a discussion with Marguérite Duras in the 1980s, he even came to Sartre’s defence against her strident attacks, insisting, “You go too far when you say he’s not a writer, in the way that we can say that Delannoy and Spielberg are not filmmakers…”16

Indeed, much of Godard’s critical writing was imbued with the outlook and vocabulary of the existentialists. In the piece that comes closest to a manifesto in the young Godard’s writing, “Defence and Illustration of Classical Construction”, he declaims that the “nature of dialectic in the cinema” is that “one must live rather than than last. It is pointless to kill one’s feelings in order to live longer.”17 Polemicising, here, against Bazin’s views on the deep-focus, long-take aesthetic, and defending the rapid, action-oriented editing of Hawks and Preminger, Godard even directly invokes Sartrean principles: “One remembers,” he opens his text, “the vehemence with which Jean-Paul Sartre once attacked François Mauriac: the author of Anges Noirs, he said, was incapable of endowing his heroes with the liberty with which our lives are adorned, the sudden desire to alter a given course, and in a monstrous parody made them hesitate only in order to ape the magnificence of God.” A similar vanity, Godard contends, underpins the idea that language itself could be vested with a metaphysical quality, and critics such as Bazin, easily swayed by the influence of contemporary philosophy, err in “elevating certain figures of style into a vision of the world.”18

For the most part, the Sartre summoned in these texts was more the figurehead of pop existentialism than the Husserlian phenomenologist of Being and Nothingness, and when Godard burst onto the filmmaking scene with the release of À bout de souffle (Breathless) in 1960, the film exhibited the influence of the equally conspicuous, but philosophically shallower, Albert Camus. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard, with his louche individualism and fatalistic insouciance, is closer to Meursault than Roquentin.19 And yet Sartre’s debut novel had left an undeniable imprint on the young filmmaker. With his bower-bird approach to literary citation, it is always dangerous to assume that Godard has read a book from cover to cover, even when he quotes from it copiously. But it is certain that he was familiar with Nausea: in a rapturous review of Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika, 1953), he likened Bergman’s film to the “sordid pessimism” of Sartre’s novel.20 No film has captured the café-dwelling intellectual scene of 1950s Paris in quite the same way as Breathless – the Café de Flore is even singled out by name in an early treatment for the film.21 The film is peppered with nods to Faulkner, Picasso, Renoir, Malraux, Klee, Louis Aragon and Dylan Thomas – a virtual inventory of cultural reference points among Left Bank circles at the time – while Jean-Pierre Melville turns in a cameo parodying the kind of bombastic, attention-grabbing, bon mot-ready public intellectual with which France had become all too identified in the global consciousness.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Breathless (Godard, 1960)

But the parallels between Breathless and Nausea are more pointed, and suggest a direct influence of the book on Godard’s film. Above all, they can be seen in the grand centrepiece of Breathless, the long scene in Patricia’s hotel room, where she and Michel talk, flirt and bicker in a dialogue-heavy pas à deux forming a long interregnum to the narrative flow of the film as a whole. If the overarching tone and structure of this scene has any narrative antecedent, then it is the parallel passage in Nausea, where the laconic, ruminative Roquentin visits his old paramour, the histrionic, flamboyant actress Anny, in her Spartan, pokey Parisian hotel room. For 25 pages, the two characters, reuniting after several years apart, parry with each other, vacillating from despondency to excitation, from annoyance at each other to a rekindling of the affection they once had. Their discussion, with introspective pronouncements issued on both sides, is punctuated by movement and action: Anny ruffles Antoine’s hair, moves about the room, and twice disappears into the bathroom. Likewise, Michel and Patricia tumble about in her hotel room, listen to the radio, pin art reproductions on the wall and eventually fall into bed together, all the while proffering their scattered views on life, art and love.

