I have seen Jean-Luc Godard's debut Breathless four times now, each time struggling to reconcile the parts of it I absolutely adore with the parts I simply admire, as well as a few bits I find wearisome and self-absorbed. This likely doesn't bode well for me when I at last move beyond this film into the work of perhaps the most independent and unpredictable major filmmaker of all time, but perhaps sticking with this one until I finally came to some sort of understanding will make the transition into his more difficult works easier. Or, focusing so much on this one might sour me against him when future films don't follow the same tropes I spent so long working through. C'est la vie.
With each viewing I found myself liking it more and more, but even now I'd stop short of calling this a timeless treat as enjoyable now as it was the day of its premiere. What I can say is that, after seeing a number of older films in the interim, I can at last admire its revolutionary technique. As with Citizen Kane and The Birth of a Nation before it, Breathless didn't necessarily introduce all of the various tricks displayed throughout its running time but collected every bold technique out there, added its own innovations, and the result altered film language forever.
Perhaps that's what makes Breathless so difficult to younger viewers like me (though I'm sure many young cinephiles are sharp enough to pick up on it a lot quicker than me): Breathless is one of the touchstones of film history. Everything after it changed, and its influence has been so thorough that even cheap blockbusters rip it off routinely -- just look at the sloppy, frenetic editing of most action films; even if they're poorly done, they owe a debt to this arthouse picture.
That strikes me as appropriate, though. Breathless, along with the rest of the French New Wave, was born out of an appreciation of American B-movies, an appreciation that inspired polemical, often poetic, reviews in Cahiers du Cinéma. Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, they all cut their teeth not with their own films but through complete dissections of the sort of movies that most would shrug off as trashy kitsch. Breathless opens in fact, with a title card dedicating the picture to Monogram Pictures, a prolific maker of gangster movies throughout the '30s and '40s. References to films abound in Breathless, most of which fly straight over my head, but Godard also namechecks artists, literature and philosophy, making the movie a pop culture explosion of hipster chic.
Though it has little story to speak of, Breathless nevertheless sports a brilliant structure. Godard simply gives us our protagonist, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), sans introduction or setup. For the first five minutes, the camera darts along Michel's misadventure: he steals a car, speeds along the motorway, is pulled over by a motorcycle cop, whom he kills. This all happens in five minutes; the only way you'd see a murder in earlier cinema was if it opened with a murder and then flashed back to solve the case (i.e. Sunset Boulevard, The Maltese Falcon), and maybe to set up a villain. But this is the guy who drives the story!
Michel flees to Paris to collect money owed to him by partners in past robberies (about as much as we're ever going to learn about the character's past) in order to pay his way to Italy. While in the city, he tries to win back his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), studying in Paris on a visa even though she looks like the most natural fit for Godard's hip presentation. Her striped shirt, short hair and dark glasses are damn near the first image that comes to mind when someone says "Parisian," which makes her American background all the funnier. In their conversations, both reveal themselves to be arrogant, clueless youths, the only difference between them being Patricia's naïvete comes with the innocence that it's supposed to connote.
The first 25 minutes or so of the film play out in a jump-cutting frenzy. Though Godard later become the enfant terrible of French cinema, his editing techniques arose not from artistic statement but necessity. The original cut of Breathless ran at two hours and was deemed too long to be a commercial hit (because length was really what kept Breathless from being commercially viable) by the financiers. So, Godard simply went to the editing room and cut pauses in between lines and action. A conversation between Patricia and her boss at the Paris bureau of the New York Herald-Tribune is so chopped-up it's a wonder that the images don't end three minutes before the dialogue. The resultant breakneck pace certainly gives the movie a breathlessness. At the 27-minute mark, though, the action shifts from the dizzying jump all over Paris, following both characters separately, to Patricia's cramped hotel room.
Godard spends a good 20 minutes in the room, almost as much time as everything that came before it. He still uses jump cuts -- especially in a hilarious series of ellipses of the two having sex -- but by confining the action to this one tiny spot he conveys the existential worries of the characters, their narrow, close-minded assessment of the world, and the mounting police pressure bearing down on Michel. Had this section alone been the whole film, I'd have probably called it a masterpiece from the start. Spending 20 minutes in such a cramped set, without once conjuring the feel of a theatrical play, is no small feat. The sequence perfectly balances Godard's camera tricks with an interesting look at these characters. When they eventually head out into the streets again, I can't help but see it as a bit of a come-down even though Godard ratchets up the pace even more.
The rest of the film strikes me as breaking the rules just to break them, which is admittedly a negative in retrospect, after the broken rules helped launch a, well, new wave of filmmaking style and film grammar. On his reckless drive through the countryside, Michel speaks directly into the camera, and when he pretends to fire a pistol, it makes a gunshot noise anyway. When the cops come looking for Michel, we see them depart in a car through the reflection in Patricia's glasses. A news scroll on the side of the building near the end reads "Arrest of Michel Poiccard in Paris now imminent" is not an announcement within the diegetic world but to us, to let us know that the inevitable conclusion is coming. The jump cuts are meant to distract, but they can be simply too much at times, violating so much continuity that I momentarily lose my footing, and regain it only for the film to jump to the next point of action.
In these bursts of celluloid, Godard packs in stated and visual nods to that which inspires him. Patricia hangs a cheap copy of a Renoir painting in her room and tries to sell Michel on William Faulkner. Later, they slip into the theater to see Budd Boetticher's Westbound. A reference is made to "Bob Montagne" of the film Bob le Flambeur, only for that film's director, Jean-Pierre Melville to appear as a celebrity novelist. But Godard, to his credit, uses a number of the more obvious references to flesh out his characters. Patricia sits among a throng of interviewers shouting out question's to Melville's novelist, who ignores her inane, vague, hollow questions. When he finally addresses her empty, "What is your greatest ambition in life?" he responds with an equally empty sarcastic response, "To become immortal, and then die."
Michel flat out defines himself by the references. He stands in front of a Humphrey Bogart poster and runs his thumb across his lips just like Bogey. He plunders the retro style of the gangster to craft his identity; a young girl hawking (hilariously) Cahiers du Cinéma asks, "Monsieur, do you support youth?" to which he gruffly replies, "No, I like the old." Michel can flick cigarettes into his mouth, but it's a hollow gesture of cool, just like the character. As much as Godard likes the idea of the American gangster, he recognizes the lie of the persona. Michel must die in the end not because he committed a crime and must be punished for it (as was the practice of the Hays code), but because his lifestyle left no other plausible outcome.
For that reason, Breathless is both a celebration and (to steal from Jonathan Rosenbaum) a criticism of film. He, along with other Cahiers writers, championed the "trashy" side of American cinema because its filmmakers tended to be the true artists, the ones then-perceived as amateurs by the mainstream because they didn't know how to follow the "rules" when really these were auteurs with artistic visions. Breathless commends the contributions of the film noir genre to cinema, but Godard uses documentary-like footage courtesy of cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who had to haul around a heavy 35mm camera for long takes through the Parisian streets) to approach the references from the POV of an outsider looking to examine them. After four viewings I can finally say that I see Breathless as a charming little feature, one with a bold style, not to mention some great black and white cinematographer, especially given the circumstances of the shooting style and film stock used. It's also a fun takedown of its hipster protagonists, even if the movie focuses on its handling of these characters more than the characters themselves at times. But hey, I'm finally willing to shell out money for a copy of my own, even if I'm in no rush after seeing it four times in the last year.