When Jean-Luc Godard received a copy of Colin McCabe’s Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy in 2003, he ripped entire pages out of it. After consulting Richard Brody’s Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, published in 2008, the director sent the book back to its author with a cross drawn on the cover, adapting a phrase from Victor Hugo: ‘As long as there will be scrawlers to scrawl there will be murderers to kill’. Even without these precedents, the task of any Godard biographer is intimidating enough: his vast and varied oeuvre of more than 140 films spans over half a century, and has involved a number of unexpected turns. Godard has several times abandoned one way of working to start from scratch in another, switching narrative forms and picking up new technologies in order to experiment with weaving together image, sound and text on the screen, in an attempt to get the measure of the world in which we live. His career has also developed paradoxically: while critics wanting to canonize him have multiplied, the audience for his films has progressively decreased; responses to every new film veer between admiration and frustration, enthusiasm and incomprehension.

Until now, the fullest and most useful account of Godard’s work was McCabe’s; French critics tended to produce luxurious coffee-table books, light-hearted sketches or specialist studies. Meanwhile, Godard himself has been actively constructing his own public image through the collected volumes of his writing, Godard par Godard, and more allusively in his series for television Histoire(s) du cinema (1998). French cultural historian Antoine de Baecque is now the heavyweight in this field, with a tome unashamedly billed as ‘The biography’, its publication timed to coincide with Godard’s eightieth birthday and the release of his latest feature, Film Socialism. Author of more than twenty books, de Baecque is former culture editor at Libération and was once an editor at Cahiers du cinéma, the journal Godard himself had a hand in getting off the ground sixty years ago. In welcome contrast to much French writing on Godard, often either excessively reverential or wilfully obscure, Godard, biographie promises to do something simple and unambitious: ‘to recreate the taste of Godard’s coffee’; in other words, to give us the who, what, when and where, rather than attempting to unearth ‘the inner life’. Over some 900 pages, printed on bible-thin paper and interspersed with well-chosen photographs, he offers a huge compendium of facts about every film Godard ever made, as well as every one he thought of making or started before something or someone—often Godard himself—made it impossible to carry on.

The picture de Baecque presents of Godard as a person is not flattering: difficult to work with, often cruel, while at the same time fragile and sensitive to everything that is said, or not said, about him and his work. (Unlike his predecessors, though, de Baecque has so far got off lightly from the man himself: Godard’s only complaints seem to have been that some of the numbers in the book are wrong, and that he comes out looking like a ladies’ man—if only that were true, the director told an interviewer in May 2010, between puffs on his cigar.) But character portrait not being de Baecque’s real interest, the emphasis is on Godard’s oeuvre itself, and the processes through which it emerged. The end result of de Baecque’s labours is admirable for its information-gathering: for all the films finished—or unfinished—he gives us the full cycle. The original ideas, for example, were sometimes provoked by a social survey or news story, but were often just the barest of thoughts, only taking shape during the shoot itself—and always reshaped in the cutting room. We are then taken through the often complicated search for financing; the filming and the team involved; the frequent disputes on set between director and actors, generally used to being treated with a softer touch; and finally the reception given to the film by critics and audiences in France. Tantalizingly, the stillborn projects included screen adaptations of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and Racine’s Bérénice, which would have alternated Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot and Anna Karina in the lead role; Bonnie and Clyde, eventually made by Arthur Penn; and Godard’s Hollywood picture, An American Movie, for which he had lined up Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton, but which fell through after disagreements with the us producers.

De Baecque also fills in brilliantly some of the blank spots in the Godard story, in particular the 1970s collective film-making period with Jean-Pierre Gorin, which de Baecque emphasizes was ‘likely one of the most productive intellectual partnerships of its time’. The details of the trip Godard made to Jordan and the Palestinian territories in these years—retold using testimonies newly collected from Gorin and Elias Sanbar—are fascinating, and revelatory given the focus Godard has since accorded to the Middle East. Another distinctive presence that de Baecque brings to Godard is the shadow of François Truffaut. The appearance of another of the Cahiers ‘Young Turks’ is unsurprising—de Baecque co-wrote a biography of Truffaut, and is currently at work on a portrait of Eric Rohmer—nor is it out of place: born in 1930, Godard was only two years older than Truffaut, and both were formed in the same cinephile milieu, over which Henri Langlois and André Bazin presided. In de Baecque’s comparisons, Truffaut often comes out on top, at least as a human being: more genuine and generous, his letters to Godard throughout their friendship and rivalry are not oblique or manipulative in the way Godard’s could be. They remind us of Truffaut’s power with words. But de Baecque lets Godard have the final, devastating say: ‘Truffaut was the greatest critic of his generation’. Silence on the films.

Godard, biographie is a vast treasure trove of details, but to call it a mere compendium would be unfair. On the micro scale de Baecque offers, in snatched sentences here and there, personal opinions on the films: he admires the ‘incredible prescience’ of La Chinoise (1967); Le Grand escroc (1963) is simply ‘awful’, and Luttes en Italie (1969) the ‘most hopelessly depressing of Godard’s work’. Eloge de l’amour (2001), by contrast, is ‘absolutely major and comes at a transitional period in his life’. On the macro scale, de Baecque proposes a helpful four-stage periodization of Godard’s work, selecting for each a ‘first film’ that inaugurates the new phase. In each period, Godard changed his working method, often used new technology (from 35mm to video to digital), lived in another city or country, usually had a different studio set-up and team of workers around him, and in his mind was developing and clarifying a fresh set of targets and counterpoints. In the beginning these had been within the cinema canon, but questions of politics and sociology gradually entered the frame.

The first period begins, of course, with Breathless (1960) which, with its jump cuts, jazz score and casual mixing of Parisian youth ethnography and B-movie aesthetics, became one of the founding statements of the Nouvelle Vague. The second of the ‘first films’ was, appropriately, Numéro deux (1975), shot in a high-rise apartment in Grenoble, using 35mm and video. Drawing from texts written by Anne-Marie Miéville and translations of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Godard put on screen at the same time two, three and sometimes four images of a family he had filmed in their most intimate domestic setting, revealing their fraught emotions towards each other and the space they inhabit. After this experimental phase, Sauve qui peut (la vie), released in 1980, announced Godard’s return to feature films. As Nathalie Baye rides her bicycle through the verdant Swiss countryside, the promise of something wholesome and bucolic fast disappears as the image is slowed down or stopped, creating uncomfortable interruptions in the film’s rhythm; this is compounded by the repetition of these scenes throughout the film, in which Godard takes a far bleaker look at prostitution than he had in Vivre sa vie (1962). With Eloge de l’amour, Godard started anew for a fourth time, mixing historical investigation and contemporary reflections as well as black-and-white and colour film; it was at this time that he moved to working with digital images, continuing in the rich vein of politically oriented cinema which he mines to this day.

The periodization provides a useful framework for thinking about Godard’s whole oeuvre, especially in that it marks out an entirely separate and highly concentrated phase for the video- and tv-based years, and elevates his post-2000 work to the same level as the iconic Breathless or Pierrot le fou (1965). De Baecque also suggests that the many moves—intellectual, technical, geographical—that Godard has made in his career are an explanatory factor for his cinema. Getting to the bottom of why he has shifted each time is the real challenge for any Godard biography. De Baecque implies his own answer to the question in his description of the shifts as ‘exiles’, whether internal or external, and always in relation to a point Godard perceives as the centre—the family, Paris, the film industry, the city.