I actually went out last night and rented Breathless
, since I felt I needed to see it again before commenting on it. Though not my favorite among Godard's 1960s work (that would be Alphaville
), the film stills stands up brilliantly, principally, because of it's almost schizophrenic nature. It's like two completely different types of film pressed effortlessly into one, offering a wealth of contradiction and juxtaposition. Where to begin? (For one thing, though some of my thoughts were influenced by the last worthwhile discussion on the NYT, probably forever, I will mostly confine myself to comments Shannon made on the blog, since I have those handy.
A man and a woman, that's probably the place to start, or perhaps the nature of this Godardian universe? You get the feeling when watching Breathless
that things just happen, without rhyme or reason, almost by accident, with no larger plan, on the immediate, the now. Michel just happens to steal a car in Marseilles that has a gun; he just happens to pass a truck at the wrong time; his car just happens to stall, allowing the police to find him; and the way that Godard edits the scene together where Michel shoots the police officer (out of fear he later tells Patricia; without thinking? without reason?), which would normally be a heavy dramatic moment is accomplished in three quick shots (a close-up of the revolver firing; the police officer falling, dead into the bushes; Michel running away full bore across the countryside), a sound effect of the gun firing, and a jazzy music score. It all almost seems like an afterthought, even though it is the principle even that drives the main narrative. Other instances dot the film, the car accident in Paris, which comes out of nowhere; the Paris police inspectors going down one Metro staircase, Michel going up another, barely missing each other, only tens of feet away; chance encounters with former lovers and friends. Is it just meaningless chance that drives the narrative and the characters? Or is deterministic? At one point, after Patricia, from a perspective of having watched the film, ironically telling Michel how she hates informers is told by him (perhaps out of sequence) "Burglars, burgle; informers, inform; murderers, murder; and lovers, love." Perhaps, we are driven by out nature to do things?
And what of Michel and Patricia? Michel is a likable thug, but a thug nontheless. He's quite simple, he thinks principally of the now, and only gives scant attention to the future, probably only to what comes directly next. He has a one-track mind, thinking of sex and the money he is owed, but never at the same time, even though they are related. Patricia is pretty directionless, probably a rather typical American student in Paris, who seeks independence, who thinks she is independent (though she is dependent on her parents for her living money; and dependent on the American journalist she is having an affair with to get her job), but who also has a a clear interest in Michel (notice how when she meets him for the first time on the street, how she smiles warmly after recognizing him), she almost vaccilates back and forth between her desire to be independent and the attachment offered by Michel. You can see that in the scene in her flat, where it is very pronounced, she almost ping-pong back and forth between these opposing poles; she never gets more than slightly annoyed by Michel's hijinks and propositions, and at others times she is playful and flirtatious (she slaps Michel's hand away, then in the bathroom, allows Michel to run his hand up and down her leg and ass, then back on the bed, she slaps his hand away again, and then they get intimate again, and presumably have sex beneath the covers).
At some level, Patricia is attracted to the danger that Michel represents, even if it is a rather Romantic notion. When confronted by the police inspector in the Herald
offices and learns the truth about him, she at first lies to protect him, then when pressured by the police relents, but fudges the facts. Then she tips of Michel to the police, escapes from them, rides around in a stolen car, encourages Michel to steal the Cadillac when they have to switch cars, willingly helps him steal the car and find Antonio, and declares that she loves him. But then almost arbitrarily, she calls the police and turns him in, not because she is being pressured by the police or because morality finally catched up with her, but simply because she wants to assert her independence again, or atleast that is what she tells Michel back at the flat, in that wonderful tracking shot, she thinks that she will be rid of him, that he will run away, even though he won't because he is tired. When he is shot down in the street, and she runs after him, you can see the regret and sadness in her face. IMO, she simply can't make up her mind.
These contradictions extend all over the film. At some points the style of the film is ragged, fast, filled with jump cuts and other quick edits (as well as other "non-realistic" devices like the iris); at other times, the takes are long and the camera moves extensively. The main plot of the film, which wouldn't be out of place in a Poverty Row B-movie (I'll admit that Godard parodies the conventions of such American films, but it is a playful, loving parody), sit among an almost documentary exploration of Paris, location shooting one of the primary traits of the nouvelle vague
aesthetics (plus, Godard is indebted to the French enthnographer-filmmaker Jean Rouch and his documentaries). Like how the plot stumbles through a real-life parade, or how passerbys just happen to look curiously at the camera. High art references, like some of Godard's favorites (Faulkner, Auguste Renoir, and Mozart) exist side by side with the American and French movie influences: the direct quotation of Bogart's star image; the dedication to Monogram Pictures; the movie posters; the marquee showing Hiroshima Mon Amour
; the alias of Lazslo Kovacs, the famous DP; the appearance of Jean-Pierre Melville as the pretentious novelist, the first of many cameos by directors that Godard admires (Fritz Lang in Les Mepris
, Roger Leenhardt in A Married Woman
, Samuel Fuller in Pierrot Le Fou
)--just an aside, shannon, I hardly think that Patricia grills the novelist at Orly, she asks three questions, her first is ignored, the second results in flattery, which she readily accepts, and the third ends in not only a contradiction, but also my favorite line in the film "To become immortal, and then to die."--the shot of Patricia looking through the rolled up newspaper, evocative of a similar shot in Fuller's Forty Guns
, etc., etc. (David Sterrit on the DVD commentary identifies even more, but these are the ones, I picked out). Plus there is the casting of Jean Seberg herself (which will have to be explained by a quote, which I'll post later). There are other in-jokes, Godard makes his own cameo as the informer, and he has Michel shoo away a girl trying to sell Cahiers du Cinema
Godard may have been trying to break all the rules, but his aim was not squarely at any American film. It was at his own French tradition, the cinema of quality, the cinema du papa
; if Breathless
is anything, it is a continuation of his criticisim of the 1950s, a polemic aimed at the heart of the bourgeoise, studio-bound, literary, impersonal, French tradition. Like the other Cahiers
directors, he loved American cinema, especially Hawks and Hitchcock, but he looked to Jean Renoir, and especially Roberto Rossellini as his guides to making cinema. Breathless
, like early films of Chabrol, Truffaut, and Rivette, or the Left Bank filmmakers, Resnai, Varda, and Marker, is a direct rebuke and repudiation of this trend. And what an entertaining polemic and repudiation it is.