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How Godard made Marxism sexy

Jean-Luc Godard’s Oh Woe is Me (1993)

Jean-Luc Godard, the revolutionary French New Wave film director who died aged 91 this week, was not always the easiest man to work with. Shortly before filming began on his first feature, Breathless, he scrapped the entire screenplay, forcing him to write scenes on the hoof while the camera was rolling. Union rules stipulated he employ a make-up artist, but he forbade her from applying any; the script supervisor was physically locked out of the shoot so she couldn’t keep track of continuity. Godard’s volcanic temper eventually landed him with a court case after he slapped a 69-year-old employee of one of his producers.

But his genius, says Blair McClendon in the literary magazine n­+1, was in his understanding that “in art, as in life, beauty persuades”. Throughout his political evolution from right-winger to ardent Marxist, he remembered that “if the light is right on two hands meeting or a man brushing his pouting lips with his thumb”, you have gone a long way to convincing your audience of anything that follows. Take La Chinoise, a movie that’s still funny and sexy despite its 96 minutes mostly consisting of Maoists reading political treatises. The enthralling love story entwines with and makes appealing the radical political message: when I watched it as a young man, I became convinced “that communism, that cinema, were romances”. As far as recruiting tactics go, “one could do a lot worse than a parade of beautiful young people enthralled with revolution and each other”.