COVER STORY: The Gospel According to Jean-Luc ; He Was the Film-Maker of the Sixties. Then Jean-Luc Godard Bid Adieu to the Mainstream, Trailing Clouds of Marxist Theory and Lamenting the Death of Cinema. Now, He's Making Waves Again " but Has the Old Auteur Anything New to Say? Jonathan Romney Went to His Home Town to Find Out

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Rolle, on the northern shore of Lake Geneva, is a small, quiet Swiss town with a 13th-century castle, a promenade lined with pollarded trees and an imposing background frieze of mountains across the water. Swans and sailboats drift through a light haze, and in the lakeside park, where people walk dogs in the spring sun, a signpost recommends a series of exercises, urging passersby, with exquisite Swiss tact and precision, 'Do each one for 15-30 seconds, then breathe slowly and regularly.'

Half an hour from Geneva by train, this hinterland of bourgeois calm is the last place you'd expect to find a man whose identity as a film- maker and thinker was forged amid France's artistic and political turmoil of the 1960s, and who is as much synonymous with Parisian intellectual debate as Roland Barthes, or Sartre and de Beauvoir. That Jean-Luc Godard should have spent nearly 30 years living and working in Rolle is at first sight mystifying " like finding John Lennon or Che Guevara happily ensconced in Frinton-on- Sea.

Until recently, some people might have been surprised to learn that Godard was still active " especially in Britain, where none of his films was released between 1987 and 2002. Some still think of Godard as a Sixties film-maker, indeed as the Sixties film-maker. His first feature A bout de souffle (1960) kick-started the Nouvelle Vague in French cinema, together with the previous year's Les 400 Coups by his comrade-in-arms, later to become his sparring partner in sometimes rancorous debate, Franois Truffaut. Over the next few years, Godard released a head-spinning volley of brazenly inventive films " including Vivre sa vie, Le Mpris, Alphaville and Pierrot le fou " that mixed genre pastiche and formal innovation with aesthetic, sociological and theoretical debate, giving narrative cinema an essayistic and conceptual thrust it had never seen before.

Even if Godard seemed to vanish from the public eye in the Nineties, he never stopped working prolifically, nor did his ambition decline. His great project of that decade was the eight- part video series Histoire(s) du cinma, a highly personal meditation on the glories of the silver screen and the horrors of 20th-century history; his biographer Colin MacCabe has seriously compared it to Joyce's Finnegans Wake in ambition and complexity.

Godard first retreated from the limelight in the late Sixties, when he abandoned traditional features for a thornier, confrontational practice of film as Marxist critique. He returned to art-cinema prominence in 1980 with Sauve qui peut (la vie), which he called his 'second first film'. It was followed by a string of fierce, witty, contemplatively elegant fictions, notably Passion, Prnom Carmen, and 1985's Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary), a modern portrait of the Virgin Mary that caused a furore among French Catholics. Before too long, however, Godard had retreated into a private underground of wilfully cultivated opacity, although he retained a devoted audience among the legions of academics, especially in the US.

Then Godard suddenly became news again. Word got around that he was preparing another comeback: when Eloge de l'Amour (In Praise of Love) was premiered in Cannes in 2001, bones were all but broken in the crush outside the critics' screening. The film was indeed a striking return, with its two contrasting halves (black-and-white film, colour video), its melancholic return to familiar Paris backdrops, and its acidic upbraiding of America in general, Hollywood in particular, and Godard's bte noire Steven Spielberg above all, for 'buying up' modern European history.

Godard and fellow film-maker Anne-Marie Miville " his partner in life and work since the early Seventies " run their production company Peripheria from the basement of a residential block up the hill from Rolle's main street. I knock several times on the glass door, but there's no reply. …