Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard), Jean Seberg (Patricia Franchini). Screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Rating: PG. Running time: 90 minutes.
This review has already taken ten minutes to make before I’ve even started writing. The question bugging me was; which still to treat you to? Eventually, with slight reservations, I decided on the above. The reason I picked it was because this freeze frame shows more than any other what is by far the best sequence in Breathless: Michel and Patricia fooling around in her apartment. That ‘apartment’ is actually just a bedroom and a bathroom and it’s pretty shabby, but put these two in there, add the film’s spontaneous dialogue and posters, and all of a sudden it becomes remarkably fresh, and the freest of all kinds of filmmaking.
There, in that apartment, Godard does what he really wants to do. Forget the unfortunately necessary plot that the film is loosely strung together by. You can tell by the rapidity with which the original crime is dealt with that Breathless doesn’t really give a shit that it’s main man is a murderer and the police are going to spend the rest of the film hunting him down, even if this careless wannabe gangster style character would inspire Hollywood for a generation. Just wait, instead, until Michel gets to Paris, where he finds Patricia selling the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Élysées. This is the point at which the film comes alive.
Breathless, then, is about the freedom with which they talk in bed together, and the control Godard as the filmmaker has over what they say. The lighting is completely natural and therefore a little dark, but when accompanied by the cigarette smoke it’s just way too beautiful, without the cinematographer having spent a dime. In fact, the cinematographer didn’t really pay for any equipment at all. The camera is cheap and handheld, the tracking shots filmed simply by the cameraman being pushed along whilst seated in a wheelchair. Godard didn’t even get a professional editor. When it turned out the film was about half an hour longer than it needed to be for official release, he just trimmed it, cutting away any parts inside a scene that seemed boring, leaving Breathless with that jagged and jumpy feel still beloved of action films to this day.
But I digress, and thus to get back to the film… we learn from earlier monologues whilst driving that Michel is pretty misogynistic, and here in Patricia’s apartment he seems overly keen on getting her clothes off and her into bed. But she resists for long enough to get him to talk. They discuss the last line of William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, which asks us what we’d choose between ‘grief and nothing.’ Michel would take nothing, not because it’s superior but because grief is a compromise and he wants tout ou rien. Patricia asks how their relationship differs from Romeo and Juliet’s. She poses by her own poster of a Renoir painting and asks whether the woman in it is more beautiful than her. All to the sound of way too cool lounge-style piano music coming out of the radio.
The contrast with low culture is drawn starkly by Michel’s possession of a pornographic magazine, and this bit of cheapness is despite his modelling himself on Humphrey Bogart, from his shades and cigars to his suit and hat. This is the type of fun in a film Godard is interested in. This and getting his actors to do things like refusing the offer of a newspaper on the grounds that it doesn’t contain horoscopes: ‘I want to know the future, don’t you?’
Seberg is deliciously chic and sexy with her boyish short hair, and she ensures the film always remains beautiful, even in its later, dampened scenes that are no longer plotless or bursting with the earlier aura of freestyle. She’s also even more mysterious than Michel, intriguingly intellectual but also muddled with regards to her motives. She’s as drawn to Michel’s gangster facade as we are, but she sits studying him in bed, baffled by the reasons for her apparent love for him.
When she goes for her first job as a journalist, however, interviewing a famous novelist, a line is delivered that sums up the purpose of the film perfectly. She asks him what his number one ambition in life is, to which he responds ‘devenir immortel, et puis mourir.’ This means that he wishes to become immortal, before dying. It’s a paradox best solved with reference to the creation of art, something that flows from us and lasts long after our body, and in a special way ensures its creator will never, ever die. Godard doesn’t quite reach that very high status in Breathless, simply because the film doesn’t work throughout like it does in its best sequence. But the intent was pure, and Breathless set Godard well on his way to becoming a cinematic legend.
Filed under: crime, drama, french new wave, romance | 2 Comments
Tags: a bout de souffle, breathless, champs elysees, devenir immortel puis mourir, humphrey bogart, jean paul belmondo, jean seberg, jean-luc godard, new york herald tribune, paris, renoir, the wild palms, william faulkner