Thursday, April 21, 2011

Film Review: Breathless

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

Breathless is director Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature, and it’s easily his most accessible effort. The story is simple. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young car thief, kills a traffic cop while en route to Paris from Marseilles. When he gets to Paris, he does what he can to raise enough money to flee to Italy before a police manhunt catches up with him. He calls in debts from his friends, tries to fence a car, and even engages in a random mugging. But he spends most of his time pursuing one of his girlfriends in the city, a