While Cannes was all a-Twitter with talk of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature yesterday, I was at a press screening of his first, Breathless, soon to be re-released in a restored print for its 50th anniversary. Which was just fine by me since I always love watching Breathless and haven’t liked much of what Godard has produced in recent decades.
The film was shockingly new when it was released in 1960: It was the first feature to be shot entirely with a handheld camera and the first to make liberal use of jump cuts, which were then considered sloppy and unprofessional. But Godard needed to edit down his first cut considerably, and rather than lose whole scenes, he chose to highlight just the most dynamic parts of each scene and cut out the rest, creating the sense that characters and objects are jumping from one position to another between shots. Both of those techniques are tiresomely overused now, but the beauty of Breathless is how vital it still feels in spite of that—still crazy after all these years.
In creating his character study of a gangster poet and his reluctant moll, Godard was paying homage to the Hollywood noir and Hollywood-influenced New Wave French directors and actors whose work he was steeped in at the time. He wasn’t trying to create a museum piece or an academic deconstruction. He wanted to make a movie movie, something as alive as the genre movies he loved, only fresher and more realistic (his use of handheld camera was an attempt to escape the sterility of the soundstage and make the action feel spontaneous).
He didn’t succeed in making it realistic: Part of what makes Breathless engaging is how it never lets us forget that we’re watching a movie. But boy, did he ever bring it to life.
Breathless is a fast-running current that draws you in and carries you along with it. This is a movie that moves. Raoul Coutard’s camera circles and soars, and Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the gangster whose killing of a cop at the start of the film has him on the run, seems to be in perpetual motion.
Michel is amoral, aimless, and probably ADHD. He’s a wannabe Bogey, playing at being a gangster and aping a lot of the star’s mannerisms, right down to the thumb he keeps using to self-consciously trace his lip. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that he’s a natural-born star. Belmondo’s joli-laide face and his tightly muscled boxer’s body are the main landscape and true subject of Breathless.
At one point, Patricia (Jean Seberg), the American girl he takes up with, tells him she has been staring at him for 10 minutes yet knows nothing about him. When she says that she feels as if she needs to keep looking until she figures out what’s behind that façade, she seems to be speaking for us. She’s definitely speaking for Godard. “This film is really a documentary on Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo,” Godard told a Le Monde interviewer.
Like most of Godard’s female characters, Patricia is underdeveloped and sometimes improbably passive, less subject than object. But since she’s an object of desire for Michel, she has a fair amount of power, and when the camera isn’t ogling him, it’s generally ogling her. Seberg projects a vulnerable but defiant sense of self that jibes with the jousting dialogue Godard wrote for her character.
Watching this glamorous pair, the prickly pragmatist and the narcissistic romantic, parry and thrust their way through some of the most beautiful parts of Paris is pure cinematic pleasure.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.