Friday, November 18, 2011

Breathless (1960)

À bout de soufflé, France, 90 minutes
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard
Photography: Raoul Coutard
Music: Martial Solal
Editors: Cecile Decugis, Lila Herman
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Jean-Pierre Melville

I better cop to a problem with Jean-Luc Godard right up front, if only as a matter of fair warning: hidebound conventions (and spoilers) directly ahead. Godard is and remains, for me, an acknowledged blind spot, likely weighed down as much as anything by the imposing reputation that has preceded him practically since the day I first heard of him. His most widely hailed pictures—and Breathless, his feature debut, is the first among them in many ways, along with Pierrot le fou, which affects me similarly, and Contempt, which seems slightly a bit of a different animal, but all that in due time—tend to strike me as monumentally silly or academically pretentious or both, the result of children playacting with motion picture technology.

I will grant these are no ordinary children—they have levels of aesthetic sophistication, and no small degree of high critical argle-bargle, to back themselves up. Godard seems to me to be continually about finding ways to demonstrate he is a million times smarter than anyone else in the (darkened) room, which his followers are as much at pains to defend seemingly on any terms within reach, on grounds of avant-garde experimentalism, defiant anti-convention, unique vision, I-know-you-are-but-what-is-he, the continuing perception of a widespread and penetrating influence, and as many others as can be and are adduced in seminar environments. And all that may be true enough. But they do tend to derive almost purely from the cerebrum. My problem is more acutely with the overall experience his pictures tend to deliver for me, which is narrow and small.

Breathless is a fine example and nearly perfect object lesson in Godard's various problems and strengths. Ostensibly it's a picture about a gangster and/or alienated thug on the lam for shooting a policeman; and he's in love with an American doll, which ultimately leads to his downfall. But it's actually anything but a gangster picture, much less a thriller. It starts with tired old academic notions of existentialism (perhaps not as tired in 1960 as they are now) and dresses itself up in gangster garb—or, more accurately, in Hollywood B-movie drag—even ostentatiously dedicating itself, in the opening, "to Monogram pictures" (home of a recycled Charlie Chan series, the Cisco Kid and many other westerns, and Joe Palooka, and also the place where such players as Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, and Gale Storm first found work).

Whereas pictures such as Scarlet Street or Night and the City actually locate meaningful examples of existentialism in the desperate lives of criminals and anonymous denizens of modern cities and then let those forces play out in ways that powerfully make their points about the terms and meanings of being and remaining alive and engaged with life, Breathless offers a couple of pretty faces, one of them, Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), engaging continually in ornate gestures that he self-consciously picked up from the movies, or just invented evidently because it's something fun to do (the spliffy cigarettes, cocked fedoras, and a deliberate gesture of squinting his eyes and tracing his pursed mouth with the edge of his thumb, homage to Humphrey Bogart).

For all my (cerebral) objections, I can't deny there's a good deal of charm embedded all through Breathless. It's light and playful and cool, like its jazzy soundtrack, and it's almost always great to look at. At least two of the hallmarks of filmmaking I most associate with Godard are present and accounted for here and hitting on most cylinders too: the jump cuts, which emphasize the false and constructed nature of film and/or narrative at the same time that they effectively establish a pace to the storytelling that enables Godard to cut away a good bit of the flab associated with most of the Hollywood B-movies he is honoring (it's singularly well edited); and, my single favorite feature of Godard pictures, the mad swirl of language, here shuttling effortlessly, transparently between French and English. Later Godard pictures would accommodate even more languages at once, producing an effect for me that is surprisingly and pleasantly immersive.

I see that I have probably tipped my hand there on something about my own personal orientations with that "immersive." It's what I want from the movies I watch (including documentaries), the novels and histories I read, the music I listen to, indeed from all the art and culture with which I engage—a convincing sense of being swept up and carried away to another place, which may or may not resemble the places I occupy in reality (though I do prefer a connection between my reality and the reality of a narrative, as too much fantasy bores me). I sometimes think that that immersion is the one thing Godard is so often at pains to deny, even as he shows himself capable of it in frustratingly patchy passages all through his career.

I like Breathless best when it is a relationship movie, a story about a boyfriend and girlfriend (Patricia Franchini, played by Jean Seberg) attempting to connect, sorting out their issues, getting close, yet not quite making it. They are like any 20something couple hanging out in a big city, taking off their clothes and spending a lot of time in an apartment having sex and talking and talking, about their aspirations and choices and preferences, playing music for one another, getting out to cultural events— here uniformly represented as "press conferences," including one priceless scene with Jean-Pierre Melville playing a puffed-up iconoclastic figure wearing shades who is reminiscent of Henry Miller. Asked to name his greatest ambition, he says, "To become immortal, and then to die."

