Saturday, May 02, 2009
(A BOUT DE SOUFFLE)
Written and Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Story by Francois Truffaut
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg
In 1960, the film world was taken by surprise and swept off its feet and away to Paris in Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS. I was not alive in 1960 so I would not have been a part of this particular film world. No, Godard’s feature film debut came into my film world some time during my time at film school. And I also wouldn’t say that it swept off my feet so much as it kicked me in the shins and tripped me onto my ass. In my limited film experience at the time, I had never seen anything like this film. I most certainly had never heard of the period known as the “nouvelle vague”, and neither had the film world of 1960, as BREATHLESS was one of the pioneers in that movement. Based on a treatment written by the official father of the nouvelle vague period, Francois Truffaut, BREATHLESS admires American cinema and iconography while it simultaneously makes every effort to break down its conventions and leaves its audience exactly as the title suggests it should.
Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is one of the greatest enigmas I have ever encountered in film history. He is deeply fascinating while remaining essentially vacant. He kills a police officer in one of the film’s first scenes while en route to Paris. Once he has arrived, he needs to get some money that is owed to him from an acquaintance and he wants to bed the beautiful, American journalist, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). Aside from these two items of business, as they are both treated that way, he has little interest in anything else. He doesn’t talk much except to get what he wants. He has no issue with using violence when he must. In actuality, he is self-obsessed and finitely focused in a film that is just as obsessed with him but alternately frames him in scattered jump cuts and long takes. In fact, Michel is only distracted from his goals by the one thing that Godard is most passionate about – the movies.
One could argue that it is almost certainly useless to attempt attaching meaning to BREATHLESS but one could also argue that is just as ridiculous not to try. Regardless, any meaning the film does have to offer outside of its distinct film language comes from one of Godard’s favorite and most famous devices, the long conversation. Godard revels in spending time with his characters, as though he, and subsequently we, were right there with them just simply hanging out. At one point, we find ourself in Patricia’s bedroom in the middle of the day, where Michel has already let himself in. The two talk about whether it is better to be in grief or to have nothing at all, where she should hang her Renoir print, the possibility that she might be carrying his baby and, at one point even, Michel just wants to know about her toes. No part of the conversation is taken any more seriously than any other and though it isn’t going anywhere specific, the two actors are so beautiful to look at and so we admire right along with Godard. In this regard, the meaning can be found in the beauty and the act of spending time with another human being.
BREATHLESS stands out as a nouvelle vague classic because of its contradictions and how it both honours the craft and art of filmmaking while it laughs in the face of the suspension of disbelief. At no point in time does Godard allow you to sink into complacency when watching this film. He is constantly at play with the viewer by jarring our expectations. One moment, he is sending up a very clichéd idea of a cops and robbers caper and the next he is allowing scenes to prattle on long after any furthering of the story has taken place. Godard is fascinated with the texture of his imagery and just as bent on slicing it up into jump cuts that are sometimes functional and at other times, completely frivolous. While it may seem as though Godard is often thumbing his Scandinavian nose at the naturally excessive American approach to filmmaking, he is actually calling our attention to the artistry behind it and reminding the viewer that a good time can be had whether you call it art or a movie. The best part about BREATHLESS and Godard’s self-described anarchist filmmaking style is that nearly 50 years later, the film is just as challenging, if not more so, and, for me, still takes my breath away.