Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless' is no polite, genteel revival. It's the art house equivalent of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
In France, in 1960, it was just as much a pop sensation as Indiana Jones was everywhere in 1981. In America, throughout the '60s, "Breathless" launched the dreams of a thousand film students. Godard, like Lucas and Spielberg, made a movie that was all "good parts" while paying homage to American crime movies the way Lucas and Spielberg did to the cliffhanging serial.
Godard eliminated the filler from genre moviemaking. His editing leaped straight into the most vital, revealing moments of any sequence, whether the antihero, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), was trying to outfox the police, or trying to convince his bedmate, an American in Paris named Patricia (Jean Seberg), that she really loved him. Godard mounted his camera on a wheelchair for traveling shots and disguised it in a cart for shooting in bustling thoroughfares. He mingled intellectual chutzpah and directorial moxie with a questing sensibility.
Godard's handheld camera and innovative methods of capturing natural light were as influential as Lucas and Spielberg's special effects. His advances enabled moviemakers to invade the streets rather than create spectacular fairylands. I treasure "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But the "good parts" for Lucas and Spielberg were chapter-play and comic-book kicks — thrills, spills and grand swashbuckling gestures.
The "good parts" in "Breathless" include poetry, sexuality and documentarylike revelations of youthful mores. Stool pigeons, journalists, flatfoots and intellectuals circle like figures on a wheel of misfortune around a gritty-glamorous and fantasy-clouded couple. This man and this woman never grasp their place in each other's lives or find a solid footing in the world.
In "Breathless," Godard puts together all the subversive elements of postwar, pre-1960s Western culture. Michel steals a car in Marseilles, kills a cop on his way to Paris, then tries to persuade the emotionally elusive Patricia to run away with him to Italy. The action is film-noir commonplace. But the crackling filmmaking imbues it with a Beat-like beat. Michel stays on the move until fatigue overcomes him. Godard's ethos as a director is "Go, man, go."
His helter-skelter yet virtuoso filmmaking races simply to keep up with Michel, who is an amoral, ruthless user. Michel reveres Humphrey Bogart, but he lacks Bogart's code of honor. He is true only to his gut instincts. He dissembles to Patricia about everything except his feelings for her and his obsession with death. Still, he's a paragon of honesty compared to this girl-woman.
Michael is a lean, cocky young man of the underworld; Patricia is a voluptuous pixie trying on adulthood for size. She spends half the movie wondering what she thinks or what she feels — or whether she thinks or feels anything. She reads William Faulkner, but she also trades sexual favors for freelance writing jobs. Michel confuses her because he has a hold on her. She even plays at being his moll. But will she make a final leap to the kind of on-the-run commitment that Michel demands of her?
These two make a classic mismatch that would work out wonderfully in a fairy tale. But "Breathless" is no fairy tale. Setting this man and this woman together in the boulevards and cafes of Paris enables Godard to capture opposite poles of youthful experience — the boy-man staying true to the "feel" of things, the girl-woman grasping at ideas. Patricia famously quotes from Faulkner's "The Wild Palms" to Michel: "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." Michel says that grief is "a compromise": He would take nothing.
Godard sets off alternating currents of attraction and repulsion with these characters. If you respond to those currents, no film generates greater electricity. Michel and Patricia are each in some ways terrifying, but they're also magnetic — superficially attractive embodiments of an awful malaise. It's Godard's genius to express their sensibilities while putting them into his own bold, aesthetic context.
Godard sees the beauty as well as the ugliness and silliness in Belmondo. In one breathtaking moment, the streetlights of Paris flicker on around him, swathing him in romance. (Actually, romance will be Michel's shroud.)
Godard's use of "jump cuts" — editing within a scene without regard to simple continuity — helps him capture Patricia's oscillating moods. She wonders how far to go with an editor on the make; she ponders how deeply she can engage with Michel. She takes on coloration from the people around her and experiences emotions only on contact. But for movie lovers, "Breathless" is a genuine contact high.