Today is the last chance for Columbus cinephiles to re-discover Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic feature debut Breathless the way it was meant to be experienced. The film, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is being shown in a newly restored 35mm print at the Gateway Film Center.
Since its initial release in 1960, Breathless has been the subject of so much discussion and dissection that it’s difficult to contextualize the film without reiterating the countless clichés and hyperboles that elevated it to mythical status. It ranks as one of the few and true watershed moments in film history, being on par with such classics as Citizen Kane or Rome: Open City insomuch as it redefined film form and expanded the medium’s potential as a serious forum for personal expression. Moreover, it launched one of cinema’s most prolific and inventive oeuvres: the directorial career of Jean-Luc Godard.
It was with this Nouvelle Vague classic that Godard first eschewed the smooth, logical narrative and formal strictures of the Hollywood paradigm in favor of a more expressionistic film experience that reflected the transience and atomization of modern consumerist society. Gradually, he developed a penchant for fragmented structures and existential inquiry, with each successive film bearing more and more resemblance to a madman’s diary, or to a stream-of-consciousness, rather than a fully intelligible story. Since then, he’s forged such a singular yet opaque approach to filmmaking that Breathless appears conventional by comparison.
Indeed the storyline alone is quite accessible, perhaps simplistic: a petty thug and Bogart poseur, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) murders a cop after a botched car theft and hides out in Paris with a flirtatious American exchange student, Patricia (Jean Seberg). The couple careens in and out of the city’s streets and tenements, constantly evading the law but mostly evading themselves, before Patricia unexpectedly betrays Michel to the authorities.
Though the plot was conceived by fellow New Wave director François Truffaut, who in turn adapted it from a real-life crime spree, it’s clearly indebted to the hardboiled Hollywood noirs, while the low production values channel the Monogram B-pictures that Godard so admired (and dedicated the film to). Yet Godard transcends his predecessors by using the crime thriller as a pretext for investigating more immediate issues, including identity and free will, the limitations of language, and, less explicitly, the role of art in society — particularly how films can shape, and even mediate, our experience with the world.
To reinforce the film’s modernist, absurdist sensibilities, Godard appropriates a disjunctive style that once violated numerous Hollywood conventions. Instead of clarity and continuity, Godard emphasizes dissonance and anxiety through an explosive fusion of handheld camerawork, natural/reflective lighting, inconsistencies in pacing and shot durations, a densely layered sound design, disorienting montage and self-reflexivity.
The film’s single most notable transgression is, of course, its overthrow of continuity editing, exemplified by the persistent jump cuts. Though jump cuts have existed throughout film history, few have used them as effectively and systematically as Godard; in the film, they serve several functions as a Brechtian device that deflates the film’s melodrama and “shocks” viewers into a higher state of awareness, but also as a visual metaphor for the protagonists’ ephemeral lives.
But as Godard prophesized in subsequent films, radical ideas can easily be diluted for commercial interests. The aesthetic subversions of Breathless are no exception, as its frenetic style has been widely and superficially absorbed into mainstream media, often as a gimmick that pacifies audiences. Yet while the film’s revolutionary technical feats may seem passé now, Godard’s consciously underdeveloped characters are as enigmatic as ever.
Much like the protagonists in John Cassavetes’ Shadows, released one year earlier, Michel and Patricia are volatile figures that elude fixed essences. More often than not, their actions are wrought with contradictions and indecision, their thoughts masked by arbitrary postures and rhetoric, their motivations sidelined to the periphery of a relative universe. Even in the film’s most intimate settings, namely the infamous 20-minute bedroom sequence, the couple is as alien to one another as they are to the audience. It is no coincidence that the two resort to staring games or offhand remarks like, “Sometimes you look like a Martian”, as meager attempts to penetrate the impenetrable. Underlying the criminal escapades is a more resonant parable about the gulfs between people and communications, which are further accentuated by the couple’s gender, cultural, and language barriers.
Fifty years later, Breathless can be viewed as a manifesto of ideas and formal experimentation that Godard expounded upon with greater proficiency, depth, and historical/social relevance, as well as a lot of obfuscation, in his subsequent works. Regardless, its impact on the development of modern cinema is indisputable and despite its pervasive influence, the film is still as invigorating to watch in 2010 as it was in 1960. This is due partly because its content and production were so imbued with youth and romanticism, but also because it presents some intriguing observations on life that continue to be relevant. In short: essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in movies.
For more information on showtimes and ticket prices, please visit: gatewayfilmcenter.com