Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Breathless (1960) - Jean-Luc Godard

There have been more film movements over the past century than I would care to calculate.  Some are vaguely defined, some were stylistic, some were political, some geographical, but few did more to reshape the concept of cinema quite like the French New Wave.  Godard’s debut feature, Breathless still remains the movement’s most definitive and most influential film.

The film’s reputation has been so exalted and canonized over the past several decades that it seems completely intertwined with film history.  I believe it helps clearly separate cinema into two distinct eras, the pre-Godard and the post.  The rules of cinema were open for debate, the subject matter could be anything, the methods of production were flexible, and things were never quite the same afterward. 

As indebted as this film is in history it’s legend began during production.  Godard who was a pretty well established film critic from Cahiers du Cinema, knew the power of the press when it came to making or breaking a movie.  He made sure to have various journalists visit the set and write about his unorthodox filming methods and had himself proclaimed as some sort of mad genius long before the public even got a glimpse of the film.  It was a calculated move that paid off and helped to ensure the film’s success as well as Godard’s desire to be included as a true cinematic auteur.

Now before I shit all over the film, I’d like to point out a few of the things that completely deserve praise and exaltation.  For starters, there is a certain sense of joy in this film that is noticeably absent from Godard’s later films.  He seems to legitimately be enjoying the process of making a film.  Godard had numerous false starts getting his first feature financed, and he was the last of the 5 seminal directors of the Cahiers group to begin his first feature (although Jacques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient ran out of financing, and wasn‘t finished until after Breathless premiered).  Godard was in fact so excited to get to make a film he didn’t really stop to figure out what the hell he was going to do.

The story was originally suggested by friend and fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut.  It was based on a real life incident involving a man who shot a motorcycle cop in 1952 before being turned in by his American girlfriend.  In reality the criminal was apprehended, Godard saw a much more Hollywood style dramatic ending in mind for his version.  As he would do countless times in the future when given a synopsis, Godard changed a good amount of the details and the finished product barely resembled either the real life incident or the much more conventional script treatment Truffaut submitted.

The opening sequence is still quite exceptional, and I am under the impression that many critics and film fans base their praise of the film on these first 10 minutes or so.  The beginning has no formal credits, much like Welles’ Citizen Kane, but does have a dedication to Monogram Pictures which firmly sets the tone for the low-budget film noir homage the picture would become.  With a handheld camera, the film feels deeply personal.  Everything was shot on location, and the jump cuts are jarring but not disorienting.  Godard is drawing attention to the artifice of cinema in a very deliberate way.  The cuts are noticeable, but thanks to a unified sound track, they are easily followed.  The movie was shot without direct sound, so everything from dialogue to street sounds were done in post production.  This underlying sonic element helps to keep the film from derailing into amateurish territory.  Godard filmed several moments, including the chase from alternating angels, and when editing Michel pointing the gun at the police officer, the reverse shot is oriented to be pointing back at Michel.  Rather than sloppy editing, this is more of a deliberate attempt to break up the rules of continuity.  In the case of the gun, it makes it seem like Michel needs to shoot the officer in order to keep himself from being shot.

One criticism of the film is the fact that it is extremely amateurish.  No doubt Godard would find himself on the short list of greatest directors ever, but he had no clue what he was doing on this film.  He would write dialogue the day of the shoot, hand it to his actors and shout out the lines.  Since there was no direct sound, he knew everything would be dubbed after the fact.  It was infuriating for his actors who were barely able to tolerate what they saw as a madman without a clue. 

The final film was well over the two hour mark when initially completed.  Godard’s producer Georges de Beauregard insisted on delivering a 90 minute film to the theaters.  When discussing what to cut, Godard consulted with his friend and mentor, the director Jean Pierre Melville who appears as the celebrity Patricia (Jean Seberg) interviews for her paper.  Melville suggested cutting everything that was unnecessary to the central plot, that of the criminal Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo), Patricia, and his flight from the law.   This meant Melville suggested cutting his own scene, but Godard had another idea.  Rather than chop up entire scenes, he decided to remove fragments of each scene.  The idea was to trim whatever felt lagging or slowed the film down, regardless of whether it was an entire scene or merely a couple of shots.  This tightened up some of the scenes and helps explain the practical reason why there are so many jump cuts. 

Godard’s numerous film references and homage’s were also relatively new at the time.  Truffaut did make a small reference to cinema in The 400 Blows, but it was mostly a knowing bit of encouragement to his buddy Rivette’s yet incomplete Paris Nous Appartient.  Aside from the beginning dedication, Belmondo is constantly mimicking Bogart’s look, which is juxtaposed rather deliberately with a poster of his last film The Harder They Fall.  The film audio we hear in the film is from Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool, and several other posters and references pop up.  Melville’s presence is in itself an homage, as Godard was a very big fan of his Bob Le Flambeur, which was an early influence on Breathless.  For better or worse countless followers would show their love of cinema and throw in knowing winks to their idols and influences.

