Description of a Self-Portrait

Shortly after Jean-Luc Godard’s death at the end of 2022, the Parisian Ménagerie de verre, a private art space primarily dedicated to dance, showed excerpts from the late work of the grand master, in a ‘visual and sonorous journey around five films made by Godard between 1999 and 2018’. Planned by his producer Jean-Paul Battaggia and cinematographer Fabrice Aragano, the exhibition organisers had already been involved in the realisation of the last films of the Paris-born Swiss. Four years before his death, and four years after the first 3D-experiment which became his forty-seventh long film, Adieu au langage (2018), Godard presented a filmic essay with the significant title Le livre d’image (The Image Book, 2018), made in collaboration with Aragno and Battagia, as well as the film scholar and curator Nicole Brenez. The film is an intensified variation of his poetic collages, full of contrasts, with which Godard was once again able to use contemporary means to position cinema as an art between literature and painting.

Before its adaptation for television and release in a Blu-ray edition, Le Livre d’image was celebrated outside of cinema as a performative event. The film was exhibited at the end of a spacious venue flanked by numerous audio-visual essays. The exhibition, lined with monitors, flatscreens and projections, did not lead through an art space but rather through the backdrops, loggias and rehearsal stages of the Théâtre des Amandiers in Paris. In the almost testament-like Bilderbuch, it says: ‘Aucune activité ne deviendra un art avant que son époque ne soit terminée’ [‘No activity shall become an art before its time is over’]. 1 With this historical-philosophical sentence Godard seemed to invoke at once the end of the cinema and his own passing. The most outstanding of the founders of the Nouvelle Vague had been articulating the entwinement of film history with his own biography for a long time, and had done so again and again. In a conversation with Alexander Kluge, he associates his birth in 1930 with the beginning of sound film. 2 As for the Nouvelle Vague, he continued to situate it in the middle of the century of film art, for example in his ‘documentary film’ Deux fois cinquante ans de cinéma français (1995).

It is near impossible to outline briefly the multifacted oeuvre of this provocative critic, film-maker, writer and master of editing and montage. Godard has long gone down in film history as one of the most influential authors of short and long films in the most varied genres and formats. 3 These span from narrative films to documentary television series, from collectively produced Maoist ‘flyer films’ to commissioned films and video clips, from essay films to installations. Godard was sometimes active as a producer, too, in line with his artistic self-image, and, finally, was able to assert himself through a formal gesture of institutional critique which found its way from the Centre Pompidou via the humanitarian organisation Emmaüs and Sotheby’s to the New York art market: the mock-ups of his archeologically conceived Collage(s) de France, which were originally meant to be curated by Dominique Païni, were offered for sale in 2018 in a New York gallery. 4 From this promising project in the end all that remained was a sketch in the form of objects that were displayed in a controversial and much-discussed exhibition with the title Voyage(s) en Utopie / A la Recherche d’un théorème perdu (2006), conceived by the film-maker.

Through the break with classic forms of narration and codes as well as through his re-evaluation of the contemporary, the immediate and the direct, Godard’s feature films created new forms of expression. With his companions from the Nouvelle Vague he wanted to demonstrate that one can override conventions such as screenplays and stories while being able to say everything. He achieved this by means of a conscious blending of forms, which, as Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier noted already in the early 1970s, comes close to the essay: someone speaks, interspersed with the words of another, in a work which is self-referential because it indicates the mechanisms of its production. 5

