50th anniversary restoration • Muenzinger Auditorium
In the whole of cinema history, there are only a handful of titles that have been so influential on an artistic level that there are countless films, not to mention careers, that simply wouldn’t exist today if they didn‘t . Of those, only a few have approached the filmmaking process in such radical and innovative ways that they literally rewrote the language of cinema and changed the rules of how to present their stories to audiences both technically and narratively. And of that minute number of films, only a couple have somehow managed to remain as fresh and invigorating to contemporary audiences as when they were first unleashed upon the world. One of those films is “Breathless,” the landmark debut from Jean-Luc Godard that caused a worldwide sensation when it first premiered in 1960 thanks to its formal innovations and brash energy and has continued to attract new generations of fans over the ensuing decades for those very same reasons. The film is now celebrating its 50th anniversary with the reissue of a newly restored print in arthouses across the country but it is by no means a musty museum piece that can now only be seen from a certain remove as viewers speculate as to how it must have come across to viewers lucky to catch it when it first came out. Watching it today is as immediate and engrossing and radical of a moviegoing experience as it was back in the day. In fact, when you consider the lazy and logy nature of most contemporary films--works that seem to have been created to fill out a balance sheet than to fulfill some kind of artistic drive--it actually seems more daring now than ever before and all the more vital as a result.
The plot of “Breathless” is by now so ingrained in the minds of film fans that a recap of the plot seems nearly superfluous. (That said, those of you who have never seen the film are advised to check out for the remainder of this paragraph so as to avoid spoilers.) The story opens in Marseilles as two-bit punk Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car from an American military man with the aid of a female friend. Quickly ditching her, Michel drives off to Paris in order to pick up some money owed him by a colleague and, more importantly, to reunite with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American student at the Sorbonne who earns extra money by hawking the “New York International Tribune” on the Champs-Elysees. While driving, Michel discovers a gun in the glove compartment and when he pulls over to the side of the road and is approached by a traffic cop, he panics, shoots the man dead and flees on foot. Eventually he arrives in Paris and reunites with Patricia and while he is besotted with her, she seems a little more unsure of their future. Michel goes off to collect his money but it is in the form of a check that he is unable to cash at the moment. Not realizing that the police are already on his tail, he returns to Patricia’s hotel where they talk, make love and discuss the future and Patricia reveals that she is pregnant. The next morning, they discover that Michel is all over the newspapers in connection with the killing and Patricia helps him to hide out and even tentatively agrees to flee with him to Italy after he retrieves his money. However, when the police approach Patricia and threaten her with arrest and deportation and when Michel slips out in order to get food, she calls the cops and reveals his whereabouts. When he returns, she confesses what she as done and he flees but doesn’t get too far before getting shot in the back and dying in the street while Patricia looks on impassively.
On paper, “Breathless” sounds like any number of low-budget B movies involving guys, gals and guns made during the Forties and Fifties but what made the film so unique was not the story per se but the unusual ways in which Godard chose to tell it. To give the film the look of a documentary, he and cinematographer Raoul Coutard utilized handheld cameras and specially devised film that would allow them to shoot without requiring artificial lighting--a move that would also save time and money on a production in which both were in short supply. Instead of recreating Parisian life by shooting on soundstages, Godard shot on the actual streets of Paris amidst the hustle and bustle of city life in order to better capture the rhythms of everyday life--during the shooting of a sequence involving the death of a character in the streets, a policeman who happened to be passing by on a bus saw what happened and supposedly rushed over to lend assistance. Instead of utilizing the usual behind-the-scenes paraphernalia to capture his shots, Godard and Coutard came up with ingenious substitutes--to capture the famous scene of Michel and Patricia walking up and down the Champs-Elysees, Godard hid Coutard and the camera inside a pushcart and followed the two actors around without anyone being the wiser. As for the screenplay, Godard had first intended to write a complete screenplay from the story provided to him by fellow New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut (who had already made his first big splash the previous year with the release of “The 400 Blows”) but either out of an inability to actually write something or a desire to keep the characterizations of his actors fresh and spontaneous, he instead wrote out the scenes for each day’s shoot in the morning and fed the performers their lines as the cameras rolled. (The film was shot largely without sound and all the dialogue was later re-recorded.) This process apparently deeply rattled Seberg, who was already a veteran of several Hollywood productions, but Belmondo, then a star on the rise, eventually took a more relaxed attitude--he just assumed that there was no way that any of what was being shot would ever pull together into a coherent finished product and that it would simply never be released.
The technical innovation that “Breathless” is most famous for, however, is the use of what is know as the “jump-cut”--a deliberately disorienting editing trick in which something is cut in the middle of a single fixed image that results in an odd jump at the point where the cut was made. In the past, such a cut generally meant that one was watching a film made by amateurs who were unable to sustain a single shot but in “Breathless,” it grabbed the attention of viewers who saw it as a bold authorial statement on Godard’s part that simultaneously asserted that he was in control of what we were watching at any given moments while underlining the fact that the conventional rules of cinematic grammar were essentially arbitrary in nature and could easily subverted by anyone with the confidence to do so. Ironically, this most bold of cinematic gambits on display in the film turned out to be the most inadvertent and accidental of the bunch. It seems that when Godard finished putting the film together, it clocked in at 2 ½ hours and he was contractually obligated to his producers to give them something no longer than 90 minutes. Instead of chopping out entire scenes, he went through the whole film and simply cut out all the moments, even those in the middle of scenes, in which nothing exciting seemed to be happening, until he got to the agreed-upon running time. Obviously, this approach wasn’t planned--and it is significant that while the jump-cut would go on to become an accepted part of the cinematic language, Godard himself would only rarely use it himself in his subsequent films--but it helped give “Breathless” the jumpy, jazzy edge that made it such a sensation.
