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Giant of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard chose to end life through assisted dying

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Jean Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard the maverick French-Swiss director who revolutionised post-war cinema in Europe, died by assisted dying, his lawyer has confirmed.

The medical report on the death of the 91-year-old director said he had chosen to end his life. He “had recourse to legal assistance in Switzerland for a voluntary departure” because he was “stricken with ‘multiple incapacitating illnesses’”, Godard’s legal council, Patrick Jeanneret, told AFP.

French New Wave Jean-Luc Godard
Anne-Marie Miéville Jean Luc Godard

The influential director was said by his family to have died “peacefully at home” with his wife, the Swiss film-maker, Annie-Marie Miéville.

Godard, who was born in Paris in 1930 to a Franco-Swiss family, had lived as a virtual recluse in the Swiss village of Rolle for decades.

The French paper Libération quoted an unnamed source close to the family who said: “He was not sick, he was simply exhausted. So he had made the decision to end it. It was his decision and it was important for him that it be known.”

The practice of assisted dying – helping someone take their own life at their request – is regulated in Switzerland and permitted if offered without a selfish motive to a person with decision-making capacity to end their own suffering.

Libération quoted Godard’s 2014, appearance on Swiss TV at that year’s Cannes festival, when had been asked his views on dying. He said he didn’t foresee wanting to continue living at any cost. “If I’m too ill, I don’t have any desire to be lugged around in a wheelbarrow … not at all,” he said. Asked whether he could imagine resorting to assisted dying, he said: “yes”, but added “for now”, saying that the choice was “still very difficult.”

In France the law allows doctors to keep terminally ill patients sedated until death but stops short of allowing assisted dying.

In a separate development before Godard’s death was announced, the French president Emmanuel Macron confirmed this week that a national debate would be held to potentially broaden end-of-life options in France, with a citizens’ assembly to consider issues around euthanasia and assisted dying.

During Macron’s campaign for reelection earlier this spring, he had promised to open the issue up to debate, suggesting he was personally in favour of legalising doctor-assisted dying. Macron told journalists this week that change was necessary but that it was not “an easy or simple subject”.

Godard started as a film critic before stepping behind the camera with the stylish and edgy Breathless. Its stars Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo were glamorous in a new, casual way, while the camera was constantly moving, the editing was swift and bold, and the script semi-improvised.

The director once said: “It was a film that took everything that cinema had done – girls, gangsters, cars – exploded all this and put an end, once and for all, to the old style.”

Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard with Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo on the set of Pierrot Le Fou in 1965

That was followed by Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) – although the film was banned until 1963 because of its depiction of government-sanctioned torture.

Its cast included Danish model Anna Karina, who married Godard in 1961 and went on to appear in a string of his most successful films.

She played a nightclub dancer who wants a baby in 1961’s Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman Is A Woman); a young Parisian prostitute in 1962’s Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live); and a gang member in Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders) in 1965.

Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart, in reference to the latter film’s original title, and once said Godard was “so influential” to him as a director.

“Godard is one who taught me the fun and the freedom and the joy of breaking rules… I consider Godard to be to cinema what Bob Dylan was to music,” he said.

Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard directing Brigitte Bardot in 1963’s Contempt

Godard’s rich seam of influential films in the 1960s also included Alphaville and Le Mépris (Contempt).

Contempt, from 1963, starring Brigitte Bardot, was named by Scorsese as one of his 10 favourite movies. It is “one of the most moving films of its era” and Godard was “the great modern visual artists of cinema”, the Taxi Driver director wrote in 2014.

Godard’s storylines also mixed up time and space, changing the idea of a fixed narrative. He once said: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end – but not necessarily in that order.”

He had more than 100 films to his name in total, also including Une Femme Mariée (1964), Pierrot le fou (1965), Masculin Féminin (1966) and Week-end (1967).

‘A new kind of cinema’

Actress Macha Méril, who starred in Une Femme Mariée, said: “He is a genius. What is a genius? It’s someone who does something that has never been done before and forces everyone else to change their way of thinking and doing.

“It’s like Picasso… Geniuses are people who change the way people think.”

He received an honorary Oscar in 2011, with the dedication reading: “For passion. For confrontation. For a new kind of cinema.”

Godard’s most recent work was released in 2018, although some thought he moved from being provocative to being wilfully obscure as his career went on.

In a statement on Tuesday, his family said the director had died “peacefully at home”. They added: “No official [funeral] ceremony will take place. He will be cremated.”

Former French culture minister Jack Lang told the Reuters news agency: “He filled cinema with poetry and philosophy. His sharp and unique eye made us see the imperceptible.”

Others paying tribute included actor Antonio Banderas, who wrote: “Thank you monsieur Godard for expanding the boundaries of the cinema.”

Baby Driver director Edgar Wright wrote: “RIP Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most influential, iconoclastic film-makers of them all.

“It was ironic that he himself revered the Hollywood studio film-making system, as perhaps no other director inspired as many people to just pick up a camera and start shooting.”

Film critics also discussed his style and influence.

Enri Mato is an urban architect and photographer born in 1986 into a family of artists. His father was a sculptor and his mother was a restorer, who worked at the Louvre Museum in Paris. He grew up in Tirana, where he discovered his interest in photography and art at an early age.

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