Given the variety of his artistic gestures the following can offer only a brief review of a few of the feature-length films that have contributed to Godard’s global fame and that still stand for the richness of his innovations. The feature films range from A bout de souffle (1959), in which he radically broke with the classic rules of continuity and which also established Jean-Paul Belmondo’s career, to the star-studded love drama Le Mépris (1963), which, thanks to the involvement of Fritz Lang, secured Godard a symbolic place for himself as the ‘Ciné-fils’: that is, as one who emerged as the legitimate heir of those Hollywood filmmakers whom a few years before he had praised as ‘auteurs’ in the pages of Cahiers du cinema. Godard’s films in this vein extend to the romantic-revolutionary Pierrot le fou (1965), shot in Cinemascope, which earned him Louis Aragon’s significant acclaim in Lettres Françaises – and which Chantal Akerman would repeatedly say inspired her to make films herself – and to the socially visionary image of the ordinary couple in Week-end (1967). After a political-collectivist and an educational-televisual phase in the 1960s and 1970s, marked by his work within the Dziga Vertov Group and his collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, Godard made a brilliant cinematic comeback with the aesthetically groundbreaking dissolving of filmic movement in Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980). The figurative re-enactments in his radical tableau film Passion (1982) mark him out as a master of artistic synthesis, as do the almost polyphonically composed films Prénom Carmen (1983) and Je vous salue Marie (1985). Among his late oeuvre, which identified him finally as a contemporary artist, there is the aesthetically and socio-economically lucid Nouvelle Vague (1990), and in Notre Musique (2004), a modern history painter simultaneously focused on the abysses of his present and withdrawn in his own garden, while Film Socialisme (2010) possessed a melancholic dimension that later acquired a documentary tone.

Godard’s essayistic self-reflections, on which my further remarks will concentrate, inherit a literary genre which goes back to Montaigne and runs through to Malraux. Incidentally, references to Montaigne can already be found in the motto of Vivre sa vie (1962), 6 and to Malraux, very explicitly, in Godard’s video series Histoir(e)s du Cinéma (1988–1998). While Godard’s much-discussed essayism is inherent in his work, a few examples of his essay films can be seen, in certain ways, to explicate his aesthetic thinking.

Raymond Bellour described the Godardian self-portrait as a form of expression that is specific to film and video, one in which are shown the mechanisms of a writing that chooses the first person singular but does not aspire to a reconstruction of the facts of a life. 7 This form does not follow any narrative but is structured according to thematic categories. It is situated on the side of the analogous, the metaphoric, rather than the narrational, and relies significantly on the montage of elements corresponding to each other. This fragmentary poetics, relying on the expressive power of the images, has often been associated with early Romanticism. 8 In this sense Bellour identifies a form of Godard’s generalised self-portraits, that appears from the mid-1970s in films, videos and documentary series through the presence of the film-maker’s body, whether through his voice – which in Ici et ailleurs (1974) encounters Anne-Marie Miéville’s critical response – through the staged handling with audiovisual machines (Numéro Deux, 1975), or, after his collective phase, through his appearance again and again as a supporting character in a fiction. It is no surprise that Jacques Bontemps, for example, has recently read Prénom Carmen very precisely as a ‘disguised self-portrait’ [autoportrait travesti], which is close to the pictorial or literary characters of the joker, jester or clown, as Jean Starobinski derives these from Romanticism – that is, emphatically distorted images that the artist sketches of himself and of the state of art. The instruction ‘with the body!’, which the concert master of the string quartet gives to a young violinist during a rehearsal of Beethoven in Prénom Carmen, may stand here for Godard’s romantic credo, which corresponds to the playing of the artist of hyperbole ‘Monsieur Godard’. 9

Even though Godard’s video essays were often commissioned works, they are of central importance in his oeuvre. Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues and Jean-Louis Leutrat observe in his mostly short essay films the ‘laboratory of visual and tonal forms’ for his cinema films. 10 One outstanding example of an essayistic short film is the collage of Edgar A. Poe and James M. Cain produced for France Télécom, Puissance de la parole (1988), a visually vibrant ode to art in which the expressive power of the film medium is simultaneously radicalised and digitally transcended.

