Breathless Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Breathless Review

    “You said you hated Paris.”

    “No, I said I had enemies there.”

    Marking its fiftieth anniversary, Optimum and Studio Canal have brought out a special edition Blu-ray of Jean-Luc Godard's classic crime and love story, Breathless (A Bout De Souffle). Winner of the Silver Bear Award at the 1960 Berlin Film Festival, this is the simple story of a small-time crook called Michel Poiccard (the cult actor Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his on-the-run love-affair with American beauty Patricia (played with crop-topped sex appeal by Jean Seberg). After stealing a car and then shooting dead the policeman pursuing him for foolishly speeding through the French countryside, the uber-cool Michel is forced to use his system of female accomplices and acquaintances to get by as he works his way towards Patricia in order to convince her to flee with him to Italy. But once he catches up with her, he finds that he has an even harder time getting her to see his point of view. An elusive friend who owes him enough money to give them a new start means that Michel has to loiter in the city for a lot longer than he intended and, with his face plastered all over the newspapers and even flashed-up in lights on the sides of buildings, it is only a matter of time before the law closes in. But, in the meantime, romance and lust intermingle. Clothes are bought and many cars are robbed. An enormous amount of cigarettes are smoked and much pillow talk is had. Both fugitives are forced to confront some home truths about themselves and about each other, and certainly one of the couple will go through a sort of epiphany that will eventually seal the fate of them both.

    It's a thriller. It's a love story. It's a comedy of errors. It's a tour of Paris. It's all of these things and an acute, typically French observation of sexual politics in a society that is changing radically on almost a daily basis. Well, I say typically French, but the fact is that Breathless is the film that made such a viewpoint, and the cinematic style that thrust it into the limelight so influential and recognisable in the first place. Widely regarded as the start of the French New Wave, Godard's film broke gender roles apart and brought realism, pessimism, arrogance and contemporary insight into the sort of story that, in American hands, may even have had Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in the roles. That little mention of pessimism, by the way, is possibly a bit misleading. For although Michel has a dark heart and a sense of roguish tragedy about him, he is still playful, irreverent and something of a likeable stooge. And when Patricia has more serious thoughts, they are so clouded by that adorable pixie-smile and those bright, luminous eyes that whatever destiny-laden outcomes she imagines they seem positively ebullient.

    It is tempting to say that these two societal renegades are star-crossed, but that would be far too obvious a thread for Godard to weave. Instead, he conjures up a milieu in which his characters become both the hope and the fears for a brave new world on the verge of cultural revolution.

    Jean-Luc Godard may have nailed the undercurrent of a new set of ethics with this frothy and cutting excursion and helped to give a voice and an outlet for others to follow, but he also made two fantastic SF/fantasy films that both retained his Nouvelle Vague sensibility with more direct mainstream concepts. There was the awesome future-noir (yes, way before Blade Runner) of 1965's Alphaville, starring the great Eddie Constantine, and there was the post-apocalyptic road-movie (yes, way before Mad Max) of 1967's Weekend, starring Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne. Now I cannot deny that I much prefer both of those two films to this far more realistic one or, in fact, to anything else from the director that I have seen, but Breathless is still one of those experiences that is felt more fully than it may initially be appreciated. The power of the film lies not within its narrative, nor even its characters and their ambivalent, almost amoral motivations. Rather it is a catalogue of elements that go into creating a film that doesn't actually want to be greater than the sum of its parts. Experimental in editing, in structure, in direction and photography, Breathless is a conscious effort to break with cinematic tradition and to tell a story via image and mood in a way that is radically tangential from the norm. With his film set to a jazzy and upbeat Parisian sizzle from Martial Solal that almost provides a Henry Mancini-esque Pink Panther vibe, Godard instructed his editor, Cecile Decugis, to strip its running time down to lend the film its own jagged sense of movement. To that end, Decugis radically opted not to remove full scenes or even patches of dialogue, but to prune out individual frames from the film, hither and yon. The effect of this weird time-juddering style has since become part of the vocabulary of film, and although the art has now been perfected – whether by Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan and Ridley Scott for Black Hawk Down or by numerous TV show directors – it is Breathless that started the ball rolling for such thematic and usually action-based frame-jumping. His arty black and white photography was immeasurably influential with the use of DOP Raoul Coutard's hand-held cameras and the crossing from incandescent close-ups from staggeringly picturesque faces to detailed city vistas. There was even a vérité style adopted at various junctures that kept the film alive and moving even during quieter sequences.

