Breathless (1960)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard


Breathless is still known today because of the time in which it was made and the ways it changed cinema.  In a vacuum, I’d argue that it’s not entirely a great film, but it means more because of what it said at the time and what it meant to future filmmakers.

In this film, the camera is rarely stable, the actors rarely emote, there is no such thing as the 180-degree line, and jump cuts are choices, not mistakes.  Godard’s film challenges the unspoken rules of a lot of movies before it.  With a conventional Hollywood film, the action increases as the story progresses, the drama escalates, and the leading man and lady ride off together into the sunset.  In Breathless, however, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) spends most of the film holed up in the room of Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a woman he aggressively pursue, or looking at reflections of himself in the mirror.

This is a story about a thief, Michel, who steals a car, kills a cop, runs from the police and ends up dead himself, and yet most of the film is introspective, watching Michael and Patricia figure out each other while they figure out themselves.  This film has much more to say about gender, what it means to be French and about cinema than it does about the plot.  Michel is caught by the cop and then shoots him so quickly that it’s easy to forget it ever happened.  The bulk of this film is plotless, meandering this way and that based on the insecurities, anxieties and desires of a somewhat incompetent hero who is more of a collection of ideas than an actual person himself.

Michel fashions himself after Humphrey Bogart.  This is something I had to research, because I know very little about Bogart, the American movie star of the 1940s.  Michel’s lip mannerism, in which he slowly runs his thumb across his mouth, is from what I can tell, a mannerism stolen straight from Bogart.  Even the way Michel dresses is meant to refer to Bogart.

In one scene, Michel stares at a poster of Bogart, and the following shot is a close up of Michel’s face, drawing a comparison between the two, not just in the eyes of the movie, but in Michel’s eyes as well.  The way he carries himself, the way he dresses, it’s a conscious decision.

Breathless might as well be the movie Michel imagines that he is already the hero of.  He’s vain, he’s somewhat American-obsessed, and he most likely romanticizes petty crime, even though he wouldn’t consider it petty.  Michel even falls in love with Patricia, a girl from New York, but he might as well love only what she represents.

All of this is to say that Michel’s persona, very much based on Hollywood movies, reflects the nature of one aspect of French identity, when so many movies came straight from Hollywood.  Breathless, along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), helped kickstart the French New Wave film movement.  These films were more personal than the ones French (and American) audiences were used to, and they brought with them their own rules and guidelines for what a movie should be.

Godard, more than the other directors, seems concerned with the nature of cinematic language.  At this point I have only seen this film and Weekend, his 1967 film, but they’re both very much about how we watch movies.  The story is secondary to the relationship between the audience and the film as a medium.  And from what I’ve read, many of his films challenge the audience, particularly after Weekend which has been described as very anarchic.

Truffaut, by contrast, would go onto make films that could described as genre pieces.  He made what you might call a Sci-Fi film with Fahrenheit 451 and a melodrama with Jules et Jim and The Soft Skin.  He would also go on to make a series of sequels to The 400 Blows which often felt like fairly broad comedies.  The 400 Blows seems to be his most personal film, and the others, while still strong, settled into a feeling of familiarity.  The strengths of these other stories were his writing or direction, but those strengths fit into the movie structure we are and were accustomed to.  The one difference might be in the lack of a traditional Hollywood ending.

But Godard’s films don’t let up.  In addition, in Breathless, to the lack of a Hollywood ending, there seems to be little to no discernible plot.  In some ways this reminds me of The Man Who Wasn’t There, a 2001 Coen Brothers’ movie, and of course I only make that connection because I saw that move a week ago.  Both films are about a character whose ultimate downfall (death) comes from something he does near the beginning of the story.  In this case, Michel shoots a cop, and in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ed Crane blackmails a man which causes a series of dominoes to fall, out of his control, that lead to his arrest for a murder he didn’t commit.  In the middle, both films wander.  Michel pleads for Patricia to run away with him to Italy, and Ed Crane develops a keen interest in a young pianist played by Scarlett Johansson.

Breathless is an exploration of ideas and ego, though I’m not even completely sure what I mean when I say that, so I feel a little pretentious… but that’s the feeling I got.  Michel is kind of a dick.  He pushes and pushes at Patricia, asking to sleep with her over and over again, first after greeting her in the street and second after sneaking into her apartment (her bed, no less).  He’s a hound dog, and we mustn’t forget that he shot a policeman and shows no regret whatsoever for it.  He doesn’t even seem all that worried, even as we see the walls closing in.

Michel’s detachment from his own crime is reminiscent of the characters’ indifferent to the violence around them in Weekend.  Their lack of emotion is the point, though I’m not exactly sure how.  Maybe it’s a commentary on the pointlessness of plot, though I’m not sure.  That certainly seems to the point in Weekend (which aggressively breaks the fourth wall), and there are even a couple instances in which characters acknowledge the fourth wall here.

The film ends with Patricia doing the same Bogart mannerism, which has become Michel’s own trademark, to the camera after she watches Michel get shot down in the street.  I read that as a reminder that this is all fiction, and none of it really matters.

The film’s ending is another bold reminder that this movie isn’t like ones that came before.  Michel’s demise is predictable, considering the expectations of a modern movie audience, though I suppose just the fact that he doesn’t get away might have been a surprise in 1960.  And it’s not just that he dies, in some ways death might be a better outcome than prison, depending on your outlook, but Michel is shot due to a strange sequence of events after Patricia calls the police to turn him in.  When she calls the cops, it’s meant to get him to run away because, as she decides, she doesn’t love him.  That’s a brutal way to turn on a guy, but it’s hard not to think that Michel deserves it.  Again, he’s an asshole throughout the film, and he leeches off Patricia for most of the story, even offering her constant criticism of her life, looks and other love interests.

Michel hounds Patricia in a way that seems to say something about gender politics at the time.  While he does just about everything up until forcing himself on her, she just puts up with it.  Despite this, she declares her intention to be financially independent so that she doesn’t have to live off of a wealthy man.  At her work, though, her boss tells her that they will likely sleep together at some point in time.

Later, in an odd detour from the movie’s plot, Patricia goes to interview an author (she’s a reporter), and her questions are mostly drowned out by the other, louder male reporters.  But then the author takes an interest in her, complimenting her looks.  It feels pretty predatory, though she is unmistakably flattered by his comments.

This scene has nothing to do with the plot (like much of the film), but it feels important to the theme of the film, of which there seem to be a few.  Patricia also has a short hair cut, which on its own might mean very little, certainly stands out as a sign of a modern woman.  She doesn’t dress or look like other movie leading ladies, and in fact she looks like someone you might pass in the street today.

At the end of the film, when Michel is shot, he stumbles down the street for way too long.  Because this is an important arthouse film, I’m inclined to buy into whatever the hell happens, so this didn’t strike me as weird.  But when I studied this film in a class I took a few years ago, I remember the teacher telling us that, yes, this scene is very drawn out, and that’s again the point.  This is a commentary on other movies, if I remember correctly, in which something happens that stretches believability.  So what does Godard do?  He really stretches believability.

A lot of what happens in Breathless, then, feels like an extension or mockery of movie tropes as well as a subversion of those moments.  The film wanders, choosing to spend time with what the director finds interesting (conversations, moments that imply cultural inequality), and then switching the ways it shows the plot moments, either drawing them out or making them take place in a matter of seconds.  Godard either stretches or shrinks the time with which these moments occur because, perhaps, they don’t matter.  The real story is in between.  Then, because of his comments on how we watch movies, the story is also outside of the movie.  It’s micro and macro, I suppose.

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