Godard’s ‘Breathless’: A Movie Made By a Movie Fan

By  · Published on March 4th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they celebrate a by-the-numbers movie that changed everything. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

In the #13 movie on the list, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) does his best Bogart impression, steals a car, shoots a cop, and hides out with his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg).

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Landon: So, last week we were in France in the 1930s. And in a remarkable display of the diversity of the S&S list, we’re now going so far as…France 30 years later. I know you had some issues with L’Atalante. With Godard’s debut feature, have one major war and three decades of filmmaking improved French art filmmaking?

Scott: Well, Breathless did win a Jean Vigo award didn’t it?

Landon: Indeed. Though I have no idea if that means Jean Seberg has a tattoo of a man’s face somewhere on her stomach. I’m pretty sure that’s a requirement for the award.

Scott: As it should be, but really the improvement here is in pure storytelling. L’Atalante – as celebrated as it is for its style – still has out-and-out plot holes. Amateur elements (which aren’t too surprising from a director who was 28 and only made one feature).

Breathless has the benefit of a tiny bit more experience from Godard and from the art form growing up even more. Standing on the tattooed shoulders of giant creepy sailors and everything.

Landon: Interesting point, considering Godard was only 30 and had made, like Vigo, a few short films before this. But I’m guessing with regards to “experience,” you’re not just referring to the director’s prior filmmaking.

Scott: Specifically his obsession with film itself and participation in cine-clubs where the people who became the New Wave would geek out over films of the past – like L’Atalante.

Landon: Yeah, more so than any other movie we’ve seen so far, goddamn movies are all over this movie. It should have won the Humphrey Bogart award along with the Vigo.

Scott: With time, Godard got to be a real movie dork before becoming a director, but it must have been refreshing to see someone so in love with movies be able to reference and homage while making something that felt new.

Today we look at J.J. Abrams as a new Spielberg, but it’s because his story sense is a carbon copy. We can all recognize the influence.

Landon: While I agree that storytelling is more apparent and central in a classic Hollywood homage way compared to Vigo’s work, Breathless has so many diversions from any actual movement of its story forward: lengthy digressions in rooms about love and sex, Belmondo’s ruminations about Seberg’s neck during a car ride.

While this isn’t the full blown Hollywood critique Godard would later mount, there’s still something of an ironic detachment from what’s being homage’d (totally a word) to here.

Scott: But he gets away with it (with flying colors) because 1) the story itself is weighty 2) the diversions are interesting and 3) even as it meanders, it never feels too far afield.

I was going to say that it never feels like the director is making it up as he goes along….but…yeah. They were.

Landon: So even though this movie has a great deal of deliberate discontinuity similar to Vigo, for you there’s more depth and grounding behind it, propelled by storytelling?

Scott: Honestly, it has the simple benefit of a genre anchor. Classic noir seen through a completely different prism. The danger and excitement is always in the background.

Maybe experimentation is a little easier to swallow when it’s wrapped around something we know. Like bacon-wrapped-shrimp.

Landon: Ah. The analogy would work better if it were something weird wrapping itself around bacon, but I guess I wanted to push my point because I’ve always felt there was this big ironic layer to Breathless that prevented me from caring, on an emotive level, what happens to Belmondo by the end of the film. Even the long tracking shot and music accompanying his death scene seem to be so steeped in reference that what we’re watching is a movie with “movie” all over it. And the film’s anarchic energy, its dark comedy, ending with the word “puke” all point for me to a movie selling attitude and style, not story.

Though it certainly profits from using a familiar story as a framework for all this.

Scott: Wow. Talk about a double edge.

Landon: Yeah, it’s some rigid bacon.

Scott: Breathless has the benefit (for the audience) of looking and feeling like a movie. Even if it doesn’t quite look like any movie we’ve seen before.

Landon: True. I don’t think it would have been such a big hit if it didn’t have the international language of genre.

Scott: But I think balancing that with the experimental side is the real triumph here. It’s also part of what makes Breathless feel new 53 years later.

Plus it’s subversive. It lures the average viewer in with the stuff they know and love, then delivers something a bit challenging, something unexpected. You can’t, by definition, be subversive if you’re completely experimental or largely toying with the recipe.

Landon: Cheers to that. One thing I love about this movie is its energy (after 53 years). You mentioned how the film feels improvisational. As far as the setting of the story goes, it still feels like a direct, on-the-ground look at young, cool people in Paris in 1960. Like with Rome in La Dolce Vita, except the way this film captures Paris in 1960 feels more immediate.

Also, the movie is really funny. For anybody who has a stereotype of French movies being stuffy and serious, this is a perfect counterpoint.

Scott: But isn’t that what many people still see when they see the Criterion cover for Breathless? An arty French film with long, contemplative shots?

Not a crime movie dripping with sex that ends on a puke joke?

Landon: Yeah, that’s the stereotype, and I imagine the stereotype of Godard’s movies at large (which is true about some of his work). But the movie’s subversiveness that you mention feels so youthful and fresh. There’s not an ounce of reverence in this film, except maybe to Humphrey Bogart. What people forget about French movies of this time is how gloriously, enjoyably irreverent they are.

Scott: The ennui is more joyful than we tend to remember. It’s not, “Nothing matters…”

It’s, “Nothing matters!”

Landon: “Get stuffed!”

Scott: Yes, Landon, it would be cool to see a version where Eeyore plays Michel.

Landon: Much shorter though. Those bike cops would have put him out of his misery.

There seems to be lots of love here for Godard. I have a feeling that’ll get tested later on in this list.

But for now:

Nothing matters! Hooray!

Scott: I know our conversation is over, but weren’t we going to talk about Jean Seberg’s neck for 1,000 words during the middle of it?

Landon: I was just planning on saying “New York Herald Tribune” a dozen times.

Scott: And now I’ll never get to know what “puke” means.

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