A Bout de Souffle - Breathless
|Directed by||Jean-Luc Godard|
A classic proves itself by the way it fits into any moment of history with ease. It shrugs off trend and fashion, it thumbs its nose at expiration dates. Like the quality of mercy, it is never strained. If a thing requires an explanation, it may be something wonderful, but it is not, in the sense we’re using for today’s lesson, a classic.
Shakespeare has no boundaries. Mercutio, Hamlet, and Prince Hal make their own welcome. Twain and Fitzgerald wrote for the moment, and for the ages. Cyrano’s panache never needs an introduction. Jane Austen is a hotter property today than she was in her prime two centuries ago.
When it comes to the movies, a lot of oldies stand up, but many more are as faded as a tin of Old Dutch Cleanser left in the kitchen window of an abandoned summer cottage, or a rose packed away between the pages of a book. The Rudys, Valentino and Vallee, wilt in the beam of a modern projector bulb, but Errol Flynn still buckles a swash with gusto. Bette Davis can tell us to fasten our seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night, whenever she likes. Bogart never goes out of style.
And when in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless Jean-Paul Belmondo lingers in front of a Paris movie theater to admire Bogey's image in a poster for The Maltese Falcon, and passes his thumb over his lip, it’s a Promethean moment, a passing of the torch, that somehow against all probability works. Belmondo was cool, is cool, and always will be cool. And Jean Seberg, whose short unhappy life ended in an apparent suicide in 1979, is every bit his match with her gamine haircut and Mona Lisa smile.
Breathless turned fifty this spring. It was released the year after Francois Truffaut's maiden feature, The 400 Blows (Les 400 Coups), triumphed at Cannes in 1959. Truffaut's film is often credited as the opening salvo of the Nouvelle Vague (technically, Claude Chabrol beat them all to the punch, but Le Beau Serge didn't get the international acclaim.) But for many critics, Breathless is the one. "Modern movies begin here," Roger Ebert wrote. "No debut film since Citizen Kane in 1942 has been as influential."
Breathless changed the way we look at movies and the way we make movies. Godard took his camera into the streets and shot on the fly in much the way young filmmakers do today, in this age of digital video and everyman cinema. Only back then, nobody was doing it. Scenes like the one in which Jean Seberg saunters down the Champs Elysees selling the Paris Herald Tribune were shot just like that, out in the real world, with real passers-by. And in the editing room, Godard threw the rules out the window, scandalizing the old guard and upsetting mainstream critics like the New York Times's venerable Bosley Crowther, who groused that "sordid is really a mild word for its gross indecencies," and warned that the film "progresses in a style that might be described as 'pictorial cacophony.'"
Those famous jump cuts! They have been analyzed and dissected endlessly by film philosophers, eulogized by critics, and sniped at by rivals. Claude Autant-Lara, a director of the generation shouldered aside by the New Wave, claimed to know the real story:
"A minor producer had hired a minor director to make a minor crime movie running a maximum of 5,000 meters. But the director filmed 8,000 meters; the producer told him to cut it down, but the director refused. Then he was forced to do so. So in an act of bravado, he made the cuts himself any which way, at random, in order to make the film unmarketable."
Godard's own account isn't all that different, except for the element of sabotage:
"I had made a film that lasted two and a quarter or two and a half hours; and it was impossible, the contract specified that the running time not exceed an hour and a half. And I remember very clearly... how I invented this famous way of cutting, that is now used in commercials: we took all the shots and systematically cut out whatever could be cut, while trying to maintain some rhythm."
As happens so often in art, the philosophical underpinnings of the technique came later, sketched in by generations of critics and film philosophers.
Godard was one of the Young Turks at Cahiers du Cinema, intense film critics and cinephiles who haunted the Cinematheque Francaise, ate, drank, and slept movies, loved and hated Hollywood, and felt sure they could make better movies than the lot that were being extruded from the cinematic sausage factories of America and France in the late Fifties.
Of all the New Wave auteurs (others included Truffaut, Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer), nobody loved and hated Hollywood quite like Godard. As time went on, hate got the upper hand, but back then the glass was at least half full with love. In his fantasy life, Godard probably was a lot like his antihero Michel (Belmondo), framing every life decision through the prism of "what would Bogart do?"
Bogart would probably not have gone the route Godard did, burrowing ever deeper into a contemptuous rejection of the recognizable language and form of cinema, and daring audiences to follow him or not, it's all the same to him. He was already rejecting convention and bourgeois morality in 1960, but back then the French New Wave was still a band of brothers in love with the movies and brashly committed to making them better. A dozen years later Godard would write Truffaut a letter trashing Day for Night, his movie about making movies, but offering to let his old friend make amends by financing a Godard film that would tell the truth on the subject. Truffaut shot back a 20-page reply full of home truths and pent-up grievances, and that was the end of the friendship.
On its fiftieth birthday Breathless remains fresh and exciting, although its revolutionary approach has long since been absorbed into the mainstream, and the years do show on it a bit. Of the boys of that New Wave summer a half-century ago, Truffaut died young, Rohmer passed away this January, Rivette and Chabrol are still making movies. So is Godard. But it's been a long time since we've seen the Godard who loved Hitchcock and Hawkes and Bogart, and who once cracked "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl."
© Text 2010 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be