Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
Let’s pretend this is just your average crime picture for just a moment. Shot rather bluntly in the streets of Paris, Breathless concerns a few days in the life of a young hotshot con artist — the kind of guy who brags to lady friends about having a lot of “enemies” in town — who grabs a car, kills a cop with the gun he’s kept in the glove box and loves to wave around randomly like a badass, and hides in the city with an American girlfriend currently in a different kind of state of inner turmoil. As the cops and newsmedia close in on him, she begins to doubt her commitment to the world she inevitably will enter by protecting him. It’s an old tale; there are many such stories. But as you well know even if just by reputation, this is not an average crime picture. This is Nouvelle Vague, not as a critical category or a ’60s scenester gimmick, but as an explosive (threatening?) organism that changes the rules with every passing minute. It’s a young picture even today, the photography oozing with amateurish pleasure, every cinematic tool becoming applied freshly, every cinematic error becoming a statement. Most notoriously and thrillingly, it uses incessant jump-cuts for laughs, for scares, and even for self-mockery.
To take Breathless at anything but face value feels like a betrayal to its cause as a visceral, completely unrestrained Moment in Time, a movie as urgent and wild as life itself, but a movie that still revels in its status as very much a movie and nothing more, nothing less. It talks directly to you, straightforwardly, while centering you squarely in your well-established seat as an audience member; but it also digs at your emotions: makes you feel permanently young, naive, positioned just on the outside of a world too vast for you to ever know. Of course it functions as a critique of other films and really of itself. But close readings reveal secrets the film itself is reticent to let go of, reveal that its guerrilla cinematography and rapid-fire race along city streets match the impossible pace of a beating heart. Somehow or other, this establishment of a new language, this celebration of style itself, turns out to be moving, even wrenching, in its standoffish, understated fashion.
On one level, of course, this is bullshit that would rightly be ridiculed by legendary auteur and provocateur Jean-Luc Godard himself. On that level, the story of Breathless is immediately clear: it’s about a pair of cinema-addicted French blokes — Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut — who got together in 1959, took a break from writing heady reviews for Cahiers, and decided to make the coolest goddamn movie they could imagine. It just so happens that Truffaut and Godard were so fucking hip that Breathless is still the coolest goddamn movie I can imagine; it is mostly (but not entirely) a thriller, and it’s amply rewarding in every sense, with deliciously complete moments of comedy, pathos, sex, and terror. It’s almost everything a movie’s supposed to be, and to “almost” get there while in the act of such relentless innovation is rare enough to be exceptional. The wonder, on closer examination, is that the film freely questions its own detached status — introducing its lead character as a youthful crank who kills someone for no reason on a short break from talking to himself about traffic, the weather and his own greatness in his car — and therefore the detached status of other violent films. The camera and editing make a skeptical joke of their own objects of worship.
For this movie, “face value” is entertaining enough to be a rich film anyway; picture it as a video game, in which you control the anti-hero as he constantly acts like he knows what he’s doing and is totally relaxed about it, weaves irresponsibly through traffic, steals and sells cars, repeatedly enters the same three buildings to try and track down a guy who owes him money, wanders into a girl’s apartment to make about sixteen phone calls, and tries with all his might not to get pulled back down to earth by anything. Essentially, he succeeds, but he pulls the rest of us down along the way. It’s a work of hard-boiled fiction, really, that which inspired the film noir that in turn led Godard to create this film as a valentine to American cinematic storytelling: it revels in vicarious living through the eyes of an amoral criminal, but far more organically than most pulp, manages to show the emptiness at the core of this purported freedom.
The character created so indelibly by Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel, relies in part on the same angry-young-man stereotypes you could’ve seen in the far less revolutionary films of the British New Wave around this same time, and certainly romanticizes them to a degree, since one’s natural response to Michel’s cavalier attitude is envy, at least for anyone who suffers from anxiety about so much as walking down the block. If Breathless has a failing, it’s certainly in its easy seduction by the gangster-as-hero idealism, but while Godard’s attachment to that uncomplicated iconography is clear, the story he’s really telling is infinitely more exciting and lively than any full-on hero worship or even most of the films from which he drew inspiration, mostly because Godard gives the crowd its full payoff, a window into the much stranger and more beautiful real world that surrounds Michel even though he can’t access it — he’s too “over it,” bored by the inner thoughts of the woman he cares for, bored even by death.
Today, it’s a lot harder to get a full view of the general tide of the French New Wave, which was more a freeform attitude than a specific style. The other signature inaugural effort of the movement, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, has almost nothing in common with Breathless. They’re both black & white and utilize liberating handheld cinematography and unorthodox editing, but Blows is a heartfelt, life-affirming, restrained, and almost classical story, drawing lines to Italian neorealism. Truffaut’s follow-up, Shoot the Piano Player, furthers the discrepancy: it’s a similar story to Breathless — high-stakes crime interfering with numb day-to-day routine — but it’s approached in the opposite fashion, with its morbid hero debunking the same myths that Belmondo in Breathless takes pains to corroborate. Truffaut’s film does nothing to hide its heart; both films are cynical and clever, but Godard’s dazzles and stupefies, and forces us to search longer and harder for its soulful essence.
