Notes on Revisiting “Breathless”

I’ve probably seen Breathless five or six times, but not much in the last few years, so I was lured to revisit it two weeks ago at the TIFF Bell Lightbox by the prospect of a 35mm print. It was an invigorating experience. Even familiar movies tend to ossify in one’s mind, reduced to a series of still images—most famously in this case, Jean-Paul Belmondo (in a fedora, smoking a cigarette) and Jean Seberg (in a New York Herald Tribune t-shirt) walking along on the Champs Élysées. But on this viewing, the biggest surprise was just how alive it is.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, since the story of how Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard went out into the streets of Paris, filming in natural light and writing the script on the fly, has become one of cinema’s greatest folk tales. And yet, one forgets how every scene pulsates with the life of a busy city; how we’re always conscious (through windows or in ambient noise) that every interior is a small part of the huge, bustling organism of Paris; the stunning beauty of the images, captured in high-contrast black-and-white where all the “flaws” (overexposed light, shaky camerawork) are part of the aesthetic. In his essential Godard biography Everything is Cinema, Richard Brody writes, “Godard’s novel method was not only the practical springboard for his formal and intellectual inventions, it was a part of them. Breathless would be an ‘action film’ in the sense of ‘action painting’: the act and the moment of making the film were as much a part of the work’s meaning as its specific content and style.” It would be a cliché to say, “I can only imagine how revolutionary this must have felt in 1960,” but: I can only imagine how revolutionary this must have felt in 1960s.

The other big surprise was the ambivalence with which the film regards the Jean-Paul Belmondo character. There’s a strong element of lifestyle-porn to Breathless: drinking coffee… going to movies… sitting on Paris patios… lounging around in bed with beautiful women… folks, this is the stuff of life. Since there’s no doubt that Belmondo is the Godard surrogate, scenes like the 24-minute bedroom encounter—where Belmondo keeps lobbing casually sexist and demeaning cracks at Seberg—are a little hair-raising to our #woke sensibilities. And yet, even though he’s Godard’s surrogate, we’re always aware that Belmondo is a total prat. He’s a little boy who gazes longingly at pictures of Humphrey Bogart. He kills a cop in the first scene, and spends the rest of the film play-acting as a Warner Brothers gangster before meeting his inevitable, pathetic demise. We’ve seen a lot of movies by filmmakers who seem to have lived life primarily through movies, but this one hints at the potential vacuousness of such a lifestyle.

I happened to re-see Breathless around the time of the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Le Redoubtable, a biopic about Godard’s relationship with Anne Wiazemsky by noted hack Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist). According to early reviews, the film takes the popular-in-some-circles position that Godard’s turn away from “mainstream” cinema in 1968 marked the end of his reign as a vital creative force. In Cannes, where Godard is God, response was tepid, and in some quarters hostile (one wonders if the director of The Artist possesses the gravitas to take the piss out of the most important living filmmaker, but I guess I’ll reserve judgment until I see it). Still, the film earned a few admiring notices from the Emperor-Has-No-Clothes contingent: one reviewer, whose name I will charitably suppress, bravely tweeted, “Every Cannes I loose [sic] a bunch of followers for pointing out folly of much of Godard’s post-60s bullshit. Now there’s a fine film about it.” (Cannes is the sort of place that attracts bloggers who can afford to pay their own way to Europe, but choose to spend that money on Cannes).

Such a flippant dismissal of an oeuvre as enormous and complicated as Godard’s post-1968 strikes me as abhorrent, although I do have serious reservations with most of his late work. In his Ebert Presents review of Film Socialisme, Ignitiy Vishnevetsky said, “It invites you to take the images and ideas of the film and make an interpretation of your own. Film Socialisme is one of the least manipulative films ever made. It becomes whatever you want it to be. I found the experience liberating.” Like so many defenses of the “gnomic wit” and “playfulness” of Godard films, this strikes me as a rationalization of his intellectual laziness. Each Godard film throws around so many ideas that some of them resonate: I was moved by his depiction of the Virgin Mary as a contemporary, sexually confused teenager in Hail Mary, or his conception of cinema as one enormous stew in Histoire(s) du cinema. Other times, as in Film Socialisme, we get a shot of fighter jets juxtaposed with a shot of tourists dancing on a cruise ship. If I understand correctly (and my interpretation is as good as yours), one of the key points of his eight-part magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinema can be broken down to: 1) cinema is the art form of the 20th century, 2) the Holocaust is the greatest atrocity of the 20th century, 3) cinema did not “bear witness” to the Holocaust (e.g. there is no filmed record of the gas chambers), and thus 4) cinema has failed. This is the kind of chin-scratcher that wouldn’t pass muster in a dorm room.

Breathless is full of life and infused with cinephilia, so it can feel bittersweet to watch it with the knowledge of Godard’s accumulating disenchantment with the cinema, his colleagues, and the world. But one strand that remains unbroken—and one reason why I’m always up for a new Godard film—is the fact that there is no other filmmaker who is as alive to the possibilities of whatever image-making medium he’s working in: 35mm, 16mm, video, digital video, 3-D, cell phone video, what have you. This seems at odds with the fact that he’s been eulogizing cinema since at least 1968, and his recent films are marked by an old-man-yells-at-cloud skepticism of the digital consumption of movies, but there you have it. And if for not other reason than the sheer beauty and inventiveness of his images, I don’t see how it’s possible to truly care about cinema and not be interested in Godard.

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