Against this background, some of his projects that have remained on paper alone are also revealing. For example, the never-realised film project Moi Je (1973) from the early period that Godard and Miéville dedicated to innovative audiovisual experiments (especially on television) is a hybrid product associated with the elements of text, image, hand and machine. 11 In this encyclopaedic project Godard is concerned to immerse the viewer in a dialectic between the ‘social unconscious’ (first chapter: ‘I am a political person’) and the ‘machine socialisation’ of a social desire (second chapter: ‘I am a machine’). The project of this cybernetically conceived film refers to the reflection of the technical and social dispositifs, in which film and television are integrated. This machine model is to be understood not so much in terms of a psychoanalytical conception of the unconscious than according to the idea of a ‘desiring machine’, as theorised by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The term aims at the ‘capacity for endless connections that extend in all directions’. 12

As Jacques Aumont put it, Godard can be considered one of the most important contemporary ‘theoreticians’ of film art:

If Godard is so essential (and, indirectly, if he is the celebrity that he is), it is precisely because he is the only one to have succeeded in splitting himself between all these positions: an old-fashioned love for movies, adaptation to the media, aggiornamento of the representational credo and its marriage with the desire for the imaginary, and finally an up-to-date theoretical position on the very nature of what art is – not only the art of cinema, but simply art, all of art. 13

Already in Ici et ailleurs, but especially from the end of the 1980s, Godard consistently formulates questions that are symptomatic of the modern cinema by means of video and cinematography, and which are condensed in his eight-part magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998). 14 Some of the films made while Godard was working on Histoire(s) bear the traces of this work in their individual montage elements: for example, Allemagne Année 90 neuf zéro (1991) and Les enfants jouent à la Russie (1993), produced for Swiss television, or the radical self-portrait shot on 35 mm, JLG / JLG − Autoportrait de décembre (1994). A series of shorter videos or films such as The Old Place (1998) and the recent Le livre d‘image continue the project of Histoire(s), which Godard condensed once more into 35 mm in Moments choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma. But the Histoire(s) also have a prehistory in an experimental compilation of scenes from Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), which the film-maker interspersed with other works, such as Eisenstein’s Old and New. Michael Witt has convincingly demonstrated that the reassembly Sauve la vie (qui peut) (1981) serves as a laboratory for Histoire(s). 15

If Godard writes his polyphonic Histoire(s) using video, it is also because this medium allows for a radicalisation of the relationship between writing and image. Here he literally demonstrates that this (hi)story consists not only of image-fragments but that it is also written: he sits in front of a typewriter, talks to a friend, consults books from his library in order to form the staccato character of his (hi)stories as a system of overlappings, an endless layering, not only of the video archive at his disposal, but also of language, writing, sound and image. 16

Through the disjunction of sound and image, there is at the very beginning of Histoire(s) a crack in the mirror of the screen, which marks the break between the modern film and classic narration. In one of his early short films Godard shows that the sound film was born from the spirit of ventriloquism: in Charlotte et son Jules (1959) he dubs the main male character (Jean-Paul Belmondo) with his own voice, hence contaminating the body image of another through the materiality of his own voice and thus announcing his visual authorship. Later, Godard appears himself in his films, whether in small roles such as in Je vous salue Marie (1984), or in the filmic ‘letter’ Lettre à Freddy Buache (1981), where he appears in the reflective pose of a writing film-maker.

The choice of the title of one of his films from the beginning of the 1990s – JLG/JLG – Autoportrait de décembre – suggests a conscious form of reflexivity that also refers to the literary tradition: self-portrait, not autobiography, as Godard remarks in the film. This is because in contrast to the autobiographer, the self-portraying person does not know what this self actually is – he is a searcher. Godard’s sketch of Histoire(s) du Cinéma as a memorial topology of fragments brings to the fore a comprehensive aspiration to overcome the self in favour of a universal theatre of memory that produces unique constellations. His heterogenous collages and montages create a modern form of remembrance, namely, as Karl-Heinz Bohrer describes it, a contemplative act of ‘absolute, partly unconscious, in any case not self-directed visualisation of states, mental images, objects of perception’. 17 This contemporary judgement in turn corresponds to a historic consciousness that Jacques Rancière, drawing on German Romanticism, defines as the ‘aesthetic regime of art’, as a co-presence of forms and experience. Among other things, Rancière described how Godard’s Histoire(s), similarly to Rembrandt’s paintings, presents film as an encyclopaedia of gestures and as a place of a ‘new history’, beyond genre, big themes or historic actions. 18

