Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, written by Francois Truffaut (story) and Jean-Luc Godard (screenplay), 90 minutes, unrated.
By our guest blogger, Marguerita Merrick
What is it about Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” that still captivates people today? Most people I mention it to (of any generation) have seen it and have something to say about it. Obviously, it’s a film which is very much of its era--it came to be an emblem of the '60s, with its jump cuts, its edgy aesthetic, its rejection of conservative values.
So, in what way does the film still resonate today? The film centers around a mischievous car thief and crook, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who tries to convince Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American girl living in Paris, to run away with him to Italy once he gets the money he needs to abscond. He solicits his various creditors, avoids the police and seduces Patricia--all the while drifting through Paris with a remarkable insouciance. This is essentially the substance of the film, so what is it about this premise and style that render the film timeless?
People refer to “Breathless” as ‘existentialist’--probably because of this fundamental question it poses--whether it is something inside a person that prompts him/her to do something or whether a person decides to do something because he/she wants to be someone different. In other words, do we have an initiative which determines our actions, or do our actions define our personality once they are taken. This is a timeless question, which the film never answers. But both Michel and Patricia seem to operate as if their actions are just experiments with no real consequences. Michel acts as if he’s living inside a movie, swaggering about with his gangster hat and cigarette, impersonating Humphrey Bogart. And Patricia asks questions about why people do things but in the end, she acts on an impulse inexplicably--critics have been debating her motives ever since, which are left open.
Also, freedom in this film is celebrated but at the same time it's scary because it can appear that all the choices people make are arbitrary. This is another existential tenet that the film seems to uphold, that angst is a necessary component of freedom, and that it is part of the human condition. The whole question of free will and the seeming absurdity of all human striving is what makes this film existentialist--and perhaps timeless. Both Michel and Patricia seem resigned for angst. But one thing I always have found fascinating about this film (and others made the same year) is the aimlessness, the purposelessness of the characters. They are just wandering. One could say Michel and Patricia are trying to define themselves--or perhaps distinguish themselves from their images. But basically they both are going nowhere and seem to have no real goals. Michel shoots people and steals things, and Patricia haplessly hangs around with him. I think that is what is disturbing about the freedom they possess--they are not shackled by society’s mores or conventions, but then they don’t do anything constructive with their freedom, so it turns out to be more a liability and burden than a privilege.
There is the same aimlessness in two other films from 1960--Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Antonioni’s "L’Avventura.” Each film features a group of leisurely characters who go to parties in Rome or go boating off Sicily, and on one hand their freedom seems glamorous, but there is a sense of ennui and frustration. There is an emptiness to it all. The central characters, the journalist Marcello in "La Dolce Vita" and Sandro in “L’Avventura,” seem unable to break out of the emptiness, as if they are trapped in it. In each of these Italian films, the characters are unable to tap into anything important or substantive.
As previously noted, all three of these films were released in 1960. “Breathless” came to symbolize the upcoming decade, but the '60s hadn’t actually happened yet. In hindsight, it is interesting to see the disillusionment and pessimism of the films of that year, particularly knowing what that decade would later represent--its ideals, its cultural revolution, the Vietnam War, the assassinations, conflicts, counter culture. In French, title “Breathless," “À Bout de Souffle,” means "tired, beaten down, at the end of breath," rather than "eager" and "full of anticipation," as the English title implies. It is interesting to see this beaten down feeling from our vantage point 50 years later, knowing how things ended up playing out in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, on to now. So maybe that’s it. There’s a fundamental tendency on the part of human beings at various junctures to be disillusioned or to give up a little, to be at the end of breath and life when in reality, they or we are just in the middle of it.
The film’s visuals are forever arresting--its jump cuts, its jaggedness, it’s incredible spontaneity. It was filmed on the streets of Paris using totally natural backgrounds, so we see real passersby, an actual parade, we hear actual sirens. Godard often asked his actors to improvise, so the dialogue is natural, not scripted. There are scenes with long, winding conversations--Godard was famous for these. Belmondo’s performance with all his phony gestures, the faces he makes because he wants to see how he looks making them, likely because of his gangster hero bravado, is one of a kind. Jean Seberg’s performance is magnificent. A few times during the film she looks, with her beautiful eyes, directly into the camera, albeit fleetingly.
“Breathless” was daring upon its release, but at the same time, we still recognize something fundamentally human about it.