Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 breakthrough, “Breathless.”
By A. O. SCOTT
May 23, 2010
A TIME-HONORED tradition: Stand outside a movie theater with a camera and microphone and poll the audience members for their reactions. What did you think of the film? A grandmotherly woman makes a face and waves her hand in disgust: Revolting! Idiotic! A middle-aged gentleman, stout and respectable, takes a more tolerant view: This is a movie about how young people live today, he says, a movie made by young people, and he is generally in favor of young people. But a sober-looking, well-dressed younger fellow demurs. “I don’t think it’s very serious,” he says dismissively.
This little scene of impromptu amateur film criticism — or market research, if you prefer — occurs in Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, “Two in the Wave,” about the filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, whose friendship was a driving force and a central fact (as well as, eventually, a casualty) of the French New Wave. Those people outside that Parisian cinema in 1960 have just seen “Breathless,” Mr. Godard’s debut feature, starring Jean Seberg as an American exchange student who teases, loves, protects and betrays a French hoodlum played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who smokes and runs his thumb pensively over his lips. Some of the patrons are baffled, some enthusiastic, some noncommittal, a mixed bag of responses that seems a bit deflating. Aren’t they aware of the historical significance of what they have just witnessed?
Is it possible now, 50 years later, even to imagine seeing “Breathless” for the first time? Mr. Godard’s film quickly took its place among those touchstones of modern art that signified a decisive break with what came before — paintings and books and pieces of music that have held onto their reputation for radicalism long after being accepted as masterpieces, venerated in museums and taught in schools.
Somehow, the galvanic, iconoclastic force of their arrival is preserved as they age into institutional respectability. So even if you were not around to hear, let’s say, the catcalls greeting Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” or to unwrap a copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” smuggled over from Paris in defiance of the postmaster general, or to examine Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” or Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans when they were first exhibited, the works themselves allow you to place yourself among the brave vanguard who did. And even if you did not see “Breathless” during its first run at the dawn of the ’60s, surely every frame carries an afterimage of that heady time, just as every jazz note and blast of ambient street noise on the soundtrack brings echoes of an almost mythic moment.
At the same time, though, such legendary status can also be a burden, weighing down what was once fresh and shocking with a heavy freight of expectation and received opinion. There is perhaps no episode in all of film history quite as encrusted with contradictory significance as the cresting, in 1959 and 1960, of the Nouvelle Vague. It was a burst of youthful, irreverent energy that was also a decisive engagement in the continuing battle to establish cinema as a serious art form. The partisans of the new — Truffaut and Mr. Godard, along with comrades like Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer — were steeped in film history. Before taking up their cameras they had been critics, polemicists and self-taught scholars, and yet, like other aesthetic insurgents before them, they attacked a reigning style they believed was characterized by unthinking and sclerotic traditionalism. And their drive to reassert the glory of French cinema was grounded in an almost fanatical love of American movies.
Mr. Godard, who had made a handful of shorts before turning to a true-crime scenario that Mr. Truffaut had been working on, was perhaps the most extreme and paradoxical figure in this movement, and would go on to become a prolific and polarizing filmmaker. He would pass through a period of intense, if not always intelligible, political militancy in the late ’60s and early ’70s before settling into his current status somewhere between grand old man and crazy uncle of world cinema. His most recent feature, “Film Socialism,” showed up at the Cannes Film Festival last week, though the director himself did not, offering as explanation for his absence a cryptic reference to the Greek financial crisis. He has, for as long as some of us can remember, walked the fine line between prophet and crank, turning out films that are essayistic, abstract, enraging and intermittently beautiful and issuing variously grandiose and gnomic statements about his own work, the state of the world and the future of cinema.
But that is now. Back then it was surely different. An immaculate and glowing new print of “Breathless” will be shown, starting Friday, at Film Forum in Manhattan, and while no restoration can scrub away the accumulated layers of history, its anniversary can be taken as an invitation to take a fresh look. What if, instead of seeking out an artifact of the past, you could experience the film in its own present tense? Not, in other words, as a flashback to 1960, enticing as that may be, but as 90 minutes of right now.
