A Matter of Life and Breath: Fifty years on, 'Breathless' still feels alive
The marvelous jump cuts, the seemingly endless tracking shots, the camera’s radical gaze …” This is usually the point in any conversation about film where my eyelids grow heavy, my nails dig into my palms and I begin thinking about all of the e-mails I have yet to respond to, anything to raise my heart rate to a level that will keep me conscious. Serious film chat? No thanks, I’ll bring a book.
Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” is almost always bandied about in such conversations. “It’s one of the films that all true cinemaphiles must see, don’t you know?” This is the reason I have avoided it; I have discovered that sometimes those landmark films that “have changed the face of cinema,” (“Citizen Kane” I’m talking about you) don’t necessarily stand the test of time. Yes, I can see the technical brilliance. Yes, I can see the innovation. Yes, I can see why this film is held in such high esteem. And no, I do not want to sit through this relic of another time.
I avoided “Breathless” because I already knew too much about it. It’s all in the stills: Jean-Paul Belmondo rubs his lips; Jean Seberg looks gorgeous in black shades and a pixie haircut; and together they walk along the Champs-Élysées. I knew “Breathless” the way people know so many historical moments, not as something immediate and life altering, but as sedimentary images, things that once meant something but have now been diffused of all relevance.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, a newly remastered print of “Breathless” has been released at select locations. One of those select locations was five minutes from where I live, so I broke down and saw it. And then I saw it again. Maybe as you already know, it’s that good.
The story is simple enough: a street thug, Michel (Belmondo), kills a police officer after being caught stealing a car and spends the rest of the film attempting to woo an American student, Patricia (Seberg), while waiting for a dubious pay out from some thug named Berrutti. It’s a simple chase film, heavily influenced by American crime films of the 1940s as well as the postwar Italian neo-realists.
The narrative is clear and concise. Moreover, Godard allows his audience to make their own decisions. What happened the night before? Is Patricia pregnant? Did the police inspector intentionally misspeak Michel’s last words? So much is left for the audience to decide, yet never once does it feel as though Godard withholds information. The film is a perfect marriage of form and content, with neither holding the other hostage. The jump cuts, the lengthy tracking shots, the direct gaze into the camera (stay with me…), only enhance Godard’s intention, that is, to show the remarkable possibilities that cinema holds as an art form.
The French New Wave, of which Godard was a member, (along with Francois Truffaut, who was responsible for the film’s scenario) may not have been the first movement to propose that film is art, but it was certainly the most insistent and visible. La Nouvelle Vague recognized that the art of one generation is always in dialogue with the one that went before it. By the late 1950s, movies, for the first time in history, had a history; here was a band of men (and women) who felt the urgent necessity to respond to that history: to not only pay homage to it, but also to destroy it in some sense. They changed the act of movie watching from an exercise in passivity to an interaction between filmmaker and audience.
Questions were raised, though not necessarily answered; audiences were made uncomfortable, and expectations were shattered. “Breathless” offers a master class on this new understanding of filmmaking. From the jump cuts of Belmondo tooling down the Champs-Élysées to Seberg’s haunting final stare into the camera, the newness still feels new, exciting and real.
Giving one of the finest performances ever captured on film, Belmondo is Pacino before Pacino. He is a live wire, all quick-twitch reflex and impulse, yet startlingly efficient in his gestures. There is no wasted movement, no excess in Belmondo’s performance. He manages to parlay the tension between restless, kinetic energy and disciplined, choreographed intention with ease. Seberg leaves far less of an impression. A delight to behold, her pedestrian acting skills are strangely aided by her less-than-masterful French, which gives her an air of vulnerability that makes you feel for her in spite of her fundamental woodenness.
“Breathless” isn’t just technical innovation and performance pyrotechnics, which wouldn’t suffice to sustain legions of stylistic successors. There is something more to it, a life force that provides a still palpable urgency. Still intriguing are the transcendent themes of the rational (Seberg’s Patricia) and the sensate (Belmondo’s Michel), the old world versus the new, courage versus prudence. The film examines these issues narratively and stylistically, famously married in a remarkable scene that takes place solely in the confines of Patricia’s miniscule Parisian flat. As Patricia delivers a largely forgettable existential monologue and Michel continually makes a play for her affections, the camera (and the audience) juts back and forth between the role of observer and obstacle.
“Breathless” is not a museum piece; it is not to be talked about in hushed, reverent tones. Rather it is a remarkable work of art that still challenges and engages its audience. The film demands an intelligent point of view, as well as a childlike sense of play. It sets a standard to which all filmmakers should strive: to entertain, to question and most importantly to show life at its most immediate and most authentic. My only regret upon finally seeing the film is that I now feel obliged to bore to tears those poor souls who haven’t seen it, until they, finally, surrender.
Consider me converted.