The film-writer works alone; the tools of image and sound are sufficient for him to incorporate found materials. But even in the films and parts of films that Godard shot himself, which required a minimum of collective work, he produces, as Deleuze puts it, an extremely populated solitude. 19 When Godard dispenses with a screenplay in his feature films, it is because the already existing world of the actors and the set is a mere starting point for his improvisation and spontaneous shooting. The cinema is for Godard the ideal means for the struggle against loss and loneliness. Perhaps even more explicitly than in other films this thesis is at the heart of Allemagne année 90 neuf zero, announced in its subtitle, ‘Solitudes, un Etat et des Variations’, where the double meaning of ‘Etat’ indicates both an abstract concept (loneliness as a state) as well as a certain state (the loneliness of Germany).

In his 1995 speech on the occasion of his Adorno Prize award, Godard places cinema besides philosophy, politics and literature. 20 The film, as he says there, is situated in a solitary position, which can be reached by means of the power of its ‘eloquent and deep’ images. These can do without language because they possess a special expressiveness and historicity. Historicity is to be understood here, first and foremost, in an aesthetic sense. ‘I knew Spengler and Husserl, but not Murnau’, says Godard about his educational heritage, ‘and no one told me that they all lived in the same country as Bismarck and Novalis’. 21 In Allemagne année 90 neuf zero the character of the cultured Graf Zelten (Hanns Zischler) embodies Godard’s fondness for German Romanticism. This is communicated even more emphatically by means of a semantic idealism, which the film constructs as a world of signs of the ruined and reunited Germany. Faced with the fall of the Berlin wall, Godard chooses a story of the longue durée (in Fernand Braudel’s sense) over a history of events. This means he chooses (hi)stories of the cinema which he – unlike elsewhere 22 – delimits from (hi)stories of television.

When Godard titles the fourth part (2B) of Histoire(s), Beauté Fatale, after the French title of Siodmak’s The Great Sinner, it is in order to refer to the fatal fact of the cinema that male desire has essentially created the (film) images of women. It is no coincidence that we find here references to Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, M and Rossellini’s Rome, Open City as well as Bergman’s Persona. As with the nineteenth-century novel, the gender difference is the key to the analytical understanding of the narrative cinema: it forms the visual dispositif of seeing and being seen.

To write (hi)stories of the cinema for Godard means there is no substitute for the movies, for going to the cinema. Orpheus and Eurydice: that is the fateful gaze of literature on the film, of an Orpheus who must be able to ‘turn around, without making Eurydice die’. 23 Godard realises this looking back as the nostalgic memory ritual of a special cinephile. Leutrat and Liandrat-Guigues describe the Histoire(s) pointedly as a ‘poetic gravestone’ that Godard has erected for himself. 24 It is not film history that is shown there but the film in its aesthetic power.

Godard has inscribed his own films and the history of Nouvelle Vague into his Histoire(s). In part 1B we can find a kind of confession of the faith to the cinema as the high art of projection, which is based on the Bazinian idea of the filmic recording as an imprint of the real: ‘the image will come on the day of resurrection’. When in part 2A of Histoire(s) Godard allows for the appearance of one interlocutor, the critic Serge Daney, he lets him speak but only to make his words become an image. In the reproduction of digital postproduction, a multimedia space emerges, which, although it starts with writing, always leads to visual presentation. With the condensation of film history (including one’s own) within a great palimpsest Godard ultimately adopts a Nietzschian position: Godard’s Histoire(s) inherits the figure of the resurrection and of the overcoming of mortality in a self-image à la Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. 25

In the solo exhibition Voyages en Utopie / A la recherche d’un théorème perdu in 2006 at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Godard for the first time worked with an art space in the form of a large-scale environment. There a model train emblematised the invention of film as well as the history of the destruction of the European Jews (Lanzmann’s Shoah) – a constellation of cinema and history, which is also a central theme of Histoire(s). This series of suggestive connections is one among countless that is pursued in the exhibition between films and objects. If Godard’s aesthetics is presented here mostly negatively (e.g., through nailed books), its positive energy is in the circulation and networking of knowledge fields, very much in accord with Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring machine: ‘In desiring-machines everything functions at the same time, but amid hiatuses and ruptures, breakdowns and failures, stalling and short circuits, distances and fragmentations, within a sum that never succeeds in bringing its various parts together so as to form a whole. That is because the breaks in the process are productive, and are reassemblies in and of themselves’. 26 From this perspective, the exhibition Voyages en Utopie realises Godard’s project Moi Je from 1973, namely, ‘I am a machine’.

