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Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard) 1960 

    Though it was the third major feature of the French New Wave (behind the still-significant The 400 Blows and Hiroshima, Mon Amour), Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant Breathless is the most momentous and radical of them. Filled with a self-reverential vibe, this film manages to briefly nod at both of the other first New Wave features. The characters pass a theater playing Hiroshima and the film is loosely based on a news article that Truffaut, director of The 400 Blows, gave to Godard. We also see an amusing scene in which a character that rejects a copy of Cahiers De Cinema (the journal that basically launched the New Wave) is scorned for not liking “new ideas”. Despite this indebtedness, which does a great job of establishing the film as an examination of a prevailing attitude of its time, as opposed to a simple character study (in retrospect, it almost feels like a Parisian version of Woody Allen’s Manhattan), the film is distinctly and uniquely Godard’s. 

    It’s quite simple to write a good deal about a film as richly packed as Breathless, but so much has already been said about the film that much of it feels redundant. I will note that the film’s stylistic diversions, which appeared absolutely radical back in 1960 feel less astonishing to me than they must have then, but I must admit that the movie pulls some astonishing tricks. The way that the opening montage so quickly sets up the storyline, without much establishing either location or character is certainly surprising, as is the way that Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the lead character casually addresses the audience. This is perhaps the first complete meta-movie, in which the audience is being constantly reminded of the falseness of the enterprise (which makes them aware of the manipulations of the auteur, who makes a cameo appearance, naturally). This sort of thing has been copied countless times, but rarely when Godard’s style is copied does it feel as in context and appropriate as it does here. The trick of Breathless is that Michel is quite aware of the films that have shaped his tough guy posturing; so much of the self-awareness Godard imposes feels organic. He compares himself to a picture of Bogart and mocks himself even as he continues to amp up his act. 


    That sort of self-aware machismo is somewhat off-putting, however, until the film introduces Patricia (Jean Seberg), a doggedly independent young American for whom Michel professes his love. There’s an undeniably great chemistry between the two, and they make one of the most attractive and genuine couples in all of cinema. Yet, we wonder what she’s doing with such an obviously manipulative, conniving dog like him until Godard trots out the film’s great set piece. After so many scenes that abbreviate the film’s running time, using jump cuts to cut out extraneous material, Breathless delivers a stunning twenty-five minute sequence set in Patricia’s bedroom. Though the jump cuts continue, the mood remains unbroken. Godard shows a startling ability here to turn audience expectations on end. This is the sequence that still best exemplifies the radical spirit of the film, and there’s not a gun in sight. It also does a teriffic job of rounding out Michel and Patricia. After this sequence, we’re stuck caring about these clever kids. The self awareness that Godard worked to build becomes an charming part of their point of view. For all of its militant lashes against the establishment, it’s surprising, and endearing, that the film finds so much to like about someone who swallows the mainstream’s message whole. 

    That mixture of love and hate is the movie’s driving force, however. Surely the way that it fetishizes American pop culture, and celebrates its vibrant energy, stands in direct opposition to the fate that befalls Michel for buying into it (and the woman it’s produced).  Michel himself claims he’s the one guy that loves the cops, yet he’s hunted for killing one. There’s also the perception of the city of Paris, which is often so well shot that you understand why the film is called Breathless, but is generally revealed to be far less grand than the romanticized notions of other films suggest it is. All of these contradictions only underline the feeling of restlessness that lies at the film’s core, however. It’s as if Godard was acutely aware of the state of cinema, which included both its general malaise and its yearning for more, and, like Michel, finally decided something had to be done when he made Breathless. It stands as a stunning success, not just because of that sense of “right place, right time”, however. The vitality of Godard’s vision has created something more universal and beautiful that is capable of catapulting the film’s energy out of 1959 France, and into wherever it may be viewed. 

**** Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman