If you were born before 1945, were brought up in a city, had a good education and were a moviegoer, there is a good chance that a certain Swiss cineaste shook you up. You probably started seeing films in the 1950s when the movie theatres were swamped with stories and ideas from the America of Eisenhower. You may have noticed that some of these apparently conformist films were inclined to hysteria, aesthetic excess and rage, and that they were directed by Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli and Sam Fuller.
The Swiss man saw these films too. He wrote about them in highbrow magazines in Paris, his adopted home. He wrote about them as Baudelaire did of the Boulevards, in the idiom of Huysmans or Walter Pater.
And then this Swiss man took up a camera and, either because of an extraordinary intellectual confidence developed in his cinephile magazine world, or because he was instinctively disruptive, or because it was crystal clear to him that a certain tendency in film language had died, he synthesised the little shocks that avant-garde cinema had been delivering into a film called A bout de souffle (1960). It made waves. It was his only box office success.
He went on to direct more than 60 films including Le m?pris (1963) with Brigitte Bardot and Fritz Lang; Bande a part, (1964) after which Quentin Tarantino named his production company; the overrated sci-fi film Alphaville (1965); Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d’elle (1966), which Scorsese pays tribute to in Taxi Driver; La Chinoise (1967) with nouvelle vague icons Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre L?aud; Je vous salue Marie (1983), which had Catholics in uproar; a mad King Lear (1987) featuring Norman Mailer, and with Woody Allen as the fool; and finally Eloge de l’amour which played at Cannes this year and takes pot shots at the director’s bête noire, Steven Spielberg.
Forty-one years after the release of A bout de souffle, a season of his films are showing at the anachronistically entitled National Film Theatre. It is a whopper: 205 film and tape screenings in London, a selection repeated in other arts cinemas, and a four-day symposium at the Tate Modern, with 50 academic speakers. The only notable absences will be the man himself and Eloge de l’amour.
I was born in 1965, not 1945, at the end of the baby boom and on the cusp…