The ruins of the original exhibition present themselves here as a cabinet of curiosities. It bears the signature of the collector who is not interested in an individual portrait but in a constellation. In one of the boxes which served as a mock-up for the Collage de France and which is titled L’alliance (inconscient totem et tabu), a portrait of Freud appears next to children’s drawings and excerpts of text. Here Godard sets out to follow the traces of the story of his companion Miéville, in order to represent their shared concern for ‘the struggle of the image with the angel of text’. These biographemes (in Barthes’ sense) about the life of another underlines the renunciation of autobiographical reconstruction. ‘Self-portrait, not autobiography’, as it says in JLG/JLG. 27 A photo of Godard as a child appears there, not as a clear enlarged image but as a blurred portrait that was copied multiple times and visibly reproduced. In a paradoxical double movement, the film-writer and artist creates images of himself which elude a fixed identity. His films, videos, texts and installations thus appear to be an ideal form of écriture, as conceived by Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier: as a theoretical hypothesis, as a picturial writing and montage in the sense of a multi-layered conflict, in which the visual as well as acoustic signs are continuously scattered, so that meanings only ever fluctuate, and are never fixed. ‘No activity shall become an art before its time is over’: with this Godard also names the paradox of the obsolescence of a medium which had nevertheless served him well in understanding the world.


  1. This sentence is to be found handwritten in English in Godard’s book for the film, printed in a limited edition of 1500 copies: Jean-Luc Godard, Le livre d’image/image book (Lausanne: Casa Azul Films/Écran Noir Production, no date), unpaginated. ^

  2. Alexander Kluge, Blinde Liebe (Eloge de l’Amour), 10 vor 11 (2002). ^

  3. It is impossible to provide here a comprehensive set of references to the still growing literature on Godard, which ranges from biographical studies (Colin MacCabe, Richard Brody and Antoine de Baecque) to detailed exegeses of his oeuvre (Jacques Aumont, Michael Witt) and contextual analyses (David Faroult). ^

  4. See the comments of Dominique Païni in ‘Retour sur Jean-Luc Godard’ (2010), Service audiovisuel du Centre G. Pompidou,; as well as Leo Goldsmith, ‘Memories of Utopia: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Collages de France” Models’, e-flux, 8 March 2018,  ^

  5. See Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, De la littérature au cinéma: genèse d’une écriture (Paris: Armand Colin, 1970), 194. ^

  6. ‘Il faut se prêter aux autres et se donner à soi-même’ [one has to lend oneself to others and give oneself to the self] is a slightly modified quote from Montaigne’s Essais, (III/ Kapitel X), as Jean-Louis Leutrat and Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues elaborate in their Godard, Simple comme Bonjour (Paris: L’ Harmattan, 2004), 60. ^

  7. Following Michel Beaujour’s analysis of the literary genre as a delimitation from autobiography and in reference to fine art, Bellour’s definition of the genre has been very influential in the field of cinema. See Michel Beaujour, Miroirs d’encre (Paris: Seuil, 1980), and Raymond Bellour, ‘Autoportraits’ [1988] in Entre-Images. Photo, Cinéma, Vidéo (Paris: La Difference, 1990), 271–337 [translated as Between-the-Images. Photography, Cinema, Video (JRP/Ringier, 2012)], and, specifically in relation to Godard, Raymond Bellour ‘(Not) Just an other Filmmaker’, in Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy, eds., Jean-Luc Godard. Son+Image (NewYork: MOMA, 1992), 215–231. ^