Melville being as pretentious as he can
Much of the dialogue is pretty ridiculous.  Patricia is perhaps fashioned after a classic femme fatale but she just seems painfully apathetic.  Most of Michel’s comments towards her seem to be about her promiscuity, a fact that he doesn’t even attempt to conceal about himself.  Her denunciation of him is announced so casually.  Both characters aren’t particularly likeable, but the actors playing them are so it certainly supports Fellini and Woody Allen’s ideas that casting was more than half the battle when making a film.

This scene might be boring but those abs aren't
The film is not a flawless masterpiece however.  The debt future filmmakers owe to Godard and this film is nearly impossible to calculate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the film itself is great.  The plot is standard enough low budget noir fare, but the lack of focus is apparent throughout.  Virtually a third of the film’s running time is just Michel and Patricia hanging out in her room talking and smoking cigarettes.  The scene works in a small way because of the screen charisma of it’s two leads, but the conversation is just the somewhat slightly immature and insecure ramblings of a director who is noticeably speaking through his actors. 

There is a wonderful spontaneity to the film that is part of it’s charm.  Shot on location with a skeleton crew, many of the street scenes were filmed with a small lightweight camera by Coutard sitting in a wheelchair being pushed by Godard.  Some police actually did show up when they filmed Michel’s death scene, and Belmondo deliberately timed his collapse to be right before landing in oncoming traffic.  Godard was obsessed with filming everything with available light, which led to some creative fixes for night scenes.  There was only one lab they could get film sensitive enough to shoot at night without added lighting, but it only ran in roughly 30 second reels, which led to Godard and Coutard hand splicing the film together.  Coutard would prove to be a willing partner, and their frequent collaborations in the future proved they did work extremely well together.  Godard’s main reasoning for shooting with natural light was the freedom it provided.  Godard hated the mechanical aspects of filming, and made sure he could be free to just film and make it up as he went along.

Godard and Coutard trailing their actors
I’m not sure how much of Godard’s spontaneous ingenuity was just plain laziness.  I mentioned earlier how Godard wrote the dialogue each day before filming, but much of the film was shot in the same haphazard way.  He wanted no producers on the set and kept the bare minimum of crew by union laws.  Godard also loved to not work.  Many days shooting would last on average 3 hours, where he would film a couple of random scenes and then dismiss for the day.  Much of the cast and crew found it incredibly unprofessional, and based on the style Belmondo for one thought that the film would be an incomprehensible mess that would never be released.  Jean Seberg, who made her acting debut following a well publicized talent search for Otto Preminger, found the conditions appalling.  Preminger may have tormented his actress, but he at least knew what he was doing on set. 

Godard rarely gave his actors any direction, preferring vague comments that had little to do with the film.  His instructions for Coutard were similarly cryptic, which is partially because Godard had no idea what he even wanted.  He spent so long just wanting to make a movie, he didn’t necessarily plan out how to do it.  Thanks in part to Coutard and the near documentary aspects of the location photography the film is still filled with highlights, but the rambling indecision of it’s auteur is apparent, especially on multiple viewings.  Godard’s main ambition seemed to be to make sure everything was in focus and the film at least looked professional, the rest could be figured out later.

Breathless despite it’s flaws and apparent sloppiness is still among the 5 or 10 most important films ever made.  Not only did it help break the French New Wave to an international audience, it inspired legions of film fanatics to make their own film.  Never was its influence more apparent than in the next decade’s American films.  The “film school” directors of 70s were all heavily indebted to the French New Wave, probably none more so than Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. 

Breathless can be compared to Birth of a Nation in terms of it’s importance, but the flaws of that film bare little resemblance to the ones here.  Griffith was an accomplished pro who was at the top of his craft, but also a bit of a racist.  Feel free to read my last blog post for elaboration.  Godard did have some extreme right-wing sympathies during this period in his life, and many accused his early films of being outright fascist.  Breathless however can hardly be called fascist or racist by a modern audience.  Oddly enough he was criticized by many of his peers for not being overtly political with this film.  Anyone familiar with some of Godard’s later work, particularly anything from about 1966 on would know that he more than made up for the absence of his political convictions early on.
Patricia mimicking Michel mimicking Bogart
Godard has a tendency to take himself far too seriously in his later work.  His recent films almost feel like grueling homework to sit through, so there is some solace in the entertaining aspects of this film.  The plot is fairly straightforward if a bit rambling, which is something to note compared to how incomprehensible some of his later work would get.  This would remain his most universally liked and praised film.  Although different Godard fans would all have their own personal favorite, it’s hard to argue that Breathless isn’t the best place to start.  I still think it’s a great film, just a far from perfect one.  It will forever be the defining moment of the New Wave, and the moment where cinema would never be the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment