Sunday, October 26, 2008
Movie Review: Breathless
The seminal film of the French New Wave, Breathless is auteur director Jean-Luc Godard's first, and arguably best film. The editing innovations, revolutionary for their time, remain as unique and novel as they were nearly fifty years ago. A particularly clever reliance upon jump cuts, long verboten according to the unofficial rules of film grammar, inserts a few seconds at a time of five to six takes of a particular scene against each other. This device informs the audience that they're watching a movie, not a strict simulation of real life. Yet, paradoxically, much of the face to face interaction between characters is designed to portray an accurate representation of the way people actually talk to each other. Lengthy, verbose takes, the director's trademark, contain a kind of authenticity and spontaneity accomplished by granting both lead actors the ability to improvise. In an often grimly over-serious genre, Breathless is a self-consciously fun film, one that, in typical Godard fashion litters the movie landscape with coy references and inside jokes which movie buffs and the literate alone will notice. Often considered the French director's best work, it is certainly his most accessible and likely the best place from which to start.
Breathless also features an especially creative use of shot composition, which playfully pans past, circles around, and dives by the actors as they perform in front of the camera, making this movie a most entertaining experience. Defying conventions, Godard's characters talk directly into the lens, willfully and quite proudly breaking the fourth wall. The lens itself acts like a fly on the wall, following the behavior of each scene like an unseen bystander. The construction of the film reveals an overall independent spirit that mocks the polished Hollywood pictures of the time and shows that even a relatively modest budget is no handicap to producing excellent art. In these days, independent film has a target audience and is perceived as more artistically pure overall than a major studio feature. In the 1950's and 1960's, however, small budget often meant cheap, inferior, or of low quality and was often relegated to the B feature on the bill. Breathless helped to change that perception. The consummate thinking person's director and director's director, Godard made approximately one high-budget feature film in the course of his entire career and, disliking the meddling manner by which a major studio release is severely micromanaged by the top brass of the major studios, never made another one. Certainly he could have never made Breathless the way he'd wanted in Hollywood--it would have been seen as too radical a work and one not expected to make much money at the box office. Yet, defying the odds, the picture was a major success on its own terms, ushering in the era of experimentation and the overall ethos of the 1960's.
Cinematic eye candy aside, the plot is rather loosely constructed, at times even appearing cartoonish, superficial, and underdeveloped as a result. A bit of an homage to film noir, Breathless discards the elements of a classic noir film, believing that character development and dialogue are more important than a robust series of dramatic events in sequence. Godard was famouskt fond of flaunting convention, and here he judiciously prunes and shrinks the events of the film to their barest essentials. In a conventional Hollywood picture, several minutes of screen time would have been devoted to dote and muse upon an act of violence--- in order to extract the maximum melodramatic value. In Breathless, a dramatic event occurs on screen just long enough to clue the audience into what has transpired, then quickly shifts to another scene altogether. This abruptness also emphasizes the jittery, jerky, on edge feel of the picture, which ostensibly revolves around a police chase to apprehend a murderer. Much of the film is comprised of a series of lengthy takes involving two characters talking to another, frequently making philosophical points and spouting non sequiters. This can at times be trying, since in doing so Godard forces the audience to accept his reality on his own terms; the phenomenon is typically Godard, who with the passage of time became more and more radical and less and less inclined to broaden his audience beyond a few devoted fans.
Breathless is a film that grows upon the viewer and reveals more with each showing. Those interested in what transpired concurrently in the fruitful period of the French New Wave, British New Wave, and far beyond will easily be able to see the film's influence upon the directors of its time and upon many of the directors active now.