Like Nausea, Breathless was the work of a young artist, desperate to “put everything” into his work, as Godard would phrase it,22 and both the novel and the film achieved widespread critical and popular success, giving instant fame to their makers. With their follow-up works, Sartre and Godard were both keen to move onto more serious, “engaged” work. Roquentin was a largely apolitical character, too absorbed in his personal existential crisis to concern himself with world affairs, and when political events were noted in the novel – bread-lines in depression era New York, street-fighting between Nazis and Communists in the Berlin of the Weimar republic – they were precisely included as a counterpoint to Roquentin’s self-examination, highlighting his implacable isolation from the political unrest happening elsewhere in the world. Michel Poiccard, of course, was even more focused on his individuality to the exclusion of broader social issues, and his character contributed to the widespread idea that the nouvelle vague filmmakers, were politically shallow and traded chiefly on the salacity of their films. Sartre’s collection of short stories, The Wall, more directly confronted the political situation of the 1930s: although mostly given abstract, fictionalised settings, the stories concerned themselves with the climate of ascendant fascism and impending war permeating the late 1930s. The same subject matter pervaded Godard’s sophomore feature, Le Petit Soldat (1960). The filmmaker was blunt about the motivations for this thematic shift: “My way of engaging myself was to say: the nouvelle vague is accused of showing nothing but people in bed; my characters will be active in politics and have no time for bed.”23

It was natural, then, that the conflict in Algeria, and the reverberations it had for politics in Europe, should be a focus for Godard. Indeed, Le Petit Soldat tackles one of the most controversial elements of the conflict in Algeria: the use of torture by the combatting sides. Sartre’s story “The Wall”, about a republican fighter in the Spanish Civil War who is tortured by his captors, thus had clear resonances for Godard, while his later play Les Mains sales (Dirty Hands, 1948), with its depiction of a communist militant caught between his moral code and the exigencies placed upon him by the movement he belongs to, may also have been an influence. But whereas Sartre took a firm stance on the Algerian conflict, siding with the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), and steadfastly opposing both French colonial rule and the right-wing militias seeking to keep it in place (the notorious Organisation armée secrète), Godard offered a far more ambiguous outlook on the issue. While insisting that the film dealt with “the necessity of engagement”, he explicitly accepted that the protagonist of the film, Bruno Forestier (played by Michel Subor, whose acting Godard had scouted during a performance of Sartre’s play Les Séquestrés d’Altona24), had an autobiographical veneer: “Throughout the film, he does not quite know what he wants, except that he refuses to be obliged to want something. Caught between two factions, between two parties, which have a lot in common, he does not choose a group of men, but man himself. I see some of myself in this character.”25 Bruno is, in fact, a Geneva-based operative for the Algérie française movement, hired to assassinate their political opponents. Dithering over whether to fulfill the mission assigned to him, he is caught by FLN forces and subject to prolonged bouts of torture, shown openly by Godard.26 At the same time, Bruno is the Godard character closest to the existential heroes to be found in the mid-century writings of Sartre, Camus and Malraux. An individual caught between two equally unpalatable alternatives, his freedom crushed by the dispiriting political realities of his time, Bruno sullenly declares in the opening of the film “For me, the time of action is over. I have got older. The time for reflection is beginning.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Le Petit Soldat (Godard, 1960)

The film itself met an unfortunate fate. In one of many censorship battles Godard has faced throughout his career, Le Petit Soldat was initially banned by the French censorship board, not for the stance it took on Algeria, but for the mere fact of addressing the conflict so directly. It was not released until 1963, after the Evian accords had guaranteed Algerian independence, at which point the ambiguous position Godard seemed to be offering was assailed by the vast majority of left-wing critics in France. Indeed, Godard would later accept the charge that the film reflected his own political “confusion” at the time, but insisted that this was precisely what the film was interrogating: “Since it is a film on confusion. I had to show it. It appears throughout, and it is experienced by the hero. […]  I spoke of what concerned me, a Parisian in 1960, belonging to no party. And what concerned me was the problem of war and its moral repercussions for a Frenchman in the year 1960 who does not belong to a party.”27 In an echo of the Citizen Kane debate, he also claimed that the film’s form was on the left: “There were two films about the Algerian war, Le Petit Soldat and L’Insoumis by Cavalier: one was said to be on the left and the other on the right – mine, of course. But I would say that, cinematically, my film was on the left and the other one on the right.”28 Indeed, if the scenes of torture being inflicted by FLN sympathisers scandalised the French cultural left, the small cell of anti-colonial militants tasked with interrogating Bruno, who quote from Lenin and Mao while unflappably fulfilling their political duty, uncannily presages the revolutionary groups Godard would associate with, and depict from a much more sympathetic viewpoint, in the years following the May ’68 uprising.

