"I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy..."
I have to admit that after watching the weaker A Woman is a Woman followed by the detached Film Socialisme, I was weary about following through with my quest to knock out the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Then I watched Breathless. Here is a film with so much sleaze, style and wit that it can play somewhat as a comedy, but it also possesses a strong, crime-movie plot with sprinkled elements of drama and noir. In a time where French New Wave cinema was in infancy, Godard put together a sort of blueprint that inspired filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to D. A. Pennebaker .
So what is French New Wave? In a time where established directors where primarily making Hollywood-esque movies in France a group of directors (many of whom started as critics with Cahiers du cinema) decided that they wanted to challenge the norm. Rather than accepting the traditional rules of film, these radical minds used contemporary issues in their plots, shot scenes on location using only the minimum equipment necessary and experimented heavily with film editing. The movies made by New Wavers very rarely had a clear cut antagonist or protagonist. Rather, directorial personality was given more attention. They pioneered the idea that directors should be considered the "authors" of the movies they are making. It is arguably the beginning stages of modern film as we now know it.
And that is why Breathless left me...well...breathless. Audiences in 1960 would have only had access to a few films like this one at that time (most notably Truffaut's The 400 Blows). Because we are privileged enough to live in a time where a lot of the New Wave ideas are regularly used, many of the groundbreaking aspects of the film should be lost on modern day audiences. But there is something delightfully youthful about Breathless that keeps it, and the techniques used to make it, very fresh. It has been said that "jump-cut" editing was the most important technique to be introduced in film since the 1942 release of Citizen Kane, and that can be seen in abundance throughout this film.
The performances in Breathless were and remain revolutionary in their own right.
Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel - a killer who hides his obvious fears behind countless cigarettes and an awful fedora. He idolizes Humphrey Bogart and is constantly overcompensating in his attempts to come off as suave. The daintily feminine Jean Seberg gives us an interesting character in Patricia. Her entire ideology screams that she was a screenplay creation of Truffaut. She believes that she is pregnant with Michel's baby, but that never really develops into a point of interest. The main couple seem to care only for themselves, and in some stretches, each other. They perpetuate the head-strong pacing of the story by not giving most of the film’s happenings any second thoughts. Things happen…and then they are over. Even the climax of the film does not come from an honest place as Patricia never really does the right thing, but rather she does what she believes is best for her.
My favorite part of New Wave is easily the in-jokes and cinephilic references to past films. Characters throughout the film make references to an old friend named Bob the Gambler (a not so subtle reference to Bob le Flambeur) and later in the film Patricia interviews a writer who is played by Jean-Pierre Melville (the man who directed Bob le Flambeur). This is just one of the many small, but funny moments installed into the dialogue and action by Godard.
Do the heroes in movies need to be easy to identify? Do movies need heroes at all? Godard uses his platform to ask those questions. No person in Breathless ever seems apologetic for their actions, nor does the audience absolve any character by the time the credits roll. Even watching the movie over 50 years after it was initially released, Breathless makes it easy for the audience to follow a quick plot – all the while getting caught up in the ooh’s and ah’s of French New Wave.