Welcome to Godard 101, an unofficial and unaffiliated online undergraduate seminar where Ben and I take on the great man and his works, doing our best to understand how Jean-Luc got from there to here. First up, Ben and I take a look at the film that, along with Francois Truffault's 400 Blows, blew the roof off the joint back in 1960, kicking off the Nouvelle Vague and recreating cinema. Pretty heady shit. Kinda makes you Breathless, no?
Breathless (France, 1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
And Ben Begins:
Breathless (France, 1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
And Ben Begins:
Could it be that I am simply predispossed at the outset of my self-imposed "Godard 101" course to be much more impressed by Breathless than the first time I viewed it a few years ago? Perhaps my first experience of the film was too burdened by its reputation and my own need to confirm this intellectually. All I know is this second time I was captivated by the sheer vitality of the thing, quite an achievement a half a century later.
Considering that Godard will finish out the 60s by completely commiting himself to a genuinely revolutionary political position, the merely punk attitude coming out of the aesthetic adventures and cultural cross-references of Breathless is today still a remarkably strong pulse of youthful energy that has the power to inspire. Fifty years after the fact, it would be easy to emphasize the ironic aspects of the film but I believe this would be misplaced. Not irony but rather irreverence is fundamentally at work. The entire affair is a manifesto about acknowledging the rules in order to break them, quite the opposite of the post-modern business nowadays that mocks the rules mercilessly while all the time obeying them. New wave? Damn straight! Still new. Still modern.
Having lavished this praise, it would be irresponsible of me to overlook the chief limitation of the picture. We can blame the problem on Godard's adherence to certain documentary-like techniques in the service of his quest for a new form of realism - from the largely improvised dialogue to the then-novel/now-legenday jump cuts and more besides - but the problem remains. The characterizations are stylistically and erotically attractive but fundamentally hollow.
No doubt, a deeper conceptual project is conditioning this, a Brecht-imitative approach that intends to disenchant the audience with respect to the drama. Sounds good in theory but up on the screen the result is wooden. I will go further and say that it undermines the very realism sought after, providing a purely formal take on human interaction instead of a substantive personal psychology, socio-historical context and so on. In short, the romantic couple are a couple of sexy meat puppets. Contributing screenwriter Truffaut's love of Hitchcock is too much in evidence.
Indeed, the ongoing references to Hollywood screen icons and adoptions of genre conventions are not even quaintly amusing anymore. At one point the petty French criminal rags on his ambivalent American girlfriend how Americans love the shallowest features of French culture, citing Lafayette and Maurice Chevalier as examples. Well, the same could be said in reverse about Breathless itself. No wonder Godard would renounce in 1968 his infatuation with Film Noir and the likes of Humphy Bogart. Cool stuff to be sure, but only so fertile for realism that aims to be radically critical of the actual world in which we live and die.
Nevertheless, there are a few outstanding lines spoken in the film (e.g. "Informers inform, burglers burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.") and of course, some very neato-keano cinematographic business; circular tracking, peep-hole tele-photo shots, reflections on glass, all cool. So, at the end of the day, I was thoroughly entertained. I have been led to understand that after 1968 Godard could care less about entertaining his audience, so focused he became on educating and activating them. I will have to look at some of this more openly propagandistic material to determine if this is accurate. In the meantime, I give the artistic merit of the entertaining Breathless its due.
And then Dan Weighs In:
Regarding the jump cuts, I'll take artifice for 100, Alex. What it all means, I'll have to reserve judgment until I've waded a little deeper into the pool.
I've done a little reading up on the matter of the innovative use of jump cuts in Breathless, and have learned that there was a practical function behind their use as well as an aesthetic one. Godard's first cut of the film was 30m too long, so rather than cut out scenes, he chose to simply remove moments within certain scenes that could be excised without losing anything of significance from the movie.
