Sunday, December 14, 2008

Target #242: À bout de souffle / Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)

TSPDT placing: #29
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: François Truffaut (story), Jean-Luc Godard (writer)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

As much as I'd like to think that, after two exciting years, I've been well-and-truly inducted into the world of cinema, I'm really still an amateur. I hear the term "French New Wave" and immediately become intimidated. What's it all about? Hand-held photography, jarring jump-cuts and pretentious philosophical musings? It was with some trepidation that I approached Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de soufflé / Breathless (1960), supposedly the cornerstone of the French movement, though I was somewhat reassured by a brief plot description that sounded uncannily similar to a modern urban thriller: "a young car thief kills a policeman and tries to persuade a girl to hide in Italy with him." In many ways, Breathless is just like a contemporary film. The hand-held camera-work has a gritty, documentary-like immediacy, and a dynamic freshness that wouldn't arrive in Hollywood cinema for another few years {Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964) is the earliest example I can think of}. Stylistically, even recent thrillers like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) and Michael Clayton (2007) owe a lot to Godard, as curious as that may sound.

Both leads are excellent in their respective roles. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a Humphrey Bogart-wannabe, an out-of-his-depth car thief who speaks tough, but whose brave frontage is immediately transparent. His character works effectively as a semi-affectionate satire of Hollywood's hard-boiled film noir heroes – ripped from the pages of Hammett, Chandler and Spillane – who don't actually exist in real life. Jean Seberg, an American actress who only found success after migrating to Europe, is beautiful and sensual as his independent some-time lover, who finds excitement in the notion of a fugitive boyfriend, but has yet to decide if she loves him or not. As far as the romantic subplot is concerned, Godard emphasises the selfishness of his new generation. Love is no longer an intimate and enduring connection between two people, but a succession of lurid and meaningless sexual encounters. Though Michel and Patricia frequently speak their love of each other, their motives are purely egocentric in nature. Each character frequently alludes to their own needs and desires, and Patricia eventually informs on Michel to prove, for her own benefit, that she is indifferent to him.

My only previous Godard work, Alphaville (1965), had sufficiently intrigued me with its half-satirical espionage thriller set against a backdrop of science-fiction. However, when the narrative periodically came to a standstill, so too, I found, did my interest in the film. Breathless gave me similar sentiments, albeit to a lesser degree. While never boring, there is a sizable patch in the middle of the film – in particular, a long scene spent inside Patricia's apartment – where Michel's status as a wanted man is entirely forgotten. The film's narrative drive comes to a grinding halt, and the two characters are left in limbo. When he's not trying to entice his American companion into bed, Michel raises seemingly arbitrary philosophical questions – such as, out of nowhere, "do you ever think about death?" – that apparently serve no purpose other than to justify Godard's film as an important "arthouse" picture. Much has been said about the pioneering use of jump-cuts, a creative trick to trim down the running-time without losing key scenes, but I found the technique unnecessarily jarring and unpalatable.

Currently my #6 film of 1960:
1) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
3) Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
4) Inherit the Wind (Stanley Kramer)
5) The Time Machine (George Pal)
6) À bout de souffle {Breathless} (Jean-Luc Godard)
7) Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla)
8) The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman)


aeuzop said...

I already responded to your review over on FG, so I'm just announcing my new identity now.

I'm tosser.


ackatsis said...

Arghhh! You appear to have been infected by the body snatchers, and are no longer the "tosser" I remember.

OK, I forgive you. Make yourself comfortable. :)

That Film Girl said...

Breathless was the first french new-wave film I watched. I have to say, I agree with some points in your review, but I give more credit to the story. It's simple, but it provides the best on-screen "pillow-talk" you can get. And you have to love lines like:

Patricia: What is your greatest ambition in life?
Parvulesco: To become immortal... and then die.

ackatsis said...

Patricia: What is your greatest ambition in life?
Parvulesco: To become immortal... and then die.

It's a nice exchange. It doesn't seem particularly relevant to anything, though.

Marin Mandir said...

"However, when the narrative periodically came to a standstill, so too, I found, did my interest in the film."

I agree. I have a lot of respect for this film and Godard, but his style always seemed somehow too artificial to me, and not honest and real enough.

Jump_Raven said...

I know I won't be popular for saying this but I always hated Breathless. I think the film is awful. Horrible acting, pretentious Brecht distancing, and a wasted story. The only saving grace about this film is that it is extremely influential. All you have to do is look at anything MTV has ever done and you see this film. The thing that bothers me the most is that Godard was capable of so much more as evidenced by masterpieces like Band Of Outsiders and A Woman Is A Woman.