French New Wave

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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Week 7: 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)

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2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Written by Jean-Luc Godard
Starring Marina Vlady, Joseph Gehrard, Roger Montsoret
Cinematography by Raoul Coutard 
Distributed by New Yorker Film (US)
Running time 87 minutes

Before Viewing

Over the past few years, I’ve really become a fan of French cinema. In particular, I’ve enjoyed the films of François Truffaut. In fact, I’ve been intrigued by the French New Wave movement for some time now. I’ve done a lot of research and reading about the movement, and I even delivered a lesson on the movement to a French class when I filled in as a substitute teacher. One New Wave director whose work I haven’t seen yet is Jean-Luc Godard. I’ve queued up a number of his films to see, having read about his contributions to the New Wave movement, and I know some of them are considered classics. However, I’m a sucker for a good title, and one of his caught my eye: a film called ‘2 or 3 Things I Know About Her’. It just sounds mysterious. Some basic research told me that it’s the story of a Parisian housewife who turns to prostitution to supplement her family’s income. Interesting, right? I got my hands on the Criterion disk and decided to make it my first Goddard film.

My Thoughts After Viewing

In honor of the title, here are 7 or 8 Things I Want To Say About This Film…

#1. Although the story is about a housewife who resorts to prostitution, it’s not really about that. In fact, there’s not really a plot to the film per se. However, in the end, that becomes its strength as its more a character study and a chance for Godard to, well, philosophize- and he has a lot to say about consumerism, modernization, America, Vietnam, and more.

#2. The ‘Her’ the title refers to is actually one of three things- the city of Paris, the housewife Juliette, and the actress Marina Vlady who plays Juliette. In fact, the opening sequences of the film say as much. However, the film never really delves as much into the life of the real actress as it does the first two. Godard seems to be very critical of the modernization of Paris. We’re never shown the historical or quaint side of Paris (I don’t recall seeing a shot of the Eiffel Tower once- contrast that with the French New Wave classic The 400 Blows where the tower makes up the opening sequence). In fact, it’s always shots of ultra-modern apartment buildings that look like concrete wastelands- and everything’s always under construction. He’s much more sympathetic with the housewife, never visually seeming to pass judgement on her.

#3. It’s shot in a pseudo-documentary style that I just found fresh (even in this day of The Office). Characters would just turn, look at the camera and comment while the action was going on, then go back to what they were doing. It was clear the actors were aware that the camera was there, and it make us active participants in what is going on.

#4. Visually, the film  is gorgeous. Godard’s camera seems to have a love affair with Juliette’s face (like the camera work in Lost In Translation and Scarlett Johanssen’s face). Marina Vlady’s face is beautifully plain. It’s not overdone or extremely made up, which gives her an air of reality. The shots of the city, although of bland buildings and cluttered landscapes, have an urban beauty all their own. Godard and his DP compose shots that just seem to fill each frame with something interesting. One shot comes to mind- an image of a bridge being built and painted. In the upper right-hand area (though not exactly in the corner) is a man painted a column. It’s framed in a  way that seems almost claustrophobic and really illustrated how the modern world in encroaching on Paris. Products, posters, and advertising seem to be everywhere the camera looks. In one of the most famous shots from the 60s, a cup of coffee becomes a symbol of the universe, and some of the camera work with the coffee is inspirational in its creativity. In the film, there are a number of long, unbroken shots where people speak off-camera, characters come and go, and the camera never moves. I love the static shots that last minutes because the camera functions as an observer who is just taking in the atmosphere (and, by extension, puts us in the same role).

#5. Godard himself serves as the narrator of the film, and what’s interesting is that he speaks, for the most part, in hushed whispers. It’s almost like he’s sitting there next to you in the theatre, commenting on what he sees on the screen. I’ve never seen a film narrated like that. Usually the narrator is loud, omniscient, and ever-present. Here Godard sounds like he’s trying share secrets with the viewer. His words are very deep and his language is very dense. In fact, a lot of the dialogue in the movie discusses the nature of language and how it shapes our perception of the world. There are a lot of beautiful lines, like when the narrator is looking at a tree and states: ‘Should I have talked about Juliette or the leaves, since it’s impossible to do both at once? Let’s say that both, on this October evening, trembled slightly.’

#6. The film itself plays like a reflection of its time, and does so successfully. The movie in a lot of ways is not timeless- it’s clear that it take place in the 60s due to all the references in it to the Vietnam War, President Johnson, and so on. Yet at the same time, as the essay in the liner notes provided with the film point out, you could replace ‘Vietnam’ with ‘Iraq’, and the sentiments would still be the same. I absolutely agree. Godard is very critical of what is going on at the time, and he makes no bones about it. The symbolism in the film is extremely overt and easily makes a point. It’s very much a political archive of the late 60s.

#7. Although the film really isn’t about anything in particular, we DO get to see Juliet somewhat engaging in her money-making ‘activity’. However, there’s nothing sexual or sensual about it. She doesn’t seem particularly interested in what she has to do, not do her clients seem particularly lustful. In fact, in one scene, Juliette and another girl are made to walk around with airline bags over their heads (interesting enough, the two airlines on the bag are TWA and Pan Am, both no longer in existence. Score one for Godard!). Another client, a younger man, places a mirror down next to the bed and asks Juliet if she minds. She shrugs in reply. It’s interesting to hear her talk about sex in regards to her prostitution, as it doesn’t bother her. It’s weird when we see her with her perpetually distracted husband and kids. It’s hard to tell if she finds any joy in them. In one heartbreaking scene, she drops her hysterical daughter off at a day care that also serves as a brothel! If anything, it’s like she never has any fun. There’s no passion in her marriage OR her ‘profession’.

#8. There are two scenes near the end of the film where Godard breaks away from following Juliet and allows us to hear two conversations which are interesting, but I found myself wanting to go back and see what Juliette was up to. One of the scenes involves Juliette’s husband talking to a woman in a restaurant, the other involved a Nobel-prize winning writer talking to a student. There’s something voyeuristic listening to these conversations, but that’s OK. That’s the point. The whole movie is about being a voyeur and uncovering secrets.

On the whole, it was a film that wasn’t like anything I had ever seen before. It intrigued me, captivated me, and inspired me. It’s amazing to see some of these masters at work. I guarantee if a young filmmaker today attempted something like this, it would never get off the ground. It’s not a commercial project, it doesn’t have mass appeal, but honestly, it’s one of the most compelling arguments for cinema as an art form that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. I learned more about the potential in filmmaking from this film that I have from any of the books I’ve read.

The Final Verdict

If you’re the type that insists that your movie follow a traditional narrative structure, contain plot twists, or wow you with explosions, you’re better off skipping this one. But if you have an open mind in regards to what a movie should be and love cinema (and, in particular, the moving image), you shouldn’t pass this one up.