Wiki labels Breathless a "romantic crime drama." I do not disagree with this classification for one minute, yet it has to be said in the same breath (heh heh) that the film has a strong element of comedy. While it takes its erotic dimension very seriously, pushing against the moral boundries of the day with respect to sexual matters, the crime drama is pretty much a running joke. I mentioned Hitchcock before, but now it has to be said that Breathless can't even be bothered to posit a McGuffin of interest that allows for a dynamic plot, nevermind any sort of meaningful character motivation. Clearly, Godard is making fun of the entire ethos of the crime drama he so adores. In other words, it's ironic.
By making this plain now, however, I do not mean to contradict what I said in my first installment. I still maintain that rather than irony, irreverence is most fundamentally at work. In short, the crime drama of which Godard makes fun, he continues to adore. For all the punk attitude brashly on display, Breathless remains merely punk insofar as it amounts to so much youthful immitation that makes a virtue of it's inability to convincingly replicate its role models. Not to be crude about this, but what was the budget for the film? You get my point.
This brings me to the topic that especially concerns me; namely, the action. Is there anything more expensive to shoot than action? The question of the production economics of Breathless is at its most intrusive when it comes to the action depicted, for the latter is without doubt the weakest aspect of the film. In the first place, the action is barely depicted. It goes by so fast, it would be reasonable to surmise that the director simply didn't have the financial resources to spend on doing it justice. This explanation is hardly adequate though. Not just brief, the action is weak, lame even. Why?
Whether one thinks it is due to an artist intentionally making a strength out of a weakness in response to necessity or an artist intentionally following a conception that sets out to overturn existing standards, I think it has to be agreed that Godard made the action lame in Breathless intentionally. One argument for this would be that the Noir from which he is taking his cue relied more on suspense and hard-boiled dialogue than on action scenes. Even more, precisely choreographed and well rehearsed action scenes are exactly what he wants to avoid given his "adherence to certain documentary-like techniques in the service of his quest for a new form of realism," noted previously. The sloppiness and limpness of the action in Breathless reflects a conscious move away from anything staged on behalf of the verisimiltude attending spontaneity.
Might have been good in theory, but up on the screen the result is definitely lame. So lame, in fact, I want to push the issue further. It would be easy to dismiss the issue by concluding that this romantic crime drama is mainly about romance and hardly about crime. But knowing as we do that Godard is going to become a fully politicized film-maker, I decline this easy out. "Action" is a euphemism for violence, and while I think it is dangerously reductionist to hold that politics is just violence by other means, it is nothing but naive to overlook the facts of force that condition all political affairs and make violence an ever-present potential. As of 1968, Godard is going to take on the capitalist state ideologically in the cultural field. So what gives in 1960 with the wimpy almost silly violence? I ask this question without having an answer, at least not at this time. Perhaps I will be able to come up with an answer as I progress through my Godard 101 course of study. This is to announce that whilte watching his pre-1968 films in chronological order I will be paying particular attention to his treatment of violence to see if I can detect his evolution towards Maoist Marxism as revealed on this issue.
If realism is realistic about anything, it is realistic about violence. The violence of escapist "action movies" is either predictable (the out-numbered, individualistic good guys win and live while the over-stacked corporation of bad guys lose and die) or momentarily false or cartoonish (nobody actually gets hurt in a sequence of comic relief). Conversely, the violence of realist film is either unpredictable (cosmically random or between relatively equal forces) or all too predictable (between explicitly unequal forces). In Breathless, the scenes of violence viewed separately are unconvincing to the point of stupidity and viewed collectively are incoherent in terms of the difference between realism and escapism.
At the very least, it has to be critically registered that the youthful energy that gives the film its pulse fails to deliver when it comes to the action. It just falls flat. For all the stylistic risk-taking and dangerous heat coming off his swagger and her sashay, the punk attitude of Breathless is ultimately compromised by the absence of any sort of authentic threat of violence. I suppose this was experiened at the time as a brand-new, oxymoronic cinematic tone; a light and breezy atmosphere for a heavy and serious situation, and this helps explain the popularity of the film upon its release. But there is too much dark, distorted passion in the picture to get away with a dim-witted feel-good reading - hey, she rats him out and brings his doom - and the incoherent status of violence in Godard's first feature is pronounced.