Another key innovation of “Breathless” is that it was one of the first films that was as much about the cinema itself as it was the story that it was telling. Nowadays, it seems as though every movie that comes out these days contains a number of homages or outright rip-offs of any number of older films but back at this particular time, such things were relative rarities. However, Godard was making a truly personal film and since his life was almost totally devoted to movies--he was one of the leading film critics in France at the time--it only made sense that the cinema would play an important part in his own first effort. Therefore, “Breathless” is a film suffused with films--it opens with a dedication to Monogram Pictures, an American B-movie studio of the time and contains references to such movies as “The Harder They Fall” (best known for being the last screen appearance of Humphrey Bogart), “Westbound,” “Whirlpool” and homages to the works of such American filmmakers as Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann. The participants of the Nouvelle Vague were also well-represented as well in front of the camera--Jean-Pierre Melville would appear as the novelist that Patricia interviews, Jacques Rivette would briefly turn up as a man killed in a motor scooter accident and Godard himself would make a highly visible cameo as a man who recognizes Michel in the street and points him out to the police. Perhaps more so than any of the technical tricks that he deployed, it was the inclusion of the references and allusions that helped Godard fully realize his intention of erasing the divide between the cinema and its audience and putting them all on equal footing for once.
Despite all of these elements, what kept “Breathless” from simply being the cinematic equivalent of the thesis paper of a cinema studies major are the performances from its two lead actors. At the time, Jean-Paul Belmondo was a rising young actor who had appeared in a few films, including one of Godard’s early shorts, and was slowly beginning to develop a career that would eventually see him become one of France’s most popular leading men. As for Jean Seberg, she reached worldwide fame a few years earlier when Otto Preminger plucked her from obscurity as a high school student in Iowa to star as Joan of Arc in his highly publicized 1957 film “Saint Joan” and then reached worldwide infamy when that film and her second collaboration with Preminger, 1958’s “Bonjour Tristesse,” were enormous critical and commercial failures. Although Godard’s working methods kept them from developing their characters via conventional methods, their raw chemistry could not be denied and from the moment the film was released, they were immediately enshrined as one of the most iconic screen couples of all time. And while this may not have been Godard’s intention, the film also demonstrates conclusively that Preminger was right in selecting Seberg as the winner of his talent contest even if he himself had no real idea of how to use her. Although Michel comes across as the dominant character, at least on the first viewing, his is the one that is relatively easy to figure out--he may talk a good game but in the end, he is more interested in looking like a Bogart character than acting like one. Patricia, on the other hand, is much harder to read--at times we can readily understand why Michel is so instantly besotted with her and at other times, she can be so cold and aloof that one’s blood almost freezes in her presence. Even at the end, it is impossible to fully get a read on where she is coming from and that only helps to underline the deliberate ambiguity of the film’s final moments. Seberg would never again get a role as strong as Patricia and the sad twists and turns that would befall her until her 1979 suicide have been documented elsewhere but every time “Breathless” screens and she chirps “New York International Tribune,” all of that darkness fades from memory.
Of course, the biggest star to emerge from “Breathless” would be Godard himself. The film instantly made him one of the world’s most talked-about filmmakers and for the next seven years, he would crank out 15 feature films (not to mention a number of shorts), including such masterpieces as “Vivre sa Vie,” “Contempt,” “Alphaville” and “Weekend,” in arguably the most astonishingly sustained burst of creativity in the history of film before abandoning traditional narrative film (or at least his version of it) to spend a decade or so making increasingly challenging works that fused together his combined interests in formal experimentation, and radical politics. Eventually, he would return to a more traditional filmmaking approach but even these later works found him continually pushing the envelope of the possibilities of what the cinema could achieve. Even at the age of, he hasn’t mellowed at all--his latest (and possibly last) film, “Film Socialisme,” premiered last month at Cannes and inspired endless debate between those who felt it was another masterpiece and those who felt it was obtuse gibberish from someone who no longer knew how to make a point in a simple and direct manner. And yet, if you were to poll all those people and ask them to name their favorite Godard film, my guess is that while “Breathless” might not top every list (I would personally rank “Vivre sa Vie” and “Contempt” above it myself), it would probably be the one film of his to turn up on every one of those lists because as this re-release makes abundantly clear, even a half-century of revisionist theory and shifting trends cannot begin to obscure its considerable achievements.— P. Sobczynski, eFilmCritic
Wed October 6, 2010, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium
France, 1960, French, B&W, 90 min, NR, 35mm, 1.37:1