Throughout the 1960s, then, Godard moved increasingly to the left, to the point of openly breaking with both capitalist society and the commercial cinema it underpinned by the time of the May protests. Although the media strategy he practised at the time, combining profundity and provocation in equal measure, seems almost directly drawn from Sartre’s self-promotional toolkit, the growing political proximity did not seem to draw Godard and Sartre personally closer to each other, even though his films often featured cameos from intellectuals in Sartre’s orbit, such as Brice Parain in Vivre sa vie (1962), and Francis Jeanson in La Chinoise (1967). Notoriously, a scene in the latter film shows Jean-Pierre Léaud, as the Parisian Maoist Guillaume, erase the names of canonical artists from a blackboard, until only Bertolt Brecht is left – the first name wiped off the slate is none other than Sartre’s.

Jean-Paul Sartre

La Chinoise (Godard, 1967)

Curiously, however, it was during Godard’s period of Maoist engagement succeeding La Chinoise that he and Sartre’s biographies intersected in the most direct way. Unlike Godard, Sartre never fully identified as a “pro-Chinese” Marxist-Leninist, but his growing distance from the PCF, especially after the crushing of the Prague Spring, led him to increasingly gravitate around the charismatic young militants aligned with French Maoist organisations such as Vive la révolution and La Gauche prolétarienne. Sartre admired them for their revolutionary verve and tactical inventiveness, while the leaders of the Maoist movement viewed him, in a rather utilitarian fashion, as a “democrat” whose clout in the public arena could be profitably made use of – this was the man, after all, about whom Charles de Gaulle reportedly declared, when hearing that he had been detained by the police during a protest: “One doesn’t arrest Voltaire.”29 When, as part of a government crackdown on the far-left, the GP’s newspaper La Cause du peuple was banned in 1970, Sartre accepted the role of honorary director of the newspaper, as a means of putting pressure on the Gaullist state, and both he and Godard (as well as other prominent cultural figures, including François Truffaut) participated in public sales of the newspaper in June of that year, daring the police to apprehend them. In February 1971, Sartre and Godard shared the microphone at a press conference given to denounce the six-month prison sentence given to a school-aged Maoist activist after a protest action at the Basilique du Sacre-Cœur.30 Both figures also played an active role in the founding of the leftist press agency Agence-Presse Libération – Godard, according to Brody, even suggested the name31 – which would later, with Sartre’s encouragement, morph into the daily newspaper Libération.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Godard and Sartre at a press conference in 1971.

The shared activity in support of French Maoist groups did not, however, prevent Godard from issuing strident criticism of Sartre’s self-positioning as a revolutionary intellectual. In remarks published by Arts, Lettres, Spectacles in 1971, he declared: “By becoming a professional, you cease being a revolutionary. Sartre may well have spoken about renouncing writing in order to pass over to direct action. But he took up his pen again – differently, it’s true. He is too myopic to use a bazooka. It would be a mess.”32 Recalling, upon the release of Tout va bien in 1972, his and Sartre’s solidarity with La Cause du peuple, Godard was even more pointed:

You can see it with Sartre, for example. I participated in some actions with him for La Cause du peuple. And then when I tried to talk about it with him, it wasn’t possible. I tried to know the relation that existed between his closing speech at the Russell Tribunal, as well as his speech against the French coal mine owners, which were remarkable texts, and his old – and new – studies on Flaubert and Mallarmé. He’ll reply that there are two people inside him. The one who continues to write on Flaubert because he can’t see what else he could do, and the one who throws himself headlong into the struggle, making speeches atop a barrel to the Renault factory workers. […]

In my opinion, forgetting about the social conditions of his existence, Sartre is not doing the work of an intellectual revolutionary in a revolutionary manner. The proles don’t only need Sartre to come with all his persuasive intelligence and attack the French coal mine owners, they’d also like to know why he writes those things on Flaubert. Why does a bloke spend ten hours a day writing on Flaubert, and three hours a day attacking the coal mine owners, when the worker spends the same time on the factory line? He’s not necessarily against this fact, but he’d like to know why. Sartre has the Flaubert drawer, and the class struggle drawer, but he’s forgotten about the table. At the moment, leftism continues to demand of intellectuals that they form a backup force.33

Ironically, Godard’s long rumination on the contradictions of Sartre’s intellectual activity critiques the philosopher from an eminently Sartrean standpoint: splitting one’s time between the class struggle and a literary project (the 3000-page biography of Flaubert, L’Idiot de la famille) that had little to no application for revolutionary politics would precisely violate the ethical standards of Sartre’s own notion of “authentic” being, which implies an unequivocal dedication to a course of action judged to be just. For the Godard of 1972, there could be no division of his work into separate “drawers” – commitment to the overthrow of capitalism had to be absolute, and entailed a totalising upheaval in all spheres of one’s artistic practice and public activity.

