Film Stock: Breathless (1960)

By Alex Brundige

            The typical fans of director Jean-Luc Godard are largely of the ostentatious film school variety, clad in skinny jeans, scarves, and lots and lots of argyle, brooding over their respective art. His admirers also include Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese, so take from those two fan bases what you will. Whether you consider him a genius or a trend, there is no denying that Godard brought something new to the table.

            Pioneering the French New Wave alongside Francois Truffaut and several other visionary aficionados, Jean-Luc Godard revitalized film in an age of ever-growing censorship. His cool, hip, often-emulated style was evident as early as 1960 when Godard released his first feature film, Breathless (À bout de souffle). Drawing from his own wacky, extremely French ideas and injecting a healthy dose of Americana, Godard sculpted a film about a true rebel-without-a-cause: the Bogart-loving Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo). The ultra-slick anti hero is always one step ahead of the authorities, one step behind in his love-life, and a constant enigma of morality. Should we be rooting for such a crude character who commits such needless acts of violence? Why not? Breathless is anti-authority in all the best ways.

            The films plot deals with the love (and lust) between people who don’t know what they want in life: Michel and his American journalist flame Patricia (Jean Seberg, our third “Jean”). Their lives intermittently drive them together and pull them apart as they alternately pine and reject one another. Michel and Patricia are at the same time utterly reliant and totally independent of one another, a concept that continues until the movies tragic ending.

            Most importantly, Breathless showcases the emerging style of a then-emerging filmmaker. Jean-Luc Godard’s movies are all his own: from yelling lines to his actors from just off-camera to cutting snippets out of the middle of scenes for time’s sake, the profound Frenchman stays true to his vision, an admirable trait in the all too fake world of film. His innovative use of jump cuts in Breathless keeps the viewer in the moment at all times, and his on-the-fly writing style keeps the performances true to life. (I’m sure there are some bad things to say about Godard and his first film, but they seem to be slipping my mind. It must be love).

            Not to sound like a pretentious scarf-wearer, but it’s unfortunate that so many people don’t “get” Breathless, viewing it as a jumbled mess instead of a passionate piece of cinema. The movie’s not for everyone, there is no doubt about that, but c’mon now…it’s not even that long, clocking in at only 87 minutes. Breathless was the film that every counter-culture filmmaker wanted to make, creating a template that influenced films from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (1975). But in the end, biters aside, there is only one Breathless and one Jean-Luc Godard.



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