Breathless

A Bout de souffle (1960) movie poster

(1960) director Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 07/26/10 at the Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

In junior college, I took “Film 101” three times.  The first two times I took incompletes, only finally getting a grade for it in the last go around.  “The 3rd time’s the charm,” as they say.

It was in the second of these Introduction to Film classes that I was introduced to Jean-Luc Godard and his seminal 1960 film, Breathless.  And I didn’t like it.  I was 18 probably, and despite the context that the teacher gave to the film, implanting the concepts of “jump cuts” and the general dissonance that Godard brought to “break” with traditional film techniques, I didn’t enjoy the film.  I found Jean-Paul Belmondo annoying, didn’t care for the misogynistic or chauvinistic attitudes, and just, perhaps, wasn’t “ready” to appreciate Godard or the tropes and concepts of the French New Wave.  I know, not very open-minded of me.  But there you go.

Oddly enough, some 20+ years later, after graduate studies in film and any number of movies, books, classes, experience, this is actually only the second time that I’ve watched Breathless.  And here the film is now, in it’s 50th anniversary release, in a newly restored print overseen by cinematographer Raoul Coutard.  And, for me, the experience is a world apart from that of my 18-year old self, watching the film on video, in the confines of a junior college classroom.

One striking aspect of Breathless, which I’ve noted in other French films of the period, is the fascinating “capture” of the world of the film’s present, apprehended largely in the locations in which the filming took place.  And this is powerfully evident in Breathless.  From the Champs-Élysées to Montparnasse to the Place de la Concorde and the many roads and avenues and cafes, the film comprises a multitude of snapshots of a now distant Paris, which of course would have been utter contemporary at the time.  Consider the automobiles, the many that Belmondo’s Michel steals throughout the play of the film, and the dapper styles of Belmondo and the uber-stylish and beautiful Jean Seaberg, the film has an air of pure style and aesthetic that is transporting and almost quaint.

While this is a matter for the present, to look back on a Paris of 50 years ago, to people who are in some cases long-gone, is an element of cinema true in perhaps many old films (if not all), and it may not be the most purely relevant gaze to cast on Breathless, I would say it’s awfully hard not to have a reaction to that style and character.  Godard chose to shoot in the streets of Paris with a film crew pared down like that of journalists of the time, so this capture is not by any means entirely accidental or lacking meaning.

Godard’s more radical cinematic techniques, not simply the jump cuts or the dissonant street noises that obscure the dialogue or the off-screen dramatics that would normally take the foreground in a narrative, but his wholly politicized approach to breaking down the narrative devices of traditional Hollywood cinema still seem quite radical even today.  Because big feature cinema production is still adherent to the traditions and practices established prior to Godard’s film; these discordant approaches, breaking the audience’s connections to the characters and the story still jar us, they still make for a different cinematic experience, one of the self-awareness of sitting and watching Breathless, rather than being caught up and lost in the world and story of the diegetic film world.  While some elements of these techniques became absorbed into the language of film, and this film influenced filmmaker upon filmmaker, film upon film, it’s still quite uncommon to see a film made that is so intentionally challenging of audience pleasure and engagement.

Not that Breathless is the extreme for Godard in this respect.  Far from it.  The film has much of the joy and beauty and pleasure still deeply within it that make many of Godard’s early films quite charming and fun, discordant yet enjoyable, and why they aren’t just a burden to endure as some of his other films might be argued to be.

Godard’s Breathless is well worth seeing for the first time or the second, or simply again.  It’s modernist and modern, post-modern and complex, a glimpse of a Paris now long past, a riff on love and crime and perhaps a cynical existentialism.  It’s pleasure and displeasure, and will probably not strike any two people the exact same way.  And in many ways, this is a testament to the power and innovation of this film, even 50 years later.

Godard has grown on me over the years, and while I’ve come to like some of his films better, or still dislike others of his films more, I have the pleasure of seeing Breathless now and still seeing how understandable it was to react negatively back many years ago was.  But how much better it is to appreciate it here and now.

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