Week 10: Breathless (1960)

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Breathless (À bout de souffle)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Written by Jean-Luc Godard & François Truffaut
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo & Jean Seberg
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Distributed by Films Around the World, Inc.
Running time 87 minutes

Before Viewing

Having viewed my first Jean-Luc Godard film a few weeks ago, I was eager to tackle another one as soon as possible. There’s just something so cool and creative about the films of the French New Wave that just really speak to me. I learn more from them than from any textbook on film. This time around, I decided to start with Breathless, Godard’s debut film. I first learned about this film from Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ series, and I read about the intricacies of the performances by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as well as some of the editing innovations that came from the film. I was curious to see how Godard had grown as a director between this film and the later film of his that I had seen, especially since 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her supposedly kicked off his experimental phase. Considering that this film was considered a revelation as far as Sixties filmmaking goes, how ‘conventional’ would his debut be?

My Thoughts After Viewing

Breathless is the story of Michel, a wanna-be tough guy who, in a moment of panic, murders a patrolman. When we first see him, he’s dressed in a suit, looking for a car to steal. He’s doing his best to look like Bogart, and indeed we even see him repeat a gesture throughout the film that Bogart apparently did – he runs his thumb slowly over his lips. It reminds me of a Catholic gesture, actually, and just goes to show the almost religious reverence that Michel has for Bogart. He steals a car, ditches a girl who helps him with the theft, and goes out on the open road. As he talks to no one in particular, it almost felt like a documentary (indeed, most of the film is shot with a handheld camera, which helps in that regards). At one point, as he’s talking, he even looks directly at the camera, breaking the 4th wall. Surprisingly enough, it doesn’t feel out of place. He gets chased by the police and in desperation shoots a patrolman with a gun he found in the car. Earlier in the sequence, he was playing ‘tough guy’ with the gun, but we never really get the sense that he was tough enough to use it- until he actually does. For the rest of the film, he is on the run.

Belmondo doesn’t fit the role of a suave, debonair charming Frenchman on the run. He’s tall, somewhat lanky, and although always seemingly dressed in sports coats and ties, never looks neat. I see this as a positive, though, because it doesn’t make Michel any different from you or me. He’s just a guy who make a big mistake and is trying to get away with it. He goes back to Paris (and Godard gives us those traditional shots of Paris that he would later abandon in 2 or 3 Things) and he tracks down Patricia, an American living in Paris with whom he has been with a few times. She has ambitions of her own, and at first seems somewhat resistant to hook up with Michel. Eventually, though, he makes his way to her apartment, and there is a 25 minute sequence where the two talk, act flirtatious, debate, and eventually make love. It’s a long sequence filled with some memorable lines, and you get the sense that Michel really likes Patricia, but your not sure the feelings are mutual (even though they end up in bed together). What we do know for sure is that Patricia wants to be a journalist, and one of the film’s more interesting scenes has her at a press conference at the airport, interviewing a writer (director Jean-Pierre Melville) full of quotable lines. It’s an interesting contrast in character- she has ambition, he has none. She’s out trying to become someone, he’s mugging people in bathrooms for cash. 

Eventually, we see that the police know that Michel was the killer, and their grip begins to tighten on him, until eventually they’re only minutes apart. Patricia becomes his accomplice on the run, and here we see a precursor to films like Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers, where a couple on the run seem to be enjoying the thrill of the chase. Although the two don’t commit any violent crimes together, you can see that Patricia finds it all exciting. That’s why it’s somewhat puzzling initially when Patricia makes a bold move one morning, but she explains herself- she did it out of love. Or rather, to see if she really was in love. The look on her face when he explains this to Michel is one of serenity- she knows that ultimately, following her heart was the right thing to do. Interestingly enough, Michel accepts it. He’s tired of being on the run and has no qualms about a final showdown with the police. Once again, someone else’s gun ends up in his hands, and once again, someone dies.

Along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Breathless is considered one of the first movies that founded the French New Wave. not surprisingly, Godard and Truffaut were friends and both wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, a French film magazine that many feel gave birth to the French New Wave. The main innovation this film is known for is its use of jump cuts (cuts from one scene to another without transitions). Where Breathless is different that most traditional films is that these jump cuts occur without any attempt at continuity or smoothness, if you will. Visually, it’s jarring the first time you see it, but you quickly get used to it. In fact, it becomes quite interesting to see the action jump around, because they’re not massive jumps in time or location- in some instances, they seem like mere seconds have been removed (which indeed they have). Apparently, while editing the film, Godard was told that the film needed to be shortened to make it more theatre-friendly. Rather than take out entire sequences, Godard decided to take out incidental movements, segments of scenes were unimportant things were going on, and so forth. For example, there are scenes where people are walking in the background, only to disappear because of the cut. But really, does it matter if we see them move on and off-screen if the important stuff is happening in the foreground. Do we need to see every step Michel takes down a street? At the time, it was a bold move that Godard made, kind of a precursor to today’s action film sequences where extra information is cut out for sake of speed. In some ways, it pulls you along into the action and makes you both observant and aware of what’s on-screen.

All in all, although I enjoyed Breathless, it didn’t capture me the same way that 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. I didn’t find it to be as groundbreaking as 2 or 3 Things. It’s like cars. Sure, a Model T was revolutionary for its time and held everyone in awe when it came out, but a class Mustang is much more interesting. Breathless was a good film, but I thought 2 or 3 Things was a great film. Interestingly enough, in terms of story Breathless is much more traditional and cohesive, but visually I prefer 2 or 3 Things. Of course Breathless has its place in the history of cinema, but as for me, I found Godard’s later (and less well-known) film to be more exciting.

The Final Verdict

Any student of film should see this movie, but I’m not sure how accessable it would be to someone who didn’t  have a scholarly interest in movies or someone who was a casual viewer. Some of the things in the film that were innovative back then are pretty standard now, and I think you’d need an appreciation as to its place in cinematic history in order to understand the importance of the film. I enjoyed watching it and certainly plan to view more Goddard films.

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