Lost in the Movies: Breathless


This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

Patricia is pregnant. Like the virgin mother-to-be in Hail Mary or the pop princess of Masculin Feminin contemplating a gruesome abortion (and unlike the desperate housewife in A Woman is a Woman), this young American has been knocked up - but her decision remains more ambiguous than that of the other two Godard heroines. The situation is doubly appropriate. For one, Breathless was probably the film, more than any other, which birthed the new cinema to dominate the next decade; for another, this is a movie uncertain and uneven in its style and story. Yet just as Patricia's fickleness and hesitation charm her beaux, so the movie's ragged, freefloating style impressed and excited an entire generation and held the coming epoch in thrall.

At times, one can have trouble figuring out why. Jean-Luc Godard is a brilliant filmmaker, but the intensely focused experimentalist who helmed Masculin Feminin or Weekend, wild yet precise in the manner of a jazz improvisationist, has not quite found his groove yet in Breathless. For better or worse, this remains the film's distinctive charm and provides it with the uniqueness that helps it to remain, to this day, the most popular and celebrated film in his oeuvre. It has an amiable looseness that would tighten up before long, a relaxed luxuriance best manifested in the captivating bedroom scene in which the characters' facades drop a bit and we glimpse the uncertain yet somewhat unconscious kids behind the masks.

Breathless is a quintessential feature debut; in it you can read the traces of the director Godard wanted to be and the director he became. As he later said, "it belongs...with Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was Scarface." Subsequent films would foster a rich dialectic between his almost fanboyish regard for Hollywood entertainments (particularly thrillers) and his intensely unique (and very un-Hollywood) working methods and thought process. In Breathless, the contradiction still seems a bit unconscious - we sense that Godard, like Belmondo, was rubbing his thumb across his lips like Bogart without quite recognizing the gesture's futility.

While making Breathless, Godard would show up on set each day with freshly-written dialogue (sound being post-dubbed, he offered offscreen assists to the actors). He struggled with the challenges of shooting on location - as all directors do, but he more than most given his limited resources and lack of a support structure. Finally, he wound up with a rough cut far too long and unwieldy. Forced to trim it in unorthodox manner, he wound up almost by accident (but in retrospect, as a direct result of his approach, however unintended) with one of the most memorable movies ever made.

Often featured in canons and ecumenical lists, Breathless sometimes seems like the favorite Godard film of people who don't really like Godard. It is praised for having an anchor in its scenario, written by Francois Truffaut, but in truth the "story" is the movie's least interesting element. True, the borderline naive irony of its presentation has some charm: it's kind of cute when Michel shoots a cop and flees to pounding music, or the bumbling flatfoots hide behind a street corner as if Patricia won't see them, or Michel runs an entire street length before collapsing conveniently at a crosswalk. But such touches, taken in isolation, can wear thin before long. A lark yes, but worthy of its legacy?

We live in an age where this kind of self-conscious playacting, so fresh and new in 1959, has become the default setting in pop culture. Today everyone acts with a wink, and the media always lets us know it's in on the joke. Self-awareness is no longer very subversive. Yet what's still so striking about Breathless is its ability to penetrate through the gestures and symbols and expressions and unearth something genuinely human and spontaneous. I don't think it quite does this throughout - not to the extent later Godards do - but there are extended moments of insight.

Most notably, the movie strikes a nerve in the extended bedroom scene. There Michel and Patricia teasingly engage one another, and suddenly they and the film stretch out and create a living present out of past fragments (traces of other movies, references to art and books) and future dreams (plans to run off to Italy, the pregnancy situation, his seductive pleas and passes). Here is where Godard's peculiar methods most pay off; I promised myself not to use the "j" word in this review and I don't need to because it isn't the editing strategy/compromise, nor the clever film references, nor the wheelchair-bound tracking shots that most justify and perpetuate Breathless' distinctive place in film history. 

Instead, the film earns its reputation with moments of an even purer "cinema" in which there is no apparent technique, only a camera acting as a scalpel, scraping away social and aesthetic obscurations by holding on a face, catching a glance or a gaze, seizing upon the hesitation in a line delivery (that this could be achieved without direct sound is even more remarkable). It's a bit harder to do here than it would be later, because Anna Karina reels you in whereas Jean Seberg holds you at a distance - Patricia smiles in that frustrating way that makes you uncertain if there's a "there" there. Pauline Kael, praising the film for capturing a blank generation, didn't think so, but I do.

Patricia has moments where, reacting to Michel, she seems caught off-guard, surprised at herself - flashes of insight appearing to her for the first time as they appear to us, making their experience all the fresher (see how she fondles the teddy bear, and stumbles in a couple responses to Michel's curt insults). The way she ultimately sells him out, it's less an act of shallow boredom than an attempt at self-realization - she realizes she can do this, and so she does. It's like the moment described in Vivre sa vie, where the man, fleeing gunfire, thinks for the first time about putting one step in front of another and suddenly dies in the throes of self-consciousness. Here thought leads to action instead of inaction, but in both cases awareness leads inevitably to death.

While a harbinger of the coming cinema, Breathless also belongs to a certain extent to the year it was shot. It seems at times to be a fifties movie, in its fashion, its attitude, its references, looking around rather than forward. In fact it's a snapshot of one sensibility becoming another, because in that bedroom the restless energy of the fifties (and the rest of the movie) finds an outlet. It's not so easy to define as "sex," or "talk," or (God forbid) "love," it's just a general vibe, a feeling - which would become especially pronounced in the mid-sixties before the apocalyptic element struck in full force - that one could stop, relax, breathe in the air, look around, live in the moment. Perhaps precisely because that moment was now more fully defined by a looming sense of danger and death; ironically, this threatening atmosphere removed any lingering guilt and restlessness from sheer enjoyment.