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As we now know, of course, Godard did not maintain such an unbridled devotion to the cause of Marxism-Leninism for much longer after the release of Tout va bien. In the filmmaker’s work since the end of his Maoist period, a commitment to revolutionary politics has been supplanted by another form of engagement: the patient, decades-long project of defending the dignity of the cinematic image from the multiple misuses to which it has been put over the course of the 120-year history of the cinema, and more particularly, salvaging the image from an undue semantic subordination to the text. This undertaking reached its apotheosis with the four-and-a-half-hour video essay Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998). It is thus appropriate that, near the conclusion of this work, Godard should return, more than fifty years after the fact, to the polemic between Sartre and Bazin over Citizen Kane that animated French critical circles in 1946. In a dense sequence 20 minutes into Episode 4B, Godard cuts from a shot from Citizen Kane where Susan Alexander is receiving singing lessons, to an iconic photograph of Sartre smoking a pipe, accompanied by the on-screen text “Citizen Kane n’est pas pour nous un exemple à suivre” (“For us, Citizen Kane is not an example to be followed”) and then “Orson Welles se moque de l’histoire” (“Orson Welles is heedless of history”). The image cuts to a still of Welles in his 1948 adaptation of Macbeth, superimposed over the Sartre photo. On the soundtrack, a recording can be heard of an aging Sartre discoursing on the Vietnam War: “…because they don’t like the communist system which, by the way, has established itself slowly and with great difficulty, given the ravages that the Vietnamese land has suffered…”, while the exasperated singing teacher from Kane laments “Some people can sing, some can’t. Impossible! Impossible!” Given the importance of Welles in the schema of film history Godard offers in Histoire(s), one of the rare figures to resist the travesties suffered by the cinematic image in the 20th century, this sequence can only be read as a long-overdue riposte by the filmmaker to Sartre’s original review.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Histoire(s) du cinéma Episode 4B (Godard, 1988-1998)

To argue that Godard’s primary commitment in his “late” period has been to the image itself is not to contend, however, that he has abandoned all political preoccupations. Contemporary global flashpoints – whether Yugoslavia or Palestine, the Ukraine or Egypt – have surged throughout his most recent films, from Notre musique (2004) to Adieu au langage (2014). In Film socialisme (2010), a jeremiad for Europe, with the continent symbolised by a cruise ship (which would ominously sink off the coast of Italy after filming was completed), a particularly piquant nod to Sartre surfaces. In Nausea, Roquentin regularly, but ineffectually, assails the salauds (bastards), those around him who are self-contented, provincial, vacuous and irredeemably bourgeois. In Film socialisme, Godard provides an updated vision. As a character states in the film: “What doesn’t change is that there will always be bastards. But what does change is that, today, the bastards are sincere.” Asked by a journalist about the line, Godard admits openly to its provenance: “It’s a phrase that came to me when reading some passages from Nausea. At that time, the bastard was not sincere. A torturer knew he wasn’t honest. Today, the bastard is honest.”34


