Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard || Produced by: Georges de Beauregard
Screenplay by: Jean Luc Godard || Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet
Music by: Martial Solal || Cinematography: Raoul Coutard || Editing by: Cecile Decugis, Lila Herman || Country: France || Language: French
Running Time: 87 minutes
Even if you’re an introductory student of cinema, you’re probably already familiar with the massive influence that European New Wave filmmakers had on the American “movie-brat” generation of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. This “New Hollywood” era was defined by the dominance of film-school educated auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Arthur Penn, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Woody Allen. The New Hollywood era came about as a result of declining ticket sales and the major Los Angeles movie studios’ unofficial decision to cede unprecedented control and artistic freedom to these movie-brat auteurs, which resulted in one of the richest, most critically acclaimed periods in American cinema history. While the New Hollywood auteur age would come to a swift end with the rise of the blockbuster, a concept introduced by Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), the variety of incredible films released during this era introduced many groundbreaking, influential cinematographic and screenwriting techniques that revolutionized the way mainstream movies were made and conceptualized; the majority of these trendsetting ideas popularized by likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Penn, and others originated with the famous European directors of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
One of the most influential of the European New Wave directors that would go on to inspire countless works in the American New Wave scene was Jean-Luc Godard. His first feature-length film, Breathless, released in 1960, was one of the key trendsetters of the European New Wave era, and has since been regarded as the “first modern film,” the one picture whose concepts have defined all films since. It is essentially the most groundbreaking film since Citizen Kane (1942). In fact, there are three widely recognized landmarks in the evolution of cinema as an art form: Birth of a Nation (1915), Citizen Kane (1942), and Breathless.
That’s not to say that Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is the most amazing film ever, but if one wants to trace the evolution of the modern motion picture to its origin point, the time and place where cinema started to break away from its dependence on montage editing and the seamless “invisible storytelling” of Hollywood’s Golden Age, that search would lead one to Breathless.
Other than its popularization of the jump cut, a jarring cinematographic technique whose use in the film was largely accidental, Godard’s Breathless made impact with its screenplay that utilized a protagonist who was immature, headstrong, and way out of his league. Filmmakers had written stories about flawed characters before, to be sure, but frequent Godard collaborator Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel was a trendsetter for many mainstream American protagonists of the ’60’s and ’70’s, being what would now be considered an almost formulaic adolescent/20-something rebel. Michel is a wannabe tough guy, an idolizer of Humphrey Bogart, and fancies himself a gangster. However, his actual talents stop far short of his fantasies. He is not the take-charge noir crime solver of Laura (1944) nor is he a tenacious alpha male like Tony Comonte in Scarface (1932). Michel’s character is largely reactive as opposed to proactive. He’s lazy, self-centered, and waits for opportunities to come to him while he nags the female lead (Patricia Franchini, played by Jean Seberg) to sleep with him. A Humphrey Bogart-esque, prototypical James Bond-character Michel most certainly is not.
Besides laying the blueprint for later Hollywood protagonists to follow in conjunction with the 1960’s-70’s youth upheaval, namely those played by Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson, Breathless is famous for embracing a far more experimental filming style than what had previously been seen in narrative films up to that point. A variety of the film’s camera techniques rejected the traditional rules of European and American filmmaking in favor of a much rougher look and feel. Godard’s use of handheld cameras, lack of elaborate lighting, broken eyeline matches, and long takes bucked filmmaking convention and embraced a more rebellious, innovative tone. Finally, the film’s most famous trendsetting feature, the jump-cuts, bring a whole new meaning to the idea of screenplay efficiency. Instead of cutting out whole scenes or shots from within certain scenes, Godard elects to cut within shots to achieve a sort of accelerated “skipping” feeling within continuous sequences of motion or dialogue. This technique works brilliantly in the movie by trimming all the unnecessary fat from each scene. It gives this wannabe-gangster tale a sense of purpose, a wild feel of unbridled, youthful energy.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is too important of a film to pass up. Its influence is crucial to understanding the later American New Wave films of the ’60’s and ’70’s, which are widely regarded as two of the best decades in American and world cinema, and its importance as the poster child of European New Wave cinema cannot be overstated. It’s not quite a masterpiece in my mind, but as far as influential trendsetters, innovators, and rule-breakers go in the movie business, Breathless is cinematic dynamite.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Breathless‘ bold narrative symbolism and rich main character make this brief wannabe-gangster adventure a wholesome ride of introspection and existential contemplation. Godard’s groundbreaking experimental style works wonders here, as his innovative use of lighting, eyeline matches, and jump cuts whips the film into razor sharp shape.
— However… Seberg’s betrayal of Michel, though it leads to an iconic and poetically beautiful ending, is confusing and contradictory.
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