B&W, 87 minutes, 1960
Breathless is a film in a hurry and I don’t mean that as a pun. Jean-Luc Godard, who directed the film, presents one view of reality that matches the manic pace of its protagonist, Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. The story is random, Michel’s movements are obsessively on-the-go with ‘thoughtless’ dialogue of him talking to anyone about anything—including direct speech to the camera, and thus to Godard’s audience. Mostly, Michel comically talks non-stop to himself.
The plot of Breathless is one with Michel’s personality; during one of his many criminal actions he shoots a policeman and spends the rest of the movie avoiding capture. Michel steals cars; he breaks every traffic law in France as he drives the stolen car through the french countryside, although we are not told where he is going or his purpose. His reckless driving attracts the attention of the policeman whom he ends up killing. He steal from girlfriends, mugs a stranger in a bar's bathroom, and he lies and cheats throughout the film. It isn't completely certain that his obsession for Patricia has any of the expected motivations we are used to, such as, love or lust.
The other plot element, the one that keeps Michel in Paris to meet his inevitable death being shot by the police, is one stubborn idea he has: Michel is determined to get to Paris, retrieve a lot of money that is owed him, convince a woman with whom he spent either three or five nights with, and together they will escape to Italy. Money, the girl, and Italy are all that Michel concentrates on for the rest of the film until his stubborness kills him.
There is irony is this stubbornness of Michel’s when the rest of Breathless portrays him as such a manic, spontaneous, criminally motivated, aggressive, and, above all, in constant motion—a kind of motion that would a normal, well-adjusted person certainly very tired if not literally breathless.
Patricia, the female lead character, is an American supposedly studying in Paris using her parents’ money. She has a job delivering the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysee. She seems to have ambitions of being a writer, at least being a journalist. She refuses most of Michel’s advances, has no intention of going with him to Italy or in hiding that fact. She ends up informing the police of Michel’s whereabouts that leads to Michel’s death in a gun battle on a Paris street.
Viewers, critics, can make whatever they will of the story and characters in Breathless. I think all of our traditional ways of encountering and making sense of story, character, movie, are beside Jean-Luc Godard’s point when he made this film.
Godard has his own touch points throughout the movie that are both idiosynchratic to Godard’s cinematic purposes and funny character traits that can hide Godard’s fascination.
Michel is an obsessed reader of newspapers. There is seldom a scene involving Michel that does not contain his quest to obtain, read, or discard a newspaper. It may be traditional in French newspapers to put police and crime news on an inner page of the paper, a practice that would explain why more often than not Michel immediately opens the paper to the jump pages of traditional American newspapers. It is true that Michel eventually follows the enclosing net around him for his murder of the policeman, but there are also comic moments, such as when the police publish his mug shot Michel’s police photo resembles a model or actor’s fashion head shot photo than the grubbier police processing criminal photo. Michel’s obsession with newspapers, like the fatal obsession to get his money and his girl and escape to Italy, culminates in the film’s ending. The police have gunned down Michel—who did not get his money, was betrayed by his sexual obsession in the girl, Patricia, and not getting any nearer to Italy than stealing Italian cars—and as he lies in the street a policeman picks up a drifting newspaper and uses it to cover Michel’s dead expression. There is something so ironic in this closure of the newspaper theme that ti seemed darkly comic.
Godard is fascinated by all the new media. Obviously, movies occupy his attention and he inserts many references to American and French films, directors, and actors that he presumably likes. Jean-Pierre Melville makes a cameo appearance (as a pompous modern philosopher-novelist), he holds a press conference on the jetee at Orly (the site of Chris Marker’s film, La Jetee).
But the most important aspects of Godard’s method is the way he shows the thing itself instead of the more traditional representation of pre-Modernist novels and films. Samuel Beckett wrote of James Joyce that:
“Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read—or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” (Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Shakespeare and Company, 1929).
Godard’s method in Breathless is very similar to Joyce’s method as Beckett described it. Godard film, with all of its elements of composition, editing, lighting, camera movement, and all the other technical aspects of film-making in relation to the movie’s story and characters, and their relation to real life and real people.
One moment in the film demonstrates my thesis. Patricia meets a Herald Tribune reporter for lunch. In the course of receiving an assignment to interview the Melville-character at Orly, it is obvious that the man wants to have sex with Patricia. Godard edits his moment of speaking his seductive invitation with odd edits—fast edits that go back or repeat the exact words several times except the differences in the man’s body language, his verbal intonation, and other small cues. The edits are rapid. The effect is unsettling to the traditional film-viewer. Why the abrupt cuts, the repetition of material, and the oblivious of the film’s characters to this disjointed ‘reality’ inside their cinema-universe?
Godard is demonstrating how the man rehearsed his proposition to Patricia. The editing and style is in keeping with the breathless pace of the movie, and with a nod to Beckett’s explanation of “…His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” Godard’s edits are the thing itself; in this case, the multiplicity of a moment that has importance to the male, at least, and which is rehearsed before and, if either character is of a brooding nature, an internal replaying of the hopeful question and the negative answer; as a being with desire and another being who is desired and does not want the other’s desire.
I think a contrast of Godard to his contemporary, Francois Truffaut, would illustrate how Godard is a radical among a group of radicals. Both men knew and understood film and film history; both innovated formal storytelling and cinematic practices; but Truffaut is warm in tone or point-of-view and his relationship to characterization while Godard is cool or cold in tone and in his more detached approach to characterization and plot.
Neither man should suffer in making comparisons between the two. It just so happens that Godard is much more disruptive, disturbing, unsettling, and confrontational to his audience. The audience might use strategies like rejecting his film as too unsettling to their customary expectations of film or trivializing or taming Godard by touting their own sense of mastery over Godard’s techniques. There are too many details in Breathless that resist any complete exposition and tidy categories of explanation.
Beckett summarized the simple revolutionary techniques of James Joyce in order to involve readers in Joyce’s fiction. Godard should be viewed in the same terms Beckett advises with his literary master for it is clear that Breathless is the work of a towering cinematic genius in an age of other wonderful films made by revolutionary directors.
** images available from Wikipedia.com