At the apex of moviemaking and experimentation is the work of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Broadly known for reshaping the boundaries of film, the visionary cinephile launched the ’60s French New Wave movement—and in the process, rewrote the medium’s conventions. Godard’s signature non-linear narratives, fragmented editing, and vastly referential works became a genre of their own, shocking and intriguing audiences and critics alike. The Franco-Swiss auteur continues his creative legacy with Le Studio d’Orphée, a permanent installation just open at the Fondazione Prada in Milan.
Godard devised “Orpheus’ studio” as a recording-editing atelier for living and working. “The reference is to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in ancient Greek mythology. It is an evergreen tale about love loss and transformation,” curator Chiara Costa tells CR. “This studio is where he and his wife Anne-Marie Miéville worked for the last ten years.” The private space where Godard has loved and transformed his craft mirrors the visual style of the films themselves—a mélange of carefully selected, ranging elements. There are technical materials from his films, alongside various furnishings—rugs, lamps, tables and chairs. Books, paintings, and personal effects were brought directly from his studio home in Rolle, Switzerland to fully reimagine the atelier.
For both Godard’s films and Le Studio d’Orphée, the devil—and key nuance—is truly in the details. “Details explode one after the other: posters of movies by Michelangelo Antonioni and Jacques Tati, the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion won by Godard for his film Prénom Carmen, 1983, a portrait of writer Franz Kafka, the clapperboard of Godard’s film Adieu au langage, 2004, an LP released by the Italian, far-left extra-parliamentary organization Lotta Continua in the 1970s, and Godard’s tennis shoes and racket,” says Costa. “There is no need to connect these objects in a narrative: they all simply belong to Godard’s life, and therefore they stand for the idea of memory.”
Lending to this imaginative world, his latest feature, Le Livre d’image (“The Image Book”)—which was created, edited and produced in the same atelier—is screened on the original director’s monitor. The film offers a montage of clips, photos, and wartime footage with Godard’s accompanying commentary. Also shown are nine short movies created between 1988 and 2008, including On s’est tous défilés; Je vous salue Sarajevo; Les enfants jouent à la Russie; The Old Place; De l’origine du XXIème siècle; Liberté et Patrie (“Liberty and Homeland”); Une bonne à tout faire; Vrai faux passeport; and Une Catastrophe.
Godard’s interest in film first began many decades ago, after reading the French film magazine, La Revue du cinéma and André Malraux’s essay, “Outline of a Psychology of Cinema.” The young auteur created several shorter works before his debut feature Breathless in 1959. With disjointed editing and “jump cuts” between sequences, his radical approach forced audiences to connect its pieces to make meaning from the film. Remarkably, Breathless was shot without a script for abstract effect, dialogue was sketched daily and revised between rehearsal takes. Godard’s improvisational style was met with acclaim, and the film was awarded the esteemed Jean Vigo Prize for innovation.
The revolutionary director then turned to philosophical themes in his next films, Le Petit Soldat, Le Mépris (“Contempt”), and Pierrot le fou. These productions combined unexpected references to books, posters, and other films’ dialogue—allusions that positioned the works somewhere between fact and fiction. Then, in his projects of the ‘70s, Godard moved towards increasingly political and intellectual topics. To escape his rising fame, he often collaborated anonymously with other filmmakers. After a decade of less-commercial projects, he returned to narrative film in 1980 with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (“Every Man for Himself”) and his notable trilogy of the sublime: Passion, Prénom Carmen (“First Name: Carmen”), and Je vous salue, Marie (“Hail Mary”), about religion, nature, and femininity.
The industry of cinema itself was another focus of Godard’s interest, which he tackled in an eight-part television documentary, Histoire(s) du cinema. The soundtrack of this work became an audio installation, “Accent-sœur” for his Fondazione Prada project. Inside the museum’s Torre lift, excerpts of the documentary narrate from films, news, philosophy, novels, poems, and music.
A quietly significant passage says, “Moi aussi, j’avais cru un instant que le cinéma autorise Orphée à se retourner sans faire mourir Eurydice. Je me suis trompé. Orphée must payer.” (“I, too, had believed for a moment that the cinema authorized Orpheus to look back without causing Euridyce’s death. I was wrong. Orpheus will have to pay.”) Godard, true to form, leaves this moment to be read any number of ways.
Le Studio d’Orphée offers a lens into the director’s remarkable creative process through the environment that launched his films. In a meaningful verse from Éloge de l’amour (“In Praise of Love”), the protagonist says, “Presque tout le monde a le courage de vivre sa vie, mais pas de l’imaginer.” (“Most people have the courage to live their lives, but not to imagine them”). These words guide the director’s ideas and expressions—perhaps as a cautionary tale about the necessity to dream and create. Godard’s artistic imprint is woven throughout the atelier, yet he leaves an intentional openness—for viewers to explore and define their own ultimate meanings.
Le Studio d’Orphée is on view as a permanent project at Fondazione Prada in Milan now.
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