In French w/ English subtitles
Written & Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Jean Belmondo, Jean Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville.
Michel is a small-time car thief who becomes a big-time criminal when he murders a policeman. No master felon, Michel is an impetuous young man more focused on presenting a Bogart-style tough guy image than in actually learning the ropes of being a tough guy. His Hollywood dream wouldn’t be complete without a girl on his arm, so rather than fleeing the country after the murder, Michel sticks around to convince a young woman to fall for him and escape with him to Italy.
The French New Wave directors of the 1950’s and 60’s began as a group of critics who deconstructed Hollywood film style, helped define it as an art and a science, and coined the phrase “Film Noir.” Several New Wave luminaries helped create BREATHLESS: Godard adapted his script from a treatment by Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol is credited as “technical advisor.” Jean-Pierre Melville, playing Pavulesco in BREATHLESS, directed some of the best French noir thrillers of the 1950’s. BREATHLESS was the end of French emulation of Hollywood, and the beginning of challenging new shooting styles and story structures that would have a lasting effect on America’s Film School Generation — Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and all their 70’s pals.
It’ll finish Thursday.
AFTER THOUGHT (with Spoilers!) from 12.31.2011
The moment we meet Michel, he introduces himself as “an asshole,” and then spends a significant portion of BREATHLESS proving it. Michel enjoys presenting his Bogart-style image, endlessly repeating Bogey’s pensive Sam Spade gesture of rubbing his lip with his thumb. What his Bogey impression lacks is Sam Spade’s control of a situation, Rick Blaine’s calculating foresight, or Philip Marlowe’s confidence with women. Had Michel studied THE MALTESE FALCON, he would have known when in his own story to cut his losses and get out alive. Bogey’s Rick in CASABLANCA might have taught Michel who he can really trust, who would double cross him, and how to play both.
A closer read of Bogart’s persona in THE BIG SLEEP might have encouraged Michel not to whine and plead with his former lover Patricia to escape with him to Italy. He would have been decisive rather than manipulating, which would have made him the Bogey he wants to be, as well as the Romeo she longed for. Indecisiveness is Michel’s fatal flaw. He doesn’t know what he wants or who he wants, and even if he did, he doesn’t know from one moment to the next what he is willing to do to get it. He wants to avoid being caught with a stolen car enough to kill a policeman, but when the dragnet is closing in around him, he is incapable of making the choices required by his man-of-action front.
Within the first few minutes of BREATHLESS Godard turns crime movies, and the very idea of a movie, inside out. Voiceovers are a staple of the Film Noir genre. After Michel steals a car, he drives around describing what he enjoys about France, but before long we realize this is no ordinary voiceover. He is not simply thinking out loud for the sake of exposition; he turns and addresses the audience, as if we are riding shotgun. This would be a standard breaking of the fourth wall, but BREATHLESS doesn’t stop there. Michel both addresses the camera and directs its gaze along the Pontoise road, pointing out hitchhikers, farm houses, annoying drivers, and highway police. Further, Godard allows interaction between the camera and passersby that would cause most other directors to cut and reset their shot. In scenes where Michel and Patricia walk through Paris, people stop and turn to watch the filming, some looking into the camera as well. Godard requests no suspension of disbelief; his story is fiction, but it coexists with and occasionally collides with reality.
Inasmuch as Michel is a vicious brat disguised as a dangerous man, BREATHLESS cloaks its examination and inversion of the tools of cinematic storytelling in the suits and trappings of crime drama. Michel’s desire to live like he is in a movie virtually wills into being a movie of his life and death, but he has no more control over Godard’s film than he does over his own story. Michel would love it if you had bought a ticket to see him outgun the cops and out-con the cons and drive off into the sunset with plenty of money and Tinkerbell incarnate. Godard will have none of it. He will allow you to visit with Michel just long enough to feel like you got the story of guns and glory you paid for; and he’ll allow you just enough time with Patricia to get a sense of romantic intrigue. In between teasing those expectations Godard may test your attention span with protracted conversational sequences, which do very little to further the story, but greatly reveal his characters. Moments like these were virtually unheard of in Hollywood films before the France’s La Nouvelle Vague movement; later their influence could be seen in American films by Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. When Godard is not exploring his characters, or allowing Michel to explore his personal Film Noir, he is just as likely to use BREATHLESS to wander Paris like a painter, equipped with a camera in lieu of a canvass. He photographs Paris not as a tourist showing us what we have already seen in countless other films, but as a patriot in love with his city and seeking to share its sidestreets as much as its landmarks, the way Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese would do with New York in ensuing decades.
My earliest encounter with BREATHLESS made me think it was an art film disguised as a crime drama. Now that “art film” strikes me as vague and generic a term as “action film,” I come to realize the BREATHLESS is a fully realized artistic happening disguised as a movie. It is opening night at a photography exhibit, a jazz session on a rainy afternoon, a staged actors’ reading, and a heated debate amongst coffeehouse poets all tied up in a celluloid bow.