I like Breathless least when it is pretending to be a gangster movie, which unfortunately provides the overarching frame of the thing and permeates every last scene of it. It's rife with cultural signifiers in that vein, Humphrey Bogart and loud jazz and incidental shots of movie posters that say things like "Live desperately until the end!" And speaking of living desperately to the end, I will add that somehow the protracted death scene in the street at the end works for me as well, all the way through to the silly mugging at the very end that brings it momentarily back to its charming, even innocent boyfriend/girlfriend theme.

But it also leaves me shaking my head at Godard's usual overly determined frothiness, if not entirely disinclined to want to praise it. Those interested in Godard can probably start here, of course (and/or Contempt and/or Pierrot le fou), and take it from there, with all due caution and expectations set appropriately. And I'll see you there, as I'm pretty sure I'm not yet done with this guy by a long sight.


  1. This is good stuff. Often, the things that annoy you are the things I like about Godard, but it's interesting to see how that annoyance plays out for you, and I suspect Godard is happy if we're annoyed.

  2. Wow, it's funny - I love Godard (he's probably my favorite director) but I agree with so much of what you say here. Not the overall judgments of him, but the following: I think Contempt, Breathless, and Pierrot le fou are all overrated (though I own the first 2, and will own the third within a few hours, take that as you will). I think the gangster pastiche elements of Breathless are its weakest bits, and love the moments between Seberg and Belmondo where they are just youths in love (maybe) rather than imitating Hollywood cliches. And I love immersive film experiences - to me a great film must be visceral before anything else, although ironically I find it hard to write about films from that angle.

    The thing with Godard is that he's been presented - by his admirers as much as anyone else - as being some formidable, cold, intellectualized filmmaker. But in truth he's impulsive, intuitive, passionate - his films are soaked in an immediate emotional engagement with the medium. The thing is he's super self-conscious, which could lend itself to a certain dryness or narrowness that you see, but to my eyes is mitigated by the fact of his speed (both in the way he made films and the way his films themselves move and think, which is probably related of course). This doesn't allow time for him to overthink anything, so we end up with a rich dialectic between intellect and impulse, fiction and documentary, the visceral and the cerebral.

    My favorites of his films tend to be from the mid-60s: Band of Outsiders (which is always where I tell Godard neophytes or skeptics to begin), Masculin Feminin, Alphaville, and La Chinoise above all others - though I'm also quite fond of Le Petit Soldat.

    Finally, this is great timing as I just reviewed Breathless for the first time 2 days ago. Here it is:

  3. I saw Every Man for Himself this week and mostly found it exasperating. But then, right at the end, there's an amazing and very funny shot of an orchestra that I expect to remember approximately forever, which is why I can't completely throw Godard over, as much as I'd like to. Well, that and the fact that so many people I like and respect adore him. You all have to be seeing something there.

    Enjoying the new series over at your place, Joel. Recommended to all.

  4. Out of curosity, which Godards have you seen at this point? I'm curious as to which ones might still have a chance to overturn your aversion! (Though, of course, re-viewings can do that sometimes too.) Myself I have seen all the pre-'68 ones (up to Le Gai Savoir which followed Weekend), but after that am very hazy - only British Sounds, Tout va bien, Letter to Jane, Hail Mary, and In Praise of Love; lots of gaps in a 43-year period! (Hail Mary and Letter to Jane are my favorites; I did not like In Praise of Love). I've preordered the R1 of Histoires du cinema and am hoping to play catch-up this spring by watching every possible Godard movie. Climaxing, of course, with Film Socialisme though I suspect I may get to that before I conduct a proper retro.

    Glad you're enjoying the series!

  5. Breathless and Contempt I've seen several times apiece, and in the past few years Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, Sympathy for the Devil, and Pierrot le fou. At varying points in the distant past, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and First Name: Carmen. So basically just scratching the surface as far as I can tell.

    A couple of years ago, Drew over at The Blue Vial did a Godard marathon, with some help from Ed Howard. Someday, when I'm ready for lots and lots of Godard, I will probably use that to help orient myself. Starts here:

  6. I think in the context of when it came out Breathless becomes much more interesting. Considering that at the time it was released into the world there was literally NOTHING like it whatsoever. Even Godard's contemporaries hadn't done what he did in that movie, both flouting and embracing so much of film convention, and reinventing what it meant to make a movie to begin with.

    That it comes across as so light and fresh and cool and jazzy even after all these years is a testament to what a successful film it is. I can only imagine what audiences thought of it when it first came out. Nearly every single modern indie film ever made has a line that goes back to Breathless.

    I agree with much else of what you say about Godard. Despite my unabashed love of Breathless I've just about hated everything else he's done (except maybe Alphaville, and even then I can see why it's not that good while I still like it). I think though that Breathless is an exception almost because of what it brought to film history and film language and film technique, and how well it holds up after so many years, after everything has pretty much been done a million times. It's a reminder that you don't need a Hollywood studio or big budget miracles to make a movie that engages and moves, that all you need is a camera and some people willing to stand in front of it.

  7. That's a fair point. There's definitely something to be said for still feeling fresh after 50-plus years, and it certainly sets a template for freewheeling moviemaking. Thanks for your comment.