Criterion Files #408: Breathless

By  · Published on June 16th, 2010

When looking at great films from the past, it’s hard to gain an appreciation for them in terms of context, because if a film has influenced the past few decades of filmmaking, it’s hard to see that inciting work with the necessary tunnel-vision of the history of the time, our viewing experience determined by the films influenced by it since that we’ve inevitably seen out-of-ideal-order. A. O. Scott recently referred to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) as “a bulletin from the future of cinema,” and the fact that a film can be fifty years old and still feel like a product of the medium’s future is telling as to how palpable the manic originality of Godard’s debut film is fifty years on.

I remember a scene in last year’s (500) Days of Summer that parodies French art filmmaking, juxtaposing black-and-white images of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoey Deschanel framed together in ways vaguely familiar to mid-century black-and-white art cinema. But it became clear quite quickly that the self-seriousness that they were parodying was more of a direct reference to the work of Swedish filmmaking behemoth Ingmar Bergman (JGL plays chess with Death a la The Seventh Seal, the couple address the camera directly and in profile in a reference to Persona), which begs the question, why in the hell are they speaking French? I think the reasoning for this is simple: the stereotype of the mid-century French arthouse film is miles away from what such cinema actually is. The French New Wave is easily the best-known cinematic artistic movement ever to come out of that country, and Breathless is arguably the canonical film of that movement, so the stereotype of French celluloid stuffiness deteriorates in face of the fact that one of the best-known films of France’s best-known film movement is so chaotically, whimsically, violently, endearingly, masochistically, romantically, hilariously, nihilistically fun.

And that’s easily the most surprising thing about watching Godard’s masterpiece in correspondence with it turning half a century old and awaiting a Criterion BRD release after having existed as an essential part of the collection for several years on DVD. The sense that emanates from Breathless – of a filmmaker who truly possesses a borderline emotionally unstable affection for and, at the same time, a calculated and intellectually cold understanding of cinema actively toying and experimenting in the medium – is still fresh and resonant today. From the accelerated opening in medias res without a smidge of context or character introduction to the demystifying, dizzying, 180-degree-rule-defying murder of police officers and all up to the extended climactic shot of our protagonist desperately strutting through his final steps, Breathless’ significance becomes hardly exclusive to its place in film history as it remains a purely exciting and provocative firecracker of a film, deafeningly disrupting the practice of movies-as-usual while its creator joyfully and maniacally cackles the resulting dismay from the back of the room.

Breathless wasn’t the first film of the New Wave, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, but it’s still a resounding herald of things to come in the world of world cinema. It’s that rare film which looks backward while simultaneously moving forward.

“After all, I am an asshole.”

Like other members of La Nouvelle Vague who wrote extensively on film in the landmark journal La Cahiers du cinema, Godard possessed a firm understanding of cinema’s past, specifically Classical Hollywood. This knowledge is exercised in Breathless through its affection for genre and its love for the movie star, and Breathless’s basic skeletal framework is an intentionally conventional gangster film featuring and cat-and-mouse chase between law and outlaw. It uses a familiar framework in which to stage a thorough dismantling of that framework, and as evidenced by protagonist Michel Poiccard’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo) opening line of dialogue, it takes a notable degree of arrogance and the brash attitude of the asshole to dismantle a cinematic institution that even the dismantler loves so openly.

Where Breathless deters from the Hollywood formula is not in some sort of narrative transition, rather Breathless presents itself in its disorientingly executed opening sequence as an event unto itself. Frequently forcing the audience out of a state of suspended disbelief (jump-cuts, deliberate discontinuity in framing and sequencing, Belmondo breaking the fourth wall as he addresses the camera), Breathless calls attention to the old regime of cinema while ushering in the new, essentially exclaiming, “cinema is dead, long live cinema!” Rather than using a conventional narrative with the selective implementation of original and disruptive style like Godard’s contemporary Francois Truffaut did with The 400 Blows the previous year, Breathless is, from the outset and throughout, a thorough act of rebellion, but one enacted with pleasure in regard to what it’s rebelling against.

The critical moment, I think, comes when Godard allows cinema to envelop in on itself. Poiccard/Belmondo is lingering by the marquee of a movie theater when he spots a picture of Humphrey Bogart, and as Belmondo stares as Bogart, Bogart seems to stare right back. In the kinetic tone of this film, what occurs here is a brief, reflective and self-reflexive moment of solace and acknowledgement, as if Bogart and Belmondo were nodding to each other in agreement about things to come, Bogart representing the ideal of the past (Hollywood convention, genre, the movie star), and Belmondo embodying its future. It’s as if Godard were deliberately manufacturing a movie star birthed from a calculated incongruity with the traditions of movie stardom (and Belmondo, in his won right, did become one of this period’s notable “stars”).

But the New Wave, of course, was a reaction to Hollywood just as much as it ultimately influenced Hollywood in turn, as American filmmakers of the late 60s and early 70s adopted the new stylistic devices and genre deconstruction of the New Wave (Warren Beatty, tellingly, originally wanted Godard or Truffaut to direct his “new kind of gangster movie” Bonnie & Clyde). And it is in this that I return to the Bogart-Belmondo moment of Breathless, for this dialogue-free negotiation of movie stars old and new predicts so much of what happens in Hollywood within the following decade. Belmondo definitely possesses a movie star kind of charisma, but certainly not its conventional look. He is handsome, but oddly so, his face quite literally punctuated by his cartoonish nose. He’s a harbinger of the odd yet magnetic anti-movie stars that would dominate New Hollywood: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Hopper, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, etc. So as Breathless so intently positioned itself as a signpost between classical and modern cinema, the central “narrative” structuring the film (if one can describe a film without narrative and without structure in such a way) of Poiccard trying to seduce an American woman (Jean Seberg) is rather appropriate, cataloguing the New Wave’s desperate chase of the radiant yet ever elusive American cinema, and Poiccard’s inevitable death operating as a call to arms, a cautionary tale silencing the urge to chase a classical and, let’s face it, Hollywood-dominated ideal of what cinema should be and, in making something uniquely European and distinctly modernist, attempts to realize the potential of what film can be.

Godard’s cinema would change greatly in the second half of the sixties, becoming more overtly political as the Vietnam War escalated in its bloodiness, and members of the New Wave would pass on as the movement eventually died…But Breathless still remains an essential work which first convinced us that, of all the many things cinema can reflect on, it is essentially and ultimately always about the medium itself.

Click here for more Criterion Files