Film Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless”
I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic, revolutionary 1960 movie Breathless last night. I have been researching Godard for months, reading articles online and watching videos on You Tube, but this is the first movie I am watching of his. Every now and then I discover an artist who I become obsessed with and consume everything I can find about them or by them. Godard has been that artist for me since around November last year when I became deeply interested in developing my ability as a writer to improvise. In the course of my research on improvisation, I came across Godard. I already knew about him, since I am a huge Tarantino fan and I know Quentin was deeply influenced by Godard. Improvisation is the soul of art. It gives a work of art a quality of freshness, aliveness, vitality, energy … And that is exactly how I would describe Breathless: a spirited, lively, light-hearted movie.
And Godard himself I would call a poet. He is a poet with a camera. The movie feels a lot more like literature than it feels like a movie. It particularly reminds me of Henry Miller’s novels, which makes sense, considering Henry Miller became Henry Miller in Paris and this is a movie about Paris. The city is always there, you might call this film a love letter to Paris, how Godard films the city, Paris in 1960, he takes us there. The poetry of the movie is in how Godard handles the camera, the framing of scenes, the innovative editing, his extensive repertoire of shots, how the actors move and talk, the storyline, and the dialogue. This is the kind of movie that feels free to take as much time as it wants for a scene it likes – I am thinking of the scene where the main character and his girl are playing around, flirting, teasing, joking, ruminating, arguing, a long scene but which you really don’t want to end, because it feels so real, so alive. But at the same time, this is a movie that is not shy about hasting through the boring parts – Godard uses jump shots a lot to get the movie moving (pun, ha) – oh, and did I tell you that Godard invented jump shots? Okay, he didn’t invent them, but he was the first one to use them inside the shots, a thing that simply wasn’t done back then. Godard started using jump shots because the movie was originally too long and he needed to shorten it. The jump shots give the movie a kinetic energy, it really races along. Well, until you come to the exquisite scenes that Godard decides to give more time.
It’s a simple story. A guy called Michel is driving, then a car chase with police in hot pursuit. He kills a cop and runs. He is, so he says, in love with an American girl called Patricia. He goes after Patricia while at the same time looking for someone who owes him money. He wants Patricia to come with him to Rome. But he is having trouble finding the guy who owes him money and so he sticks around for a while. Michel is a louse – one of his girlfriends tells him that after he asks her for money (and when she reaches for her wallet to give him the money, he says he doesn’t want it, but when she is looking away, he instantly steals the money from her wallet – proving her right!) Is Michel a psychopath? He might be, I don’t know. Do psychopaths fall in love? But is Michel in love with Patricia or is he in love with the idea of being in love with her? At some point, he tells Patricia that the problem with both of them is that he speaks about himself and she speaks about herself when they should be speaking about each other. They are complex characters, despite being lightly drawn, and you get the feeling that they are real people with deep histories. It’s amazing that Godard was able to convey so much about them with such sparse information about them. There is also the ambiguity of “is he a bad guy or not?” The fact that we can’t tell if Michel is really bad makes him all the more interesting. He does kill a cop and doesn’t seem to care. He steals from one of his women friends, he steals cars, he knocks out someone in a urinal and steals his wallet … And he does it all with nonchalance. Yet he is so likeable. Is he likeable because he is utterly himself and utterly without a care what anyone, including us, thinks of him?
Is Breathless a tragedy or a comedy? I can’t say. It’s both. It’s a lighthearted movie, but it has a sad heart. It is a movie aware of death and the characters are aware of their own mortality and they talk about it. They are aware of pain. At one point, Patricia asks Michelle, “Would you rather have grief or nothing?”