That kind of time travel is part of the special allure of movies, and “Breathless,” precisely because it so effortlessly, so breathlessly, captures the rhythms of its time and place, erases the distance between the now and then. And yet even as Mr. Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, record the sights and sounds of Paris with documentary immediacy, the images are infused with an unmistakable nostalgia. This is not something a latter-day viewer — perhaps besotted by secondhand memories of vintage cars circling the Place de la Concorde or pretty young women selling The New York Herald Tribune in front of cafes — brings to “Breathless.” Rather, the film’s evident and self-conscious desire to tap into a reservoir of existing references and associations is a sign of its director’s obsession with other movies.
You don’t have to recognize this film’s overt cinematic allusions to be aware of its indebtedness. When Michel (Mr. Belmondo) pauses in front of a movie theater to admire an image of Humphrey Bogart, he is confirming what we already know about him, which is that he is a cinematic construct, a man who has perhaps seen too many movies invented by another man who has spent his adult life doing almost nothing else. As a satellite orbiting the twin suns of the Paris Cinémathèque and the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Mr. Godard was an ardent champion of the Hollywood directors whose reputation as artists is one of France’s great gifts to America and the world. Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Fritz Lang — and perhaps above all Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchock: these were not just influences on “Breathless,” but axioms in its universe of meaning.
The phenomenon of movie-mad moviemakers is a familiar one by now. The young American directors of the 1970s — including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas — used to be identified as members of “the film generation” because they had grown up compulsively watching movies, assimilating genre conventions and shot selections that would become the raw material of their own work. Twenty years later, Quentin Tarantino, whose production company is named after Mr. Godard’s 1964 film “Bande à Part,” would refresh and extend this tradition of film-geek filmmaking. Mr. Tarantino’s career consists of a series of genre pastiches and homages that manage to feel startlingly novel, esoteric formal exercises that are nonetheless accessible pieces of popular entertainment.
“Breathless” was there first. Which is to say that it was already late. Seen from its most unflattering angle, it is a thin and derivative film noir. A generic tough guy steals a car, shoots a policeman, sweet-talks a series of women, hobnobs with his underworld pals and tries to stay a step ahead of the dogged detectives on his trail. His poses and attitudes seem borrowed, arising less from any social or psychological condition or biographical facts than from a desire to be as cool as the guys in the movies.
The wonder is that he surpasses them, and that “Breathless,” quoting from so many other movies (and shuffling together cultural references that include Faulkner, Jean Renoir, Mozart and Bach as well as Hollywood movies), still feels entirely original. It still, that is, has the power to defy conventional expectations about what a movie should be while providing an utterly captivating moviegoing experience. A coherent plot, strong and credible emotions and motivations, convincing performances, visual continuity — all of these things are missing from “Breathless,” disregarded with a cavalier insouciance that feels like liberation. It turns out that a movie — this movie, anyway — doesn’t need any of those things, and that they might get in the way of other, more immediate pleasures. You are free, in other words, to revel in the beauty of Paris and Jean Seberg, the exquisite sangfroid of Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the restless velocity of Mr. Godard’s shooting style. And style, for those 90 minutes, is — to phrase it in the absolute, hyperbolic terms Mr. Godard has always favored — everything.
In a way, that skeptical young man was right: “Breathless” is not serious. It is a lark, a joke, a travesty of everything earnest and responsible that the cinema can (and perhaps should) provide. Is it a love story? A crime story? A cautionary tale or an act of brazen seduction? All of these things and none of them. It proceeds entirely by its own rules and on the momentum of its director’s audacity. That music! Those tracking shots that seem to snake through the streets of Paris in a single sprint! That long scene — almost a third of the movie’s running time — in which the two main characters laze around in a long postcoital seminar, talking about love, death, literature and music while the camera floats around them.
“Breathless” is a pop artifact and a daring work of art, made at a time when the two possibilities existed in a state of almost perfect convergence. That is the source of its uniqueness. Much as it may have influenced what was to come later, there is still nothing else quite like it. Its sexual candor is still surprising, and even now, at 50, it is still cool, still new, still — after all this time! — a bulletin from the future of movies.