Histoire(s) du cinéma

Histoire(s) du cinéma

“I think the best way to look at these programs is to enter into the image without a single name or reference in your head. The less you know, the better.”

Jean-Luc Godard1


Histoire(s) du cinéma is a monumental video work, originally made for television, in which Godard processes both an associative, multiple history of the art of film and the historiography constructed by the film medium into a non-linear audiovisual essay. Divided into four chapters, Histoire(s) du cinéma doesn’t gives us a chronological account, but unfolds a double exploration: a journey through the history of the twentieth century, through a landscape of images and through Godard’s own filmmaking. Fragments of old movies, photographs, freeze-frames, reproductions of paintings, newly shot interviews and images of Godard in the editing studio, text fragments in the form of titles, inscriptions, and quotes combine into a swirling stream of images which is accompanied by a multilayered soundtrack, composed of various pieces of film music, voice-overs, dialogues and sound files. For the American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma is the culmination of twentieth-century film art: “Just as Finnegans Wake, the art work to which Histoire(s) du cinéma seems most comparable, situates itself at some theoretical stage after the end of the English language as we know it, Godard’s magnum opus similarly projects itself into the future in order to ask, ‘What was cinema?’.” An ode to the art of film on the one hand, to the classical cinema that has largely been lost and is constantly slipping away. But on the other hand, as a virtuoso video work, Histoire(s) du cinéma looks into the future: what will become of cinema in the twenty-first century?

Gerard-Jan Claes



“De beste manier om naar deze programma’s te kijken, denk ik, is om het beeld aan te gaan zonder enige naam of referentie in je hoofd. Hoe minder je weet, hoe beter.”

Jean-Luc Godard2


Histoire(s) du cinéma is een monumentaal videowerk, origineel gemaakt voor televisie, waarin Godard zowel een associatieve, meervoudige geschiedenis van de filmkunst als de geschiedschrijving geconstrueerd door het medium film verwerkt tot een niet-lineair audiovisueel essay. Onderverdeeld in vier hoofdstukken brengt Histoire(s) du cinéma geen chronologisch relaas maar ontvouwt het een dubbele verkenning: een reis doorheen de geschiedenis van de twintigste eeuw, doorheen een landschap van beelden en doorheen Godards eigen parcours als filmmaker. Fragmenten van oude films, foto’s, freeze-frames, reproducties van schilderijen, nieuw gedraaide interviews en beelden van Godard in de montagestudio, stukken tekst onder de vorm van titels, opschriften en citaten worden samengevoegd tot een wervelende beeldenstroom met een meerlagige klankband, opgebouwd met allerhande stukken filmmuziek, voice-overs, dialogen en geluidsfragmenten. Voor de Amerikaanse filmcriticus Jonathan Rosenbaum symboliseert Godards Histoire(s) du cinéma het hoogtepunt van de twintigste-eeuwse filmkunst: “Net zoals Finnegans Wake, het kunstwerk waarmee Histoire(s) du cinéma het best is te vergelijken, zich bevindt op een theoretisch punt na het einde van de Engelse taal zoals we die kennen, richt Godards magnum opus zich op de toekomst om te vragen: ‘Wat was cinema?’.” Een ode aan de filmkunst enerzijds, de klassieke cinema, die grotendeels verloren is en voortdurend wegglijdt. Maar anderzijds werpt Histoire(s) du cinéma, als virtuoos videowerk, ook een blik in de toekomst: hoe zal het cinema vergaan in de 21ste eeuw?

Gerard-Jan Claes



« Pour moi, la meilleure manière de regarder ces émissions, c’est d’entrer dans l’image sans avoir un nom et une référence en tête. Moins on en connaît, mieux c’est. »

Jean-Luc Godard3


Histoire(s) du cinéma est une œuvre vidéo monumentale, initialement conçue pour la télévision, dans laquelle Godard transforme à la fois toute une histoire associative et plurielle du cinéma, ainsi que l’historiographie construite par le médium film, en essai audiovisuel non linéaire. Divisée en quatre chapitres, Histoire(s) du cinéma ne propose donc pas de récit linéaire mais se déploie selon une double exploration : un voyage à travers l’histoire du XXème siècle, à travers un paysage d’images, ainsi qu’au travers du propre parcours de Godard en tant que réalisateur. Des fragments d’anciens films, des photos, des arrêts sur image, des reproductions de peinture, des nouvelles interviews et des images de Godard lui-même dans le studio de montage, du texte sous forme de titres et d’inscriptions ainsi que des citations, sont assemblés en un flux d’images tourbillonnant. A cela s’ajoute une bande sonore de plusieurs couches, composée à partir de nombreux morceaux de musique de film, voix-off, dialogues et fragments sonores. Pour le critique de cinéma américain Jonathan Rosenbaum, Histoire(s) du cinéma de Godard symbolise l’apogée du cinéma du XXème siècle : « Tout comme Finnegans Wake – l’oeuvre d’art à laquelle  on peut sans doute le plus comparer Histoire(s) du cinéma – se situe lui-même à une étape théorique après la fin de la langue anglaise telle que nous la connaissons, l’opus magnum de Godard se projette de façon similaire dans le futur pour questionner : ‘Le cinéma, qu’était-ce ?’. » Ode au cinéma, donc, au cinéma classique, en grande partie perdu et qui se dérobe continuellement. Mais, également, œuvre vidéo virtuose qui jette un œil sur le futur : qu’adviendra-t-il du cinéma au XXIème siècle ?