  1. See Adrian Martin, “Contempt”, The Monthly (October 2008),
  2. Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman (London: Methuen, 1967), pp. 210-211.
  3. Sartre, What is Literature?, p. 46.
  4. See Dudley Andrew, “Holidays and the Movies in Sartre’s Imagination”, included in this dossier
  5. Jean-Paul Sartre, Words, trans. Irene Clephane (London: Penguin, 1967), p. 77.
  6. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Robert Baldick (London: Penguin, 1965), p. 201. Roussel remade the film with sound in 1932, but the chronology of Sartre’s novel means that he must be referring to the silent-era original.
  7. Ibid., p. 245.
  8. Sartre, What is Literature?,  p. 180.
  9. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Theatre and Cinema”, in Modern Times: Selected Non-Fiction, trans. Robin Bass (London: Penguin, 2000), pp. 199-204.
  10. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Quand Hollywood veut faire penser… Citizen Kane d’Orson Welles”, L’Écran français no. 5, August 1, 1945. Sartre later re-read the article and admitted that he “hardly recognised his style and expressed some doubt about the authenticity of his signature.” After re-watching the film, he “had a slightly more favourable opinion of it” but rejected the idea that it was a “masterpiece”. See The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre vol. I: A Bibliographical Life (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974), p. 125.
  11. See Sam Rohdie, “Jean-Paul Sartre, Hollywood, Citizen Kane and the Nouvelle Vague”, Screening the Past no. 38 (December 2013),
  12. For more on the film scripts Sartre wrote, see J.D. Connor, “Sartre and Cinema: The Grammar of Commitment”, Modern Language Notes 116:5 (December 2001), pp. 1045-1068.
  13. Cited in Rohdie, “Jean-Paul Sartre, Hollywood, Citizen Kane and the Nouvelle Vague”, op. cit.
  14. See André Bazin, “La technique de Citizen Kane”, Les Temps modernes no. 17 (February 1, 1947). Cited in Dudley Andrew, André Bazin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 126.
  15. Hans Lucas (Jean-Luc Godard), “Œuvres de Calder et Histoire d’Agnès”, Gazette du cinéma no. 4 (October 1950), repr. in Tom Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), p. 20.
  16. Alain Bergala (ed.), Godard par Godard vol. II: 1984-1998 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998), p. 140.
  17. Jean-Luc Godard, “Défense et illustration du découpage classique”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 15 (September 1952), repr. in Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard, op. cit., p. 27.
  18. Ibid., pp. 26, 30.
  19. Indeed, Godard has revealed that the first film script he wrote, while still in his early twenties, was a mooted adaptation of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, whose opening line: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide” was later quoted in Godard’s 2004 film Notre musique.
  20. Jean-Luc Godard, “Monika”, Arts no. 680, July 30, 1958, repr. in Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard, op. cit., p. 84.
  21. See Alain Bergala, Godard au travail (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2006, p. 23.
  22. See Jean-Luc Godard, “Il faut tout mettre dans un film”, L’Avant-scène du cinéma no. 70 (May 1967), repr. in Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard, op. cit., pp. 238-239.
  23. “Entretien avec Jean-Luc Godard”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 138 (December 1962), repr. in Milne, Godard on Godard, op. cit., p. 178.
  24. See Antoine de Baecque, Godard: Biographie (Paris: Grasset, 2010), p. 152.
  25. Cited in Bergala, Godard au travail, op. cit., p. 60.
  26. Bergala relates that, with Godard’s Bazinian concern for realism, Michel Subor really underwent torture procedures in these scenes, even going so far as to be subjected to electric shocks. The voiceover accompanying this footage, meanwhile, liberally cites La Question, Henri Alleg’s account of the torture he suffered when imprisoned by French paramilitaries, published in 1958.
  27. “Entretien avec Jean-Luc Godard,” op. cit., p. 178.
  28. Jean-Luc Godard, “Le cinéma est toujours une opération de deuil et de réconquête de la vie”, Les Inrockuptibles, November 27, 1996, repr. in Bergala (ed.), Godard par Godard vol. II, op. cit., p. 384.
  29. For more on Sartre’s involvement with the Maoist left, see Christophe Bourseiller, Les Maoïstes: La folle histoire des gardes rouges français (Paris: Plon, 1996), pp. 225-233.
  30. For photographs and a description of this event, see Bergala (ed.), Godard par Godard vol. I, op. cit., pp. 56-57.
  31. Brody, Everything is Cinema, op. cit., p. 358.
  32. G. Abreu, “Godard s’explique”, Arts, Lettres, Spectacles, March 13, 1971.
  33. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, “Pourquoi tout va bien?”, Politique Hebdo no. 26, April 27, 1972, repr. in Bergala (ed.), Godard par Godard vol. I, op. cit., p. 374.
  34. Jean-Luc Godard, “Le droit d’auteur? Un auteur n’a que des devoirs”, Les Inrockuptibles, May 18, 2010,