A Movie from France

BREATHLESSI was feeling a little down after watching NO and THE SQUARE, movies where I learned about Chile’s struggles under Pinochet’s rule and the current Egyptian revolution.  On top of that, this week’s news stories continue to be filled with accounts of mass killings in Syria, struggles in Ukraine and gang rape in India, among others.  So, while those stories deserve our attention and, hopefully, our input or help, let’s lighten it up a bit by watching a movie from the French New Wave.  This week I watched Jean Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960) originally titled “À bout de soufflé.”  The Criterion version is available to stream through Hulu plus.

One of the key films of the French New Wave, BREATHLESS was a turning point in cinematic history.  So much has been written about it that I doubt I can offer anything new.   What I can offer is a viewpoint of someone who enjoyed the movie the first time I watched it with absolutely no clue of the implications it had on the language of film ever since.

Michel and Patricia in BREATHLESSWhat makes a film “Godardian”?

Jean Luc Godard, director of BREATHLESS, was a film critic who moved from writing to “filming” his criticism.  In essence, BREATHLESS was a commentary on cinema with allusions to prior film techniques, parodies of film genres, and references to the language of films preceding it.  I first saw BREATHLESS in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “World Cinema of the 1960s” class in the summer of 2012.  Not only did we watch BREATHLESS, but Rosenbaum showed various clips from an assortment of movies that inspired this film.  You can get a similar experience by reading his essay where he walks you through these predecessor inspirations.  The essay left me with the feeling like there is a huge gap in my knowledge of cinema prior to 1960.

We take for granted the giant leaps that greats like Godard contributed to our current viewing experience.  His experimental techniques influenced the language of film so greatly that they have long since been channeled, copied, dissected, deconstructed, regurgitated, reversed, and mapped into our current viewing experiences to the point that they are often unrecognizable as “Godardian.”  I’m not criticizing this lack of recognition, I’m simply pointing out the huge impact Godard and others of the French New Wave movement contributed to our viewing experiences ever since.

Michel with Patricia, an American selling a NY newspaper on the streets of France

Michel with Patricia, an American selling a NY newspaper on the streets of France

A bit about the French New Wave

Like so many other terms, the phrase “new wave” has inherited a lot of different meanings and is often accused of misuse.  But, in reference to cinema, here are some basics characteristics of French New Wave films: jump cuts, unprofessional actors, reaction to prevailing or receding film movements, experimentalism, handheld cameras, natural or loosely scripted dialogue, natural lighting and off-stage locations…all of these characteristics are found in BREATHLESS.

Eric D. Snider gives a simple description of jumpcuts as:

“[…] when you take a continuous shot of something, clip out some frames from the middle, and splice the two pieces back together. The result is that the action jumps ahead a little, like a record skipping. One second your character is just sitting down; the next second he’s seated, with a cup of coffee in his hand. It looks like a mistake, the sort of thing editors try NOT to do. But Godard realized it could be used as a way of moving the action forward a little faster. The viewer doesn’t actually need to see the man finish sitting down, pour himself a cup of coffee, stir in sugar, then start sipping it. You can jump right from sitting to sipping, and the viewer’s brain will fill the rest in.”

Godard also had to cut the movie down to a bearable amount of time, hence his rigorous editing.  So much has been written about Godard and the French New Wave, I’ll reference Snider’s essay on BREATHLESS here for those looking for a brief introduction.

The lovely Jean Seberg in BREATHLESS

The lovely Jean Seberg in BREATHLESS

What I like about BREATHLESS

Seberg and that pixie haircut…so sexy.  The bedroom scene, so long and so sexy even though we don’t witness the actual love-making.  We witness a romance between two gorgeous young actors on Parisian streets, struggling to make sense of the codes we live by, who’s good, who’s bad, and what that even means.

While I view this film as a romance with some scenes to ensure our male hero is a “bad boy,” I was surprised to read that Godard, three years after making his first feature, said, ”Although I felt ashamed of it at one time, I do like Breathless, but now I can see where it belongs —- along with Alice in Wonderland.  I thought it was Scarface.”  While I’m not sure what to fully make of his statement, I got a kick out of him comparing BREATHLESS to Scarface.  I do see what he means by the Alice in Wonderland reference; BREATHLESS seems almost like a dreamworld where muggings and killings don’t bear much weight on our main character’s conscious, yet the romanticism of an incredibly long scene, all filmed in a tiny apartment, makes a seemingly mundane expanse of time seem dreamlike.

As Ebert said, Godard’s “Breathless” superimposed Hollywood images on French lifestyles.  We witness the male bravado that Rosenbaum beautifully details, women portrayed as heartbreakers, snitches as those who bring everything to an end (with Godard casting himself as a snitch)…all on the beautiful background of France in 1959.  Yes, BREATHLESS is one for the vaults.  One that teaches us about love, makes us question why we do things: for love? for proof of love?  Why do we need proof of abstract consequences when the proof can be so fatal. And final.

How different the movie would have been if Patricia had pickpocketed Michel as Godard is rumored to have wanted.

How different the movie would have been if Patricia had pickpocketed Michel as Godard is rumored to have wanted.

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