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The BACKLOT: ‘Breathless’ at 50

Godard’s most lasting contribution to film: contempt. 

As Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless comes up for reissue (50 years after its debut), all too many film writers lapse into nostalgia for their own fondness. In The Huffington Post, Patty Zohn offers an enjoyable essay about how she went to Paris (in 1970) and found the film still playing, and how she saw herself in Jean Seberg’s Patricia—the student soaking up the New Wave and the old Paris. Well, I’ve met Ms. Zohn and she’s a lot warmer and nicer than Godard’s Patricia—but that’s because Godard has always regarded women the way Joe McCarthy thought of Reds.

There is a temptation to see Breathless (or A Bout de Souffle) as the epitome of the New Wave. In this reading, it was the emblematic film for a group of young critics and cineastes who had longed to make films themselves and who suddenly found the chance. But if you want the right emblem, you’d be better off going to Truffaut (with Les 400 Coups or Tirez sur la Pianiste). Truffaut loved movies, story-telling, people, and actors. What was always special about Godard was the reticence he felt for all those institutions, an edginess or hostility, a doubt that was always mounting. No wonder, then, that by 1963 he had made a picture (about moviemaking) called Contempt. You see, the really fresh thing about Breathless wasn’t that it cried out, “Look a brave new cinema made by young people, full of life and invention.” No, it was a warning. It said (even in 1960), “Watch out, this game, this entertainment is over. Movie is all used up, and if we repeat it it will turn camp—and I’ll prove it to you by making a picture that is a strong mixture of liberty and … contempt.” It’s the only word.

So audiences in 1960 watched the dude, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), posing in front of a poster of Humphrey Bogart and they thought it was an homage to classical American cinema. It’s true that Godard knew that set of genres inside out, but he quoted them in the cold-blooded voice of an epitaph-writer. Bogart the man was dead only three years earlier, but already it was impossible to make pictures that replayed the laconic, self-mocking grandeur of the Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, or The Big Sleep. So Michel is a rootless jerk, a psychotic of a kind who will kill a cop as part of pretending to be Bogart.

And so Breathless takes off. It’s a film on the lam, 60 minutes or so before Michel meets his own bullet thanks to the wide-eyed betrayal by his Patricia. Was Jean Seberg timely and adorable?—yes, of course. But if you want to like her you have to go to the strange films she had made as Otto Preminger’s discovery—St. Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. For Godard she was as cute as could be, her bra-less breasts behind a Tee-shirt advertising the New York Herald Tribune, a Daisy Miller without the hindrance or friction of any sentiment. So she and Michel fuck and talk and all the while the idea of young love is being fucked by the jagged edges of a film that is chopped up like a blind cook chopping salad vegetables.

The sex and the talk were there—though nothing was shown; Godard was a vicious self-censor—but the chopping is exactly what happened. Godard made his film an hour too long and then he took a knife to it nearly at random. An arbitrary surgery was imposed on time and fluency. And because the cuts were chancy or ill-considered, it had the effect of making the visuals tremble with threatened life. You could take any classical film ever made and do what Godard did and the cubist reappraisal of rounded forms could be an invigorating satire, blowing raspberries at all the archaic attitudes and dissolves in narrative banality.

So is Breathless important? Yes, because it was one of the clearest statements to date (in 1960) that classical film was dead and over. Alas, we have really gone no further in our funeral observations in 50 years—no one is quicker or wittier than Godard was in the early 60s. But the latest attempts to bury film take far longer than Godard needed and they lack his corrosive humor. Of course, he’s still here—he had a film in Cannes this year—and still one of the most intelligent, ruthless, and unsentimental people involved in film. He just gave up on hope of reaching us long ago. His films now come from some recess, a Swiss retreat. For this anniversary year he should have made a Breathless sequel in which the jazzy talk of the old film was set against a savage visual update: the Belmondo of today, devastated by a stroke, and the Seberg of 1979, who was scraped out of a parked car in Paris after ten days’ cooking in early September.

That might wipe the smile off Patty Zohn’s face and it wouldn’t really play in Middle America. But it’s the new version of Breathless, true to Godard’s malign sensibility. He feels as hopeless about us as he does about the movies.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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