Another way of thinking of it: Godard has no intention of remaking Rebel Without a Cause, a film that debunks the fog of cool like no other, one that seems to be from another century even though it was only five years old at this point. Rather, he wants to remake the poster for Rebel Without a Cause, while also having us confront both the badassery and the silliness of such a charade. The whole point of the movie, of course, lies in the lead character’s simplifying of his own world, which translates to his belief that he already has mastered it, already knows all the tricks and, of course, all of the endings. The motivations for his original crime are never terribly clear but one suspects they involve, as in the more sympathetically rendered Badlands, a desire for the very iconography the movie suggests, or maybe it’s the result of amorality and reverse-logic escaping from a cloud of amphetamines. Either way, it’s all expressed ingeniously in a beautiful scene of the boy standing outside a movie theater studying a photograph of Bogart. The clone of his dreams, one suspects. It may also be the dream of Godard himself. We know him to be an egomaniac, and this only helps the picture; it’s the work of a young man raised on and infatuated with icons. Truffaut may have sought to uncover the humanity in everything, but his colleague wants to block and assign the world into a girl-and-gun wonderland of sights and sounds. The clash of these sensibilities is why the movie works: its complete fakery is backed by astonishing conviction. In other words, the insincerity is fully and startlingly sincere.
Throughout the film, our attitude toward Michel changes on a dime, even though his characterization is consistent and believable; he’s introduced to us as fast-talking and unhinged, and of course clearly self-obsessed. His inner and outer voice is comprised of a litany of empty self-justifications. It’s up to us to learn when he’s putting us on, when he’s really scared, when he’s really in love; if he is so long past any human feeling, perhaps he is on his way to becoming a shell of a man like the sexist writer whose press conference Jean Seberg attends late in the film. However, Breathless and Belmondo’s performance seem quietly to posit Michel as a confused child, whose carefully learned behavior and cruel impulsiveness are repugnant but fascinating. It’s easy to blind oneself to the film’s skepticism about him and view him as a renegade who lives and dies on his own terms, but this seems to be an error in judgment.
The key to this is Seberg’s Patricia, a character whose ambiguities are more explicitly stated in the script and performance, though if anything said performance is even stronger than Belmondo’s. Patricia is an American girl who peddles copies of a New York newspaper in Paris and is working on having some work published there. As Michel pouts and preens, Patricia explores worlds unknown and unnoticed by him in her expressions, her mild and subtle and occasionally volatile rebukes to his apathy and childishness, and an obvious-to-us independence that he has no idea how to interpret or handle. The dynamic is most memorably explored in a lengthy, lingering bedroom dialogue scene comprised of her attempting to open herself and to open him, and of him hearing nothing she says — not intentionally ignoring her, perhaps, but simply deaf to her irreducible complexity, only fixated on the removal of her clothing. She is just as inscrutable and impulsive in some ways, but her motives are much more nuanced. Michel talks a lot of guff about loving her, but she performs the clearest act of love in the film when she sets the police after him then warns him, setting herself free; and the most defiant act of true freedom, rather than movie-poster freedom, when she turns away from his corpse in the final shot. Of course, along the way we do get those unforgettable driving scenes and a magical chase sequence they share across movie theaters, their public restrooms and their back alleyways — Breathless is nothing if not the all-time champion movie of having your cake and eating it — but the lone moment of undiluted triumph anyone gets here is in her individualism at the end of the picture. He resents her for it, or maybe he resents the whole world. Either way, he has no control over what she does next — will never even have any idea.
More than anything else, this movie is just thrilling to watch; sometimes the hipsters have a point about attitude being almost everything. Eschewing purity of any kind (it’s not strictly an honest or populist film, it’s very much a calculated one), responding to traditions of image as much as any Hollywood movie, it’s the most rock & roll, perpetually alive piece of cinema imaginable despite its simultaneous total awareness and deconstruction of its own hand-me-down clichés. After all, rock & roll — and all of its disparate factions — is scavenged from other forms and is nearly always stuck on image too. Bleeding into the edges of all this all the time, we have Seberg’s eyes, the pensiveness of the jazz score, the taunting of the jump cuts, and the occasional touches of totally credible romance, all lending doubt to the stoic distance of Michel’s deliberately iconic poses. Breathless is the work and the criticism of that work in one piece, and it’s in this manner that it becomes not just a moment of cultural purity but a work of art.
[Expanded from a review first posted in 2006.]