Reviewing Goodbye to Language made me realize how criminal it was that I had never, in almost two years of blogging, reviewed a film from perhaps the most important director of the past sixty years. What was I doing with my life?
“If cinema if truth at 24 frames a second”, as Jean-Luc Godard famously said, then Breathless, the director’s estimable debut feature film and the breaking of the dawn for the French New Wave, absconds with that truth via Godard’s forgotten, demonic second-half riposte to the phrase: “and every cut is a lie”. With Breathless, Godard brought new meaning to the word “cut”, injecting his film with risky, tempestuous crackles, excising material, jumping between otherwise nominally cohesive sequences with jump cuts that turn the cinema into a seizure-filled parade of jumbled motion. Godard transformed the cinema by denouncing the claim that it was meaningfully realist altogether, implicitly connecting the dots between the cinematic hucksters of the world from Bunuel to Welles to even William Castle. In doing so, he skyrocketed the art-form to a higher plane of truth hop-scotching around its own limits by reveling in its own artifice.
Edits aside though, watching the de facto most revolutionary film of the past sixty years feels slightly quaint in 2016 – after all, Godard himself would redress and remark on nearly everything in Breathless several times over within the span of a few years. Breathless was a bullet from the future that helped create the vision of cinema it envisioned for the world: endlessly self-reflexive, tonally untethered with insouciant comedy intermingling with cutthroat wickedness, and formally unscrupulous with the laws of cinematic physics. Godard threw out the playbook, but he also ushered in a new playbook to take its place, which necessarily makes the first draft, Breathless, a less holistic revolution in comparison to the works Godard was releasing even three or four years later.
Thankfully for Breathless, the unformed reconnaissance of future findings is part and parcel with the film’s examination of capricious youth culture. Examining an upstart wanna-be gangster played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and his girlfriend played by Jean Seberg, we watch as they uproot themselves and live on the run. Fittingly, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Godard electro-shocking all of cinema, hot-wiring discursive editing gestures as his own getaway vehicle, and merrily cavorting down the path of his own ego at a speed well faster than 24 frames per second. Other Godard films would arrive at fuller destinations, but it’s nigh-impossible to imagine a better escape plan to get there than Breathless, a work that abandons preconceptions and propriety and rushes forth on a headstrong burst of energy, destination be damned. Call it Fury Road, served with escargot.
Where the inchoate nature of Godard’s cinematic commentary here comes into play is how Breathless functions primarily as an explication of modern youths rebelling against society and turning, as Belmondo’s character does, to the oppressive masculinity of their forebears and the B-picture brashness of their favorite primal scream cinema. As a film about a man who kills a police officer for no reason – in a sequence where the visual and sound editing do everything in their power to denounce the audience’s capacity to understand Belmondo’s action – it’s fitting that the film recklessly proposes new cinematic lexicons without ever fully understanding them. Or, for that matter, ever truly staging the coup from the old ways of male culture and cinema culture it initially proposes.
Instead, it simply dabbles in a rebellion that remains untenably yolked to the braggadocio and bravado of past ways. Godard’s film is no mere technical exercise to stave off Godard’s hyperbolic ego – it is a contested battle realm of the old and the new, both cinematically and socially, that self-consciously positions itself as a breath of fresh air whilst undercutting its own desires with a shaken-up resistance to truly breaking from the ossified ways of old. The failures of the film to fully escape the classical forms it plays on is an expression and critique of youth culture clinging to and reifying conservative notions of gender and identity even in nominally discovering new pathways to apply those notions, all while retreating into flaccid performances of life to escape the chaos of lived experience.
It’s a teenager of a film then, experimenting without yet fully congealing into its own self-confident mass. If this negates Breathless’ status as the most complete or even the best of Godard’s works, it undeniably makes it the most fascinating precisely for its internal disharmony and fractious nature. What better way to construct a film about the youth’s inconstant progressivism than a film that is itself inconstantly progressive and distressingly, abnormally, abominably aware of its own inconstancy? As such, rather than subscribing to an endlessly reflexive, gaseous nihilism wherein all cinema is fundamentally a lie, Breathless also proposes its own more equivocal truths about the nature of cinematic form and cinematic style, about the nature of lying in a world where people and films engage in the dialectic of defining one another by putting on each others’ masks. By disrupting the cohesive flow of scenes and even throwing any sense of character logic or identity into disarray, Breathless enjoins its audiences to confront not only the nature of film form but the provisional ways in which we construct meaning and construe narrative out of the unordered, carnal beast that is life itself.
It would take a handful of films for Godard to fully unlock the classical narrative norms of the B-cinema he loved – Godard’s films would truly part ways with the rules of classical film form a few years later with more diabolical works like Pierrot le Fou and Weekend, more mature rapscallions both. But again, if those films are the grand larceny and kidnapping of cinematic sanity that Godard is so famous for, Breathless is the indomitably effective petty theft that paved the way for arguably the greatest cinematic evil mastermind in the form. He would cat burgle classic B-movies and create forgeries that were also studied analysis of the originals, understanding film form by destroying it and etching creation out of destruction.
Fittingly, the visual jitters and the sonic splinters of Breathless both transcend reality and translate a real-world coming apart at the seams, buoyantly realized in an aesthetic of fracture. For all his sourness, Godard’s film approximates not only the agony and disease of modernity but the ecstasy, the anxious exultancy of an existence perpetually on the verge of an unknown future, a world where every shot feels not locked in to place along narrative rhythms but feverishly ricocheting around, smashing glass, skipping beats and inventing new ones. Because it occupies a permanently unsettled state, Breathless both exists in a continual and continually revisable present and feels like it not only rockets toward the future but invents a new one as it goes along. Of course, Breathless was Godard’s first dip in the fountain of the new, so its recklessness is nascent more than fully formed. But that sense of entrapment between old styles and new potentials – with Godard rattling around between them like a bull-in-a-china-shop – evokes the energy of possibility like few films ever have.
Update late 2018: Breathless still feels like it was made next week, and the moment where our protagonist inaugurates his criminal status is even more unmooring this time out: a man consummating a new put-on, post-modern identity by destroying an old, ostensibly “real” subjectivity, with Godard being ever-careful to suggest the protagonist’s earlier “cohesive” subjecthood – the one he is supposedly eliminating to live the life of an icon – may not have existed in the first place. And all while the film is itself questioning its own subjecthood, the sense in which it is supposed to manacle itself to a cohesive self, be it a character’s stable personality or a solid, unwavering form. In other words, as the film disarticulates the protagonist’s seemingly arbitrary style, it is questioning the naturalness or normativeness of film style before our eyes.