“Riding the New Wave” is a series that revisits highly-regarded films that were part of the French New Wave of cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s, questioning not their artistic or historical importance, but rather viewing them with an eye for the modern audience, determining if they could still entertain today.
Before this week, I had seen Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” once before, about a year ago last summer. The film tells the story of a French car thief Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, “Un homme et son chien”) who, after killing a police officer in pursuit, becomes a fugitive from the law. He spends the next 48 hours in Paris, trying to collect on a debt and trying to convince an American woman Patricia (Jean Selberg, “Lilith”) to run away with him to Rome.
I entered my first viewing with lofty expectations fueled by such superlatives for the film as critic Roger Ebert calling it “the beginning of modern cinema” and A.O. Scott of The New York Times writing, “[a] touchstone of modern art that signified a decisive break with what came before.” That first time around, my expectations were not met.
Perhaps, for the purposes of this series, that should be the end of the article. My first experience with “Breathless” wasn’t disappointment so much as it was confusion as to why every all-time list on the web recommended the film in the first place. The film doesn’t suffer from the classic-film usual-suspects: stagnation, dryness, slowness.
No, “Breathless” troubled me because it didn’t feel like one of those films at all. When I watch such a heralded classic I tend to expect something large and commanding. Instead, the film felt more stylistically similar to a YouTube video or student film. Due to this, the average viewer would not enjoy “Breathless” right away.
What’s most noticeable about “Breathless” at first glance are the jump cuts Godard uses throughout the second and into the third act. The director had shot a two-and-a-half-hour movie that was supposed to be turned in to the studio at a trim ninety minutes. Instead of going back and splicing out scenes he didn’t like or didn’t need, the director made the decision to cut up the scenes themselves, skipping from dialogue line to dialogue line, avoiding any unnecessary air in-between. The jump cuts are strange and unfortunate as they distract so much from the story being told.
I also couldn’t get myself to like the crime-noir plot elements either. The excitement in Michel’s criminal activities is played up while the consequences are played down. With his face plastered “wanted” on every bulletin board and newspaper in the city, Michel continues to strut about the town, hijacking cars and dodging police. The life-of-crime aspects are too exaggerated and too campy for my taste.
Yet, all this being said, I’ve been impressed in subsequent viewings by how much I missed the first time around. Initially viewed as a romance film, “Breathless” takes on a completely different feel.
Patricia and Michel’s relationship is built around their individual existential needs. They don’t function very well as a unit, they never really are even together, but there is something that each of them understand that they can’t seem to find in anyone else.
Michel remarks in this first onscreen interaction with the American journalist that he’d slept with two other women since her, but they just didn’t jive like the two of them. Later on in the film, that “jiving” turns out to mean the couple’s tender reverence of their own mortalities.
The entire middle third of the film is a long bedroom scene where Michel tries to coax Patricia back into bed. Their relationship isn’t bound by passion or by any declarations of love, it’s stitched together with delicate threads from questions forever left unanswered. Michel and Patricia each ask these large, probing questions about death and desire and life, but neither ever manage an answer. When Michel asks, she changes the subject; when Patricia asks, he asks her to take off her clothes.
Their non-linear communication, though sometimes frustrating to watch, resonates as a realistic coping mechanism for their existential dreads. They’re not able to give quick answers with the unrealistic glib that sometimes stains a movie script. The couple have no answers, but they have enough confidence in each other to share the questions. This relationship, and how it informs the characters’s decision-making is the triumph of “Breathless.”
However, it would be wrong not to qualify this praise with a comment on the sexism exhibited by pretty much every male character in the film, especially Michel. Though he is characterized as someone whose search for answers leads to recklessness, he is also characterized by his objectifying treatment of women in the film. The protagonist can’t seem to get one line out of his mouth without asking a woman for sex or trying to make them guilty for not giving it. In this regard the film hasn’t aged well.
“Breathless” has my hesitant recommendation. There is some work involved in order to appreciate it, making it a poor starting point for anyone looking to watch New Wave films. However, with a bit of history and context, “Breathless” becomes a very stimulating character study to watch.
“At the Cinémathèque, I discovered a world which nobody had spoken to me about. They’d told us about Goethe, but not Dreyer…We watched silent films in the era of talkies. We dreamed about film. We were like Christians in the catacombs.”
— Jean-Luc Godard