"New Wave" director Jean-Luc Godard, who turned European filmmaking upside-down in the 1960s and who counts the likes of Pedro Almodovar and Quentin Tarantino as his modern-day heirs, turns 80 on Friday.
The French-Swiss director shot to fame in 1960 with "Breathless" in which Jean Seberg played a cropped-haired American in Paris, following up with such classics as "Alphaville" and "Contempt" starring screen icon Brigitte Bardot.
Leader of the "New Wave" generation of filmmakers along with the likes of Francois Truffaut, Godard re-wrote the film rulebook with movies that shunned studio sets in to shoot outside, using improvised scripts and natural sound.
"In the mid-60s, Godard was Picasso: they were the two most famous artists in the world," summed up Jean-Michel Frodon, former head of the Cahiers du Cinema film review that nurtured the "New Wave."
"He was the star of his generation. And even today, you can’t talk 20 minutes with David Lynch without him mentioning Godard. Or with David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch."
But after a decade of glory, Godard made a clean break with the film establishment in May 1968, after he and a band of fellows hijacked the Cannes festival to draw attention to the student revolt taking place outside.
For the past 30 years Godard has lived as a semi-recluse in the Swiss village of Rolle, from where he sporadically releases auteur films for an audience of die-hard fans.
This year he showed a film at Cannes, "Film Socialisme," a kaleidoscope of image, sound and text journeys through history and ideas, from ancient times to the Holocaust — but stayed away from the glitzy Riviera festival itself.
Godard’s image has also been tarred of late — especially in the United States — by charges of anti-Semitism, fuelled by a staunch anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian stance and by interviews on the Jewish influence in Hollywood.
But his work at the top of his game left a lasting mark on world filmmaking: at this year’s Oscars, he received a lifetime achievement award for creating "a new kind of cinema" — although true to his reputation he stayed at home.
"In Brazil, Japan or China, filmmakers all say Godard helps them think about their own work," said Frodon.
"Pedro Almodovar, for instance, told me how Godard was a sort of intellectual companion who helps him think when he is on a shoot. It helps him, just as it helps Lars von Trier."
And Tarantino’s production company "Band apart" is a direct tribute to the director’s 1964 movie "Band of Outsiders".
What exactly did Godard bring to filmmaking? "A new way of telling a story, the length of his shots, the rythmic use of editing," said Frodon. "And a way of asking what it means to show a woman’s face, her body."
"But more than anything, in each of Godard’s shots there is an extraordinary beauty. He is without a doubt the director who best filmed the sky, the trees, nature — and women too, although in that area he had more competition."
Godard, who acquired Swiss nationality at the age of 21, has said he chose the village of Rolle to settle 30 years ago with his Swiss partner the director Anne-Marie Mieville, "because it is nowhere."
"People here leave him alone," Daniel Belotti, mayor of the village of 6,000 inhabitants, told AFP. "He has his habits, he walks his dog, goes to the cafe on main street, buys a newspaper or cigars."
"I get the sense he does not really want us to celebrate this moment in time," said Frederic Maire of the Swiss cinematheque. "He thinks of the future, his last film is incredibly modern… when you look at his work, it seems he is 20 years old."