That's where the movie's doom-laden plot, and its downbeat ending straight out of 30s poetic realism, do come in handy, giving a sense of foreboding articulated explicitly during the hilarious cameo by Jean-Pierre Melville as the quipping author at the airport. The film fades to black soon after Michel perishes, rubbing his lips and mumbling something ambiguous which the subtitles, as they do throughout the film, render less so. Even the translation of the title ("A Bout de Souffle" to "Breathless") seems a bit off-the-mark: "Out of Breath" has more finality and anticipation to it, making those moments where one is breathing seem all the more vital and worth savoring.

But if the film dies with Belmondo, it has already achieved immortality, with a boy and a girl in bed in a cheap room on a sunny afternoon. Out of this romantic rendezvous, a new cinema is born, and with it a new way of looking at the world.

Breathless appears at 0:35 in "Sixties Rising," a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies."

Tomorrow: Casablanca
Yesterday: Bicycle Thieves


Jon said...

"Subsequent films would foster a rich dialectic between his almost fanboyish regard for Hollywood entertainments (particularly thrillers) and his intensely unique (and very un-Hollywood) working methods and thought process."

Well said Joel. You also put up many well put arguments and statements here that tackle the thing very well, from the irony angle, the wondrous bedroom scene. It's all there. I do appreciate Godard for his work up through Weekend, but after that I must admit he loses me. I don't follow Godard after Weekend, kind of like Mr. Juliano. That's neither here nor there, but Breathless is a landmark type of film. Belmondo's performance is legendary and his style works so very well for Godard. His insouciance and innate irony in his performances perfectly couple with Godard's style here. It's funny how Melville used Belmondo as well, but tried putting him more in "straight" roles. I still see him in his element more here than in say Leon Morin, Priest. But I think Melville was using Belmondo as a contrast if you will.

Anyway, one quick thought. I was watching Nick Ray's They Live By Night the other day. I notice in that film there is a desire to film the two lovers "in space". By that I mean, the camera wants to regard them together and just let them be in the moment. It happens in fleeting glimpses, but I know Godard had quite a reverence for Ray. I kind of found a dotted line between some elements of Ray's film and the portrayal of the lovers here, in the way the camera is okay just filming people and letting them just be in front of us without trying push a storyline ahead as the main point of a scene. Maybe it's just me, but that's what I thought as I watched Ray's film.

Joel Bocko said...

That's a great observation and true, I think. Though I think there's a lot of verite documentary influence on Breathless, I also think Godard was keen on taking documentary aspects from fiction and fantastical elements from documentary (he once said something to the effect that Melies was the true documentarian and the Lumieres the true fantasists, which pretty well describes his way of looking at the world, and what I love about him, I think).

This was an interesting essay for me to write because - while Godard himself is probably my favorite director - this is not really one of my favorites of his, as I allude to in the piece. But watching it this time, the bedroom scene really hit home with me in a way it hadn't necessarily in the past. I felt the film really came alive there.

I'm very, very spotty on post-'68 Godard; I've only seen a handful of his films, maybe five or six at most. But I plan on rectifying that this winter or spring; I'm buying Histoires du Cinema when it comes out on R1 and when I have better online access I'll seek out everything of his I can get my hands on and try to do a really thorough retrospective. I like most of his later stuff I've seen though it doesn't hit me the same way as the 60s stuff.

I did not care for In Praise of Love (ironically, one of the few Godards I've actually reviewed up to now) but I've seen Hail Mary a couple times, and it's really growing on me.

Jeff Pike said...

Hey Joel, thanks for leaving comments over at my place. I thought the least I could do is return the favor. When I saw your publishing schedule for this series, and compared it with mine, I saw we were both getting to Breathless at nearly the same time. I knew you liked Godard quite a bit, and that I harbored my general suspicions about him, so like you I was surprised to see how much we agreed on here, particularly the love dynamic (such as it is) between the principals trumping the gangster elements. There's something very fresh and charming I think between the two of them. I suspect Truffaut may have had a little more to do with it than Godard, and the actors of course do a fine job in those scenes. Whoever is responsible, it's a part of the movie that reliably reaches me. I also think the whole thing looks really great generally, maybe something about the film stock? But also the way it's framed and shot from scene to scene is lively and alive. Thanks as always for your interest -- I don't think we'll be crossing paths this way again, but I will be following your series right along. Good stuff!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, JPK - this was the first Godard I saw and I didn't like it at all at the time. Totally underwhelmed me. After that, I liked most of the Godard I saw and when I came back to Breathless it grew on me - but only when I was able to see it as a lark rather than a "Big Important Film" which I don't think is a weight it can really carry (ironic then that I included it in "The Big Ones" series I suppose but then the criteria for that is supposed to be others' opinions more than my own).

I think Truffaut's input can be exaggerated - he provided the loose scenario - which I think was only a paragraph long, but all the dialogue and detail was conceived by Godard, often on the very morning of shooting (another reason I think the intellectual aspect of his work is exaggerated, he was usually working on a whim rather than anything more concrete and reasoned-out).

The photographic appeal, on the other hand, I think can be distributed fairly well between Godard and Raoul Coutard - one thing I love about this era of cinema is how the rebels still believed in a sort of aesthetic discipline (that or the cinematographers they worked with did!). The looseness conceals a certain classicism, best articulated by Jean-Pierre Gorin on the Italian film Fists in the Pocket (I've quoted it a million times on this site and it's a bit too long to cite again here, but it's at the bottom of this visual tribute: http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2010/10/shaking-foundations.html).

I'd say that's my favorite quote related to 60s cinema, but it has some stiff competition from Melville's infamous (and also quoted by me) line in this film, which you mention in your review! God, I love that one - and if it doesn't sum up the whole spirit of the 60s, nothing else does.

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