Breathless (1960)

Dir. by Jean-Luc Godard

Images: Typical Godard, though toned down a bit in comparison to his later films: frequent jump cuts and moments of deliberate self-awareness, as in those scenes in which first Michel, then Patricia, address the camera directly. Film moderates between break-neck pacing (the shooting of the police officer, for instance) and slow introspection (Michel and Patricia talking in her apartment). Key point: Godard reminds us constantly that we are watching a movie, as in the carefully choreographed kisses and Michel’s obsession with Bogart.

• • •

If asked to define postmodernism, I would probably cheat and just show an early Godard film. Breathless likely wouldn’t be my first choice — I’d take Alphaville or A Woman is a Woman — but it certainly fits the bill. Godard caused a sensation forty years ago with this, his first film, by not only tearing down cinematic and narrative conventions, but by doing so with a sly, mocking wink to his audience. Like the best postmodern art, Breathless blurs the boundaries between high and low culture, elevating B-movie sensation onto the plane of high French art and, thankfully, humbling and demystifying the latter in the process. Its greatest asset, I think, is that it does so with a fun, irreverent self-awareness that prevents us from ever forgetting that the story we’re watching unfold before us — like life itself, some postmodernists would argue — is nothing more than that: a fiction.

The story is simple: Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a charismatic young thug wanted by police for shooting an officer. Penniless, alone, and, well, horny, he attaches himself to Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a beautiful American student and aspiring journalist. The majority of the film chronicles Michel’s frustrated efforts to: 1) track down money owed to him so that he can escape to Italy, and 2) get Patricia back into bed. Technically, he succeeds in both endeavors, but, as has been the case with all storied young lovers on the run, before and since, his successes are always fleeting. “I want us to be like Romeo and Juliet,” Patricia naively tells Michel. Shakespeare this ain’t, but Michel’s fate is as inevitable as that poor sap’s from Verona.

Along with inspiring countless imitators, from Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands to Natural Born Killers (not to mention that embarrassing Richard Gere remake), Breathless is most often remembered for — and remains fascinating today because of — Godard’s deliberate disregard for convention, both as a filmmaker and as a story-teller. His technical innovations, particularly the frequent jump cuts and hand held cinematography, have, in the four decades since, become the stuff of prime-time network TV (NYPD Blue comes to mind). Likewise, Godard’s rebellious irony and self-conscious play with film iconography (as seen most famously in Michel’s long gaze at a Humphrey Bogart lobby card) have become key terms in the contemporary film vocabulary — think The Simpsons, Pulp Fiction, Scream, and the like.

What most fascinates me about Breathless, though, and what makes it still feel revolutionary today, is Godard’s fascination with the parts of life that we (still) rarely see on the screen. Midway through the film, when most “young lovers on the run” movies would turn their attention to a violent heist or a gratuitous sex scene, we follow Michel to Patricia’s apartment, where the two simply pass the time in idle conversation, waiting (like we do) for the excitement to begin again. The scene does help to further develop the characters — Patricia’s love and understanding of art distinguishes her further from Michel, who is still interested only in getting Patricia undressed — but, as was the case for many of his New Wave contemporaries, Godard evidences little hope for genuine communication. Michel and Patricia are characters in a film who behave as if they were characters in a film, performing their superficial roles/lives for the benefit of others, oblivious to the consequences.

As with much postmodern art, my main critique of Breathless is ethical. The blurring of boundaries between high/low, fact/fiction, performance/life, though vital and beneficial to much that has happened socially and politically in the past four decades, can also collapse dangerously into total relativism. Godard has called Michel an “Anarchist Hero,” meaning, I assume, that his rebellion against authority is a martyrdom of sorts for the cause of greater freedom for all. Noble, I guess, and I probably would have bought it ten years ago. But it feels overly romantic and naïve to me now. Actually, it feels like the unbridled energy and maturing (but still immature) philosophy of a first-time filmmaker.