E: Hey, where’s that blog post you were going to finish two weeks ago?
A: I, uh, have been working on it.
E: Really? It looked to me like you were watching movies.
A: I was refreshing my memory.
E: Uh huh. What’s this post about then?
A: It’s about Jean-Luc Godard. And it’s done.
Stills selected from Pierrot le fou, 1965 ↑
Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most radical of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, is an artist whose imaginative typographic title sequences, intertitles, still and animated imagery inspires me as a designer. Posted here, are stills selected from four of his films from the mid- to late 1960s.
Godard inserts text and image into a variety of contexts, including, but not limited to: handwritten letters, neon signs, shop signage, book and magazine covers, collages, grafitti, posters, cinema marquees, corporate logos, the pages of comic books, advertisements, newspapers, children’s books and political pamphlets. Pierrot le fou (above) is rich with contextualized text. Its narrative is reinforced by the images of handwritten letters between protagonists, signs from the places they travel, and a book called, “La bande des pied nickelés,” a cartoon about a group of ne’re-do-wells who make their living scamming the bourgeois. Cropped and blinking neon signs highlight specific words, or segments thereof (e.g. “Riviera” becomes “vie), a mercurial device well-suited to Pierrot le fou. Overall, the embedded texts add meaning and beauty to the film, with patterns of live action and still text reminiscent of a graphic novel. There are few purely typographic titles in this film, but all have dotted upper case “I”s and capital letters centered on black backgrounds—the default Godardian style—set in Antique Olive, a face newly developed in the early ’60s by Fonderie Olive.
Stills selected from Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis, 1966 ↑
In Masculin féminin, Godard begins to use purely typographic intertitles, a break from earlier films’ embedded texts (e.g. the book cover argument between lovers in Une femme est une femme, 1961), or alternating texts and titles (e.g. Les Carabiniers, 1963 and Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, 1965). Devoid of imagery, these intertitles look like “title cards” from the silent film era. Unlike silent film titles—which provide dialog and narration—the content both reflects the thoughts of the protagonists and comments on the culture-at-large, addressing film, politics, and commercialism. Like previous films, Godard continues to play with language. Letters drop in and out to reveal new words, as in the the closing title, when “Féminin” becomes “Fin.” Formally, the titles are consistent: dotted upper case “I”s and centered justified text on black backgrounds, likely set in a custom version of Futura with a shortened “M” centre vertex. The film, shot in flat black and white, manages beautifully with white text.
Stills selected from La Chinoise, 1967 ↑
Though stylistically more similar to Pierrot le fou than to Masculin féminin, the intertitles in La Chinoisecontinue Godard’s move toward the politicized texts he continues to use into the ’70s and ’80s. His presentation of images and titles reads like a manifesto, eerily predicting the political unrest of May 1968. The inclusion of embedded texts (e.g. color swatches, pages from comic books and political publications) reduces the contrast between mise en scène and intertitle. The contrast is also blurred as texts are altered, presumably by narrator or protagonist: 1) colored markers decorate a Karl Marx caricature, 2) suction cup arrows attack a collage of French thinkers and revolutionaries, and 3) “défendre” is crossed-out in favor of trahir. Large, cropped portions of books and newspapers highlight specific words, and function both as embedded text and typographic intertitle.
Stills selected from Le Weekend, 1967 ↑
In Le Weekend, Godard returns to the purely typographic titles last seen in Masculin féminin. He inserts line breaks, shifts color, repeats titles and uses graphic elements (e.g. the crossed-out “Front de Libération de Seine at Oise”) to play with words, numbers, and their meanings. “Analyse,” broken into two lines, serves as the chapter title for an explicit pseudo-psychoanalytic scene in the beginning of the film. “Photographie” is cleverly renamed “Fauxtographie,” and is made more striking by strictly justifying the text letter-for-letter, achievable with an H/I hybrid letterform. There is even a speedometer, tracking the protagonists’ km/h throughout the film. Blue, white and red text is a common Godardian palette, usually referring to American cultural hegemony and aggression, in addition to rising tide of nationalism in France. In this film, the color scheme may also refer to the titles’ gradual shift from Gregorian calendar dates to French Revolution events. Formally, the colors highlight specific characters or words, and contrast nicely with the black backgrounds and the warm, sunny style of the live-action sequences. The mostly-justified, all-cap titles are again set in Antique Olive.
Godard’s style developed from various influences in his life and career: 1) He came from a well-to-do Franco-Swiss family where poetry and philosophical texts were regularly recited. The reading and recitation of text is a common thread in his films, often represented typographically. 2) Godard has a reverence for, and an encyclopedic knowledge of film, including the works of F.W. Murnau, Jean Cocteau, and Alfred Hitchcock, all known for the style of their embedded text and imagery. Murnau, as a silent film director, used intertitles as they were first intended—to deliver dialog and narration—though he experimented with contextualization, using pages from old books and letters between characters. Cocteau, inserted his own untranslated handwriting into The Blood of a Poet. The film is not silent, and the writing is not necessary, though it adds texture and meaning to his work. Godard uses intertitles the same way, as vehicles for content and style not always immediately relevant to his narrative. Hitchcock, began his film career as a writer of intertitles. As a director he embedded texts into everyday cultural displays such as street signs, posters, bilboards and newspapers, a practice Godard repeats in films like Le Mépris, 1963, and Une femme mariée, 1964. 3) Godard was a film critic and a contributor to Cahiers du cinéma. Via intertitles and embedded texts, he continues to write, peppering his films with homages, critiques and references.
Stills from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (updated), 1992, and Sunrise, 1927 ↑
Still from Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, 1930 ↑
Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Farmer’s Wife, 1928 ↑
A: See? I’ve been reviewing some of Godard’s films to write this post. I’m thinking of a followup entry to add and discuss more stills from other films.
A: Are you still there? Is this thing on?
Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.