    Godard reacts to the world he sees around him, but he does so with a reflection of, and almost a tip of the hat towards the gangster films and crime-capers that Hollywood had been producing for decades. Much is made by critics of the hat, the cigarette, the hangdog look and the warm eyes of Belmondo being a trade-off to Humphrey Bogart, but his Michel is cut from different cloth entirely. Needy and impetuous, this guy has only one thing in common with Bogie, and that is his staunch self-resilience, a street-honed knack for escape and evasion and for spotting opportunities that he can twist to his own advantage. Godard clearly has a grudging admiration for his anti-hero, though, and this is where the grey line of character infatuation really reminds of Bogart's on-screen tough-guy persona. He even has Michel scrutinising the matinee-idol's image in the lobby art for The Harder They Fall in a cinema window, trying to mimic the expression, perhaps, or just as possibly mocking it. The filmmaker also enjoys mirroring the new frankness and obliviousness of modern society. Early on we see the immediate aftermath of a road accident, a victim having been knocked-down and lying in the street. Only a couple of onlookers even bother to come over, including Michel – who offers a completely nonchalant sniff at the predicament and a puff on his cigarette as there appears little for him to gain from the incident – and this sets the tone for the contemporary feeling of societal isolation that other films were too afraid to address. The depiction of sexual mores is even more overt, of course. Michel makes easy reference to his previous conquests in the course of re-wooing Patricia – he glibly informs her that he has slept with two girls since their last liaison, but even if they were prettier they were not as much fun – and he freely indicates the lack of bra beneath her top. This is casual and conversational, as is the occasional profanity. Quite a few “Merdes!” are uttered. Again, you just wouldn't have had this from the American Cinema of 1960. The depiction of the new man as an arrogant sexual predator is wonderfully met head-on by the fact that the new woman seems totally at ease, and even contented with this set-up. Which was, naturally, an incendiary notion back then.

    “It's sad to fall asleep. It separates people. Even when you're sleeping together, you're all alone.”

    Michel's behaviour towards Patricia is child-like, petty and juvenile. He virtually serenades her, praises her neck, her breasts and begs her to sleep with him again, but when she refuses, and only on the grounds that she has a prior engagement, he calls her a creep and becomes cold and callous. Yet we know that all this is just a game that he is making up as he goes along, because he simply does not know the rules any more. The world is changing, says Godard, and perhaps the new man has a lot more work to do if he wants to get that new woman. Michel is also portrayed as an opportunist thug. Look at the way he casually mugs a man in the gents toilets, cold-cocking him with a karate chop to the back of the neck that Bond would be proud of. In fact, the scene is almost mimicked by Craig's 007 in Quantum Of Solace, as both muggers incapacitate their victim and then lock in them in a toilet by breaking off the door handle … and just gliding away seemingly without a care in the world. There is even a moment in one of those cage-like elevators when I thought that Michel would provide us with the inspiration for that classic tussle for Connery's Bond with Peter Franks in Diamonds Are Forever … but Godard has much more subtle ideas.

    So whilst Belmondo's portrayal of a casual thug with occasional feelings is cleverly constructed as to be anti-brooding, the reversal of so many rebellious American characters, it is Jean Seberg's Patricia who genuinely ignites the screen and becomes a figure of counter-culture celebration. She plays tricks on Michel. She teases him constantly with that mischievous air of sensuality and layers her unashamed cuteness with little flashes of inspiration – cutting through the gushing praise-fest of the journalists surrounding a celebrity author with a few more deliberate questions of her own, for instance, or testing Michel's reactions to a sudden bogus claim of being pregnant. Patricia changes throughout the film, actively seeking out her destiny, or perhaps her own hidden point of view. Already a stranger in a strange land – she is a New Yorker about to embark on studies at the Sorbonne – she embraces the Parisian culture and adores its café society, yet constantly seeks correction in her pronunciation as though testing Michel even further with coy slip-ups. More and more, as the film goes on, it is Patricia who comes to embody the distinct personality of the New Wave, celebrating the unearthing of the modern woman in the process. Whilst Michel goes about his nefarious business, stealing yet more cars in a frantic attempt to make some money, and working ever-closer to the man who can help him make good his escape, Patricia is forced to grow up pretty quickly and learn to use her wits, especially when the cops put in an appearance – in the form of two incredibly clumsy and even nervous detectives who are determined to bag Michel. But her journey, unsurprisingly, is more one of introspection than action, despite a nifty scene in which she successfully ditches a tail. She is still finding herself and only through her difficult and strained relationship with Michel does she stand a chance of discovering her true self … and what she is capable of becoming. This isn't the French Bonnie & Clyde at all. This is the story of two people that don't belong together, but who kid themselves that they do for a while simply because it is convenient at the time, and that they look good together.

    “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.”