Gerard-Jan Claes



“Alain Bergala once characterized Godard’s overall project as a “refusal, to choose between the two great polarities of cinema: ontology or language, the screen as window or the screen as frame, the being-there of things or montage.” I would say that the alternation of these two aesthetic regimes corresponds exactly to two historiographies that coexist in Histoire(s) du cinéma, 1998. In addition to the idea of writing history through “montage”, Godard develops an idea of saving the atrocities of the Holocaust by the redemptive power of the cinematographic image, inspired by André Bazin’s theory and Charles Péguy’s singular historiography. […] Whether he treats the history of cinema or the history of the twentieth century, Godard is not interested in their lineair progress of their casual system. As Aumont had noted, Godard’s history is a “philosophical history that would have lost it’s Reason; if the universal history Godard speaks of in the history of cinema is rational, its reason is chaos, loss and the withdrawal of the Spirit”. […] In replying in Chapter 2A of Histoire(s) to Serge Daney that this project can be realized only by someone who belongs to the New Wave, which is situated “in the middle both of the century and of the cinema”, Godard produces one of his new aphorisms that exemplifies his anachronic vision of the history of cinema: “the cinema is the affair of the nineteenth century, which was resolved in the twentieth century”.”

Junji Hori4


“During his conversation with Serge Daney in Chapter 2A of Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard qualifies his project to make a filmic history of the cinema as simply “unrealisable”. In the cryptic mode that is characteristic of Godard, the reason for this impossibly is indicated in the process of reduction that an attempt of this sort would imply. What would be fatally reduced is cinema as “big history”: “there is projection/ so I call it big history/ because it can project itself/ the other histories can only reduce themselves”. The paradoxical conclusion that one can extract from these assertions is that a cinema history is unachievable because cinema itself is already history. To project its history, in other words, would mean to imagine the projection of history, of cinema as history, that is, the total reproduction of the myriad recordings which cinema is here the emblem. This is why “one would need to make a film lasting a hundred hours”, and still this wouldn’t be enough, because the History, the One or total History, is much longer than a human life, an immense memory that lies invisible in the archives could never be received as such-certainly not until it remains the one, the big, and therefore solitary history.

To protect the history of cinema would mean to condemn a hypothetical spectator to wear out her lifetime in a condition of absolute immobility, and this only to reconstruct an infinitesimal portion of historical time. For, in fact, technical reproducibility multiplies time: as Clio observes in the quote from Peggy included in Chapter 4B: “I need a day/to tell/the story of one seconde/I need/to tell the story/of one minute/I need/a lifetime/to tell/the story of one hour/I need an eternity/to tell/ the story/of one day/one can tell everything/except/the story/of what one is doing.” Thus the impossibility of a total reconstruction explains why Godard has moved towards a plural concept of history. If the big history is unachievable, the same is not true for the countless potential histories that it contains. These are possible histories, none of which pretends to be the only possible one, but simply possible. Different versions of an impersonal memory that remains virtual, “reductions” or “cuts” through the incommensurable extension of the invisible History.”

Monica Dall’asta5


“Images and sounds, frequently overlaid multiple times and set at odds with each other, flash up and flee from us. Some of them are original images shot on video – of the filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard in his office-studio, typing and reading, or of some well-known French actors reciting texts – but most of the material is taken, grabbed from elsewhere. Images from old films; still photographs of artists, writers and actors; classic paintings; and snatches of music, both classical and popular. Is it some kind of history textbook, a guide to the art of film in its social context? Yes and no. Because what we get is a very particular view of history, filtered through a restless, complex, very individual sensibility. And the maker’s own works are inserted into this history as yet another piece of the grand puzzle.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) is unlike virtually any other major work in film. It is not fiction, it is not documentary, it is not simply a collage of bits and pieces. It is much closer to an essay – an audiovisual essay, written in sounds and images. But as an essay it does not track through a clear structure of premise, argument, elaboration and conclusion. Much of it is cryptic – or rather, poetic.

It proceeds through a type of free association, from one fragment to the next. Many of the subtle links between the thousands of small pieces in this giant montage go deliberately unstated and unexplained by Godard. As a viewer, you can get into the work by trying to identify and interpret what is happening from second to second in the Histoire(s). Hundreds of critics, fans and scholars of Godard all over the world have already written many books’ worth, following up and explicating its links and allusions.

But it must also be said at the outset – as Godard himself has repeatedly stated – that, on another level, you do not have to be any kind of scholar or historian to watch and love Histoires(s) du cinéma. Godard wants you to feel the work, to intuit what you can, to let it wash over you. This is another aspect of its nature as one vast poem, rather than a strictly intellectual thesis. Like in every Godard film or video from any period since his feature debut, À bout de souffle (1960), there are powerful emotions underlying even the most cerebral flight of fancy here: emotions of melancholia, rage and wonder. Whatever else the Histoire(s) can be said to be, it is above all lyrical – a kind of lyric ode. This is Godard’s own, personal feeling, but it is also a collective and cultural phenomenon – a story, precisely, of the Twentieth Century, in all its splendour and all its misery.”

Adrian Martin6

  • 1Michel Ciment and Stéphane Goudet, “Entretien: Jean-Luc Godard,” Positif 456 (1999).
  • 2Michel Ciment en Stéphane Goudet, “Entretien: Jean-Luc Godard,” Positif 456 (1999).
  • 3Michel Ciment et Stéphane Goudet, “Entretien: Jean-Luc Godard,” Positif 456 (1999).
  • 4Junji Hori, “Godard’s Two Historiographies,” in For Ever Godard, ed. by Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007).
  • 5Monica Dall’asta, “The (Im)Possible History,” in For Ever Godard, ed. by Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007).
  • 6Adrian Martin, “A Skeleton Key to Histoire(s) du cinéma,” Screening the Past.
UPDATED ON 06.10.2023