  8. See amongst others, Bellour, ‘(Not) Just an other Filmmaker’ and Nicole Brenez, ‘Le film abymé. Jean-Luc Godard et les philosophies byzantines de l’image’, in Marc Cerisuelo, ed., Jean-Luc Godard (2). Au-delà de l’image, dans Études cinématographiques, n° 194-202 (Paris: Lettres modernes, 1993), 135–163; and, later, Daniel Morgan, Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (Oakland: University of California Press, 2012). ^

  9. See Jacques Bontemps, ‘Trois femmes autour de “Monsieur Godard”. A propos de Prénom Carmen’, in Trafic. Almanach de Cinéma 2023 (Paris: P.O.L., 2022), 360 and 362; and Jean Starobinski, Portrait de l’artiste en saltimbanque [1970] (Paris: Gallimard, 2004). ^

  10. Liandrat-Guigues und Leutrat, Godard, Simple comme Bonjour, 140. ^

  11. See Michael Temple, ‘Inventer un film. Présentation de Moi Je’ and Jean-Luc Godard, ‘Moi Je’ (1973) in Nicole Brenez, David Faroult, Michael Temple and Michael Witt, eds., Jean-Luc Godard. Documents (Paris: Katalog, 2006), 191 and 195–243. ^

  12. Godard refers in his sketch to the Deleuzian concepts of difference and repetition, but also to the ‘machine socialo-désirante’, the desiring machine. See Godard, ‘Moi Je’ and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, ‘Bilan-programme pour machines désirantes’, in Minuit 2 (January 1973), 7. ^

  13. See Jacques Aumont, ‘The medium’, in Bellour and Bandy, eds., Jean-Luc Godard. Son+Image, 213. The idea of categorising Godard’s films as ‘acts of thinking’ or ‘theory’ was picked up both by Liandrat-Guiges and Leutrat, in Godard, Simple comme Bonjour, 221, and by Volker Pantenburg, in Farocki/Godard. Film as Theory [2006], (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015). Faroult’s contextual analysis of the ‘political’ Godard considers the interpretation of his artistic practice as ‘theory’ to be misleading: see David Faroult, Godard: inventions d’un cinéma politique (Paris: Les prairies ordinaires/ Editions Amsterdam, 2018), 16. ^

  14. Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1989) consists of eight parts: 1A: Toutes les Histoire(s), 1B: Une Histoire seule, 2A: Seul le cinéma, 2B: Fatale beauté, 3A: La Monnaie de l’absolu, 3B: Une Vague nouvelle, 4A: Le Contrôle de l’univers, 4B: Les Signes parmi nous. ^

  15. See Michael Witt, ‘In search of Godard’s “Sauve la vie (qui peut)”’, in NECSUS (June 10, 2015), ^

  16. Witt has presented probably the most comprehensive archaeological study of Histoire(s) de cinéma in Michael Witt, Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013). ^

  17. Karl-Heinz Bohrer, Das absolute Präsens: Die Semantik ästhetischer Zeit (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1994), 176. ^

  18. Jacques Rancière, La fable cinématographique (Paris: Seuil, 2001), 222f. ^

  19. Gilles Deleuze, Pourparlers (Paris: Minuit, 1990), 55. ^

  20. Jean-Luc Godard, ‘A propos de cinéma et d’histoire’, in Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, Les écrits sur le cinéma, tome 2 (1984–1998), ed. Alain Bergala (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998), 401. ^

  21. Godard, ‘A propos de cinéma et d’histoire’. ^

  22. Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2014). The book goes back to a series of talks that Godard gave in 1978 in Montréal and which was published in 1980 in French. ^

  23. ‘Godard makes (hi)stories’, Interview with Serge Daney [1988], in Bellour and Bandy, eds., Jean Luc Godard. Son+Image, 158. ^

  24. Liandrat-Guigues and Leutrat, Godard, Simple comme Bonjour, 21. ^

  25. For Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo as the book of books, see Beaujour, Miroirs d’encre, 320. ^

  26. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 42. ^

  27. Jean-Luc Godard, JLG/JLG et autres textes, phrases (Paris: P.O.L., 2022), 63. ^