    Coming to the film so long after it was released, there is no escaping the fact that much of its impact is not only diminished, but lost altogether on new audiences. Thus, our appreciation for what Godard is doing must be governed by our historical understanding of the culture that he was both embracing and spearheading, and the culture that he was knowingly leaving behind. The French New Wave still has a unique relevance in terms of style, atmosphere, identification and attitude, but it is no longer the rebellion that it was back in the sixties. Unlike other trends in Cinema – the nihilism and anger of Romero, Peckinpah and Craven, say, or the brutally operatic flamboyance of Leone – it doesn't still wear its statement as proudly or as effectively. Like a gentle revolution, the New Wave didn't tear down barriers and violently confront social issues, or bludgeon its audience over the head with messages. It wove through the cinematic possibilities of storytelling and image deliverance on its own floating cloud of Euro-chic and youthful passion. If you didn't get it, it didn't matter. The New Wave, epitomised by filmmakers like Godard, Chabrol, Resnais andTruffaut (upon whose original story idea Godard's screenplay is based), wasn't out to change the world. Like underground literature, free-press and comic-books, it spoke directly to a more youthful market, or rather a market that just had a taste for something out of the ordinary and enjoyed the “select” nature of such a new vogue. Indeed, this sense of the elitist and art-house was the trick that engaged the style with the critics, yet also put up a few barriers of its own. Whether crime, drama, romance or SF allegory, the Nouvelle Vague wouldn't necessarily travel well, deliberately appealing to tastes that were willing to change and happily snubbing those that weren't.

    Personally, I found the film entrancing to look at, yet infuriating to watch, sometimes as dull as dishwater, and sometimes positively brimming with slapdash, semi-comedic style. It is easy to appreciate the effortless cool of the exercise and to both quantify and qualify its profound impact and critical slavering. But Godard's elusive, elliptical style – so perfect for fantasy and SF, I should add – leaves the drama at times heightened and at others rather sodden. Understanding the soft two-fingered salute that it delivers is rewarding, of course, and the performances from both Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg are tremendous and beguiling – there is no question of that - yet the lack of suspense, forward momentum and basic objectivity results in a film that is frustratingly obtuse and occasionally irksome. This is a richly lauded classic and a triumph of influential and highly original filmmaking … though it can still be quite a tedious exercise in Gallic exchanges, lingering looks and breezy Parisian sight-seeing. This relaxed bonhomie means that even though there is death and a police hunt at the crux of the scenario the film is utterly unhurried and the tone considerably less than exciting, even as the net closes on Michel. But to assume that the film should conform to our more overt expectations of a crime-drama is to miss the point that Godard is so reverentially making. And the more you frown upon the lack the typical set-pieces, the more the lingering groundswell of the deeper picture seeps into your mind.

    “Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love ...”

    More a collection of self-concious mis-en-scene, fawned-over by Coutard's hip photography, and packaged-up with snappy, often overlapping dialogue, Breathless can be energetic and off-the-cuff. But the style of to-camera pouts and expressive posturing (even an early sideways monologue from Belmondo), flippant editing and knowing condescensions to the audience don't work towards building conventional character empathy. Arguably, this is not something that is high on the agenda, though. Godard is in love with the urban landscape, the hustle and the bustle of late 50's city-life, especially when he can juxtapose it with the relative harmony and peace of the more intimate moments of bedroom affectations. He captures the mood of a generation with far more telepathic accuracy than the in-yer-face dynamics of Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia, for example. And it is this that makes the film so special and so resonant.

    Breathless is one of those films that brings with it an almost ludicrous amount of critical adoration, and whilst it is sometimes nice to discover that you don't actually agree with such gushing sentiment, it can also be tremendously reassuring to discover that those high-brow dandies can be right on the money at times, too. Folks, I saw this film quite some time ago, but didn't give it the time of day – perhaps even regarded it with mild disdain and boredom, if I'm totally honest with you – and I will admit that it took a couple of viewings this time around before I reached an understanding of what Godard was saying with it. Now I'm not going to pretend that I'm sold on it to the point of thrusting it into any of my top ten or twenty (or thirty) lists, but on the other hand I can certainly see why a great many people would. It is bold, refreshing, wild, subversive, knowingly evasive, darkly humorous and filled with the sort of romance that genuinely shows how lovers really can be towards one another. This most assuredly isn't Hollywood, even if Godard deliberately taps into a lot of familiar thematic tropes emanating from there. It is the French New Wave … and, boy, is it proud of it!

    Breathless is a rare treat that swaps its 1960 cultural wallop for an entertaining drama that miraculously haunts the mind afterwards. It is, therefore, highly recommended for the cineastes and Godardites who are seeking a very fine hi-def upgrade, and for those who might just like to see what helped inspire all the modern tricks of the trade that they take for granted these days, as well as providing the impetus to the likes of Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and even Quentin Tarantino to make movies.

    The Rundown

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