Saturday, July 23, 2011

At Breath's End

Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 French film Breathless is one of the most influential movies ever made.  Along with Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge, Breathless signaled the emergence of French New Wave Cinema known as the "nouvelle vague."  The movement purported to see filmmaking in a new way viewing film directors as auteurs responsible for everything on screen.  Godard utilized documentary style hand-held cameras, natural lighting and frequent jump cuts.  Breathless was shot on location in Paris without permits and the style is daring, frenetic and raw.

The story is deceptively simple.  Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a smalltime gangster who idolizes American crime films and yearns to be Humphrey Bogart.  He steals a car in Marseilles, shoots a policeman and turns to his American girlfriend played by Jean Seberg who tries to help him escape to Italy.  Seberg ultimately betrays him to police and in the closing scene he is shot to death in the street.

The film is a "nihilistic road movie" with a pre-punk rock sensibility.  The plot is disjointed, the dialogue meanders and the film quality is overexposed and grainy.  Godard could not afford a camera dolly so he pushed the cinematographer around in a wheelchair.  He started production without a shooting script and he wrote scenes each morning and filmed them the same day.  The put Belmondo and Seberg off balance since they had no time to rehearse or build character motivation.  Their frustration and confusion yielded an edge and naturalism to their performance that came off as completely real.

The storytelling is ragged at times, shifting from kinetic action to leisurely dialogue where nothing much happens.  Godard embraced style over story and his movies can seem pompous, self-obsessed and even clunky at times. In Breathless, passersby stare directly at camera and the jump cut editing makes the plot hard to follow.  But this was Godard's intent.  He wanted audiences to see movies in a new way even if the viewing experience was uncomfortable.

Godard once said, "To make a film all you need is a girl and a gun." Breathless embodies this ethos.  The movie is inspired by the American gangster genre and Godard pays homage to his predecessors.  Belmondo's character quotes dialogue from John Huston's The Maltese Falcon.  Seberg tries to evade police by escaping into a cinema where Otto Preminger's Whirpool is playing.  The lobby card outside the cinema displays Bogart's final film The Harder They Fall.

Godard's influences included jazz, the Beat Generation, film noir and the Italian neorealist filmmakers of the late 40's and early 50's.  Breathless was as much a documentary about Paris as it was a crime thriller and romance.  The free-form realism and lack of regard for traditional storytelling methods influenced directors like Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma.  Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde has been referred to as a more violent version of Breathless.

No American director owes a greater debt to Godard than Quentin Tarantino. The films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were virtual homages to Breathless including non-linear plot lines, non sequitur dialogue, aspiring tough guys and stylish anti-heroes.  The famous dance scene in Godard Band of Outsiders directly influenced the John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance sequence in Pulp Fiction.

Breathless still embodies the essence of cool.  In 2012, the British Film Institute ranked the film as the 13th best movie of all time.  It was made for just $90,000 and shot in three weeks.  A half-century later, the film remains fresh and spontaneous and still inspires people the world over to flock to Paris. (5" x 7", black ink print)

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