Thursday, April 3, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Breathless (1960)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
Breathless is a film that predates my own existence by a little over twenty years, so I had plenty of opportunity to hear and read about it before actually seeing it. This made me somewhat nervous about seeing it, because I was afraid that knowing about how it influenced and changed the course of cinema, I might bring too much into it to really appreciate it as a film. But reading about Breathless and seeing it are two distinctly different experiences and I wasn’t prepared for how… new it felt. It didn’t seem like an old movie as much as a new movie riffing on an older style.
The film begins with Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) stealing a car and killing a police officer. Before making his getaway to Italy, he needs to collect on a debt from an acquaintance and while he’s waiting for that, he renews his relationship with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American with whom he’s infatuated. As the police close in, Michel’s relationship with Patricia will ultimately lead to his death.
The relationship between Michel and Patricia – between French cinema and American cinema – is central to the film, and large portions are spent just watching and listening to the two of them interact. You almost wouldn’t know that Michel is a wanted criminal whose life is in danger for all the time and effort he expends in trying to get Patricia into bed. However, despite the amount of time they spend talking, they don’t really know each other, because they’re talking at each other rather than to each other. “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other,” Michel says as their relationship is coming to a close. However, what Michel fails to recognize is that they couldn’t have talked about each other because neither of them is really “there.” Neither one is a person with an individual identity; both have “constructed” identities from outside sources. Michel idolizes Bogart and is constantly playing with his lip in imitation. Patricia’s physical mannerisms are adopted from people she sees, as in a scene where she’s participating in an interview and takes on the facial ticks and twitches of the interviewee (there is also a scene earlier where she mimics a series of faces made by Michel). When Michel is killed, Patricia takes over for him in his imitation of Bogart and the final shot is of her playing with her lip. They aren’t people but symbols – images of other images, reflections of reflections.
To watch Breathless is to see immediately how influential it was. From it’s jump-cuts and self-reflexivity to its focus on “ordinary” dialogue and situations, and the way it self-consciously constructs its images, it’s difficult to imagine a filmmaker like, say, Quentin Tarrantino without it. Godard combines a documentary quality (many passersby in the film are caught simply reacting to the presence of the camera) with a very precise way of constructing images, giving us at once something “real” and “fake” and openly calling attention to both elements. It’s a movie of high style, but even though that style has been imitated, mutated and derived from over the past forty-eight years, the film itself still seems fresh and new. Very few films, especially films that rely so heavily on style, age as well as this one.
I’ve heard this film described as being all style and no substance, which to me couldn’t be further from the truth. Michel is infatuated with Patricia who turns him in to the police, leading to his death. In a film where the act of imitation and the fact of filmmaking are so heavily foregrounded, it can’t be a coincidence that Patricia is an American. There isn’t really any reason why the character has to be an American except to make a point about the influence of American cinema on its French counterpart. Michel imitates Bogart, an actor whose image and presence in a genre the French would name Noir, had great influence in French cinema circles. The substance in the film comes through its commentary on the relationship between American cinema and French filmmakers, which Godard sees as destructive (hence Michel’s death at the end) because the French voice is being smothered through imitation of American forms and conventions. The style – which was revolutionary at the time – is borne of its substance, creating something new in the face of all this imitation, breaking away from the conventions imposed on the film world by Hollywood, while also acknowledging the way that it echoes elements of Hollywood films, from the presence of Bogart to the self-consciously Hollywood score.
Breathless is that rare beast: a perfect movie. It rewards with each viewing, providing you each time with something you didn’t notice before. Some films are destroyed by the amount of scholarship they inspire, making their viewing seem more like an academic exercise than an entertainment, but this is a film that no amount of dissection can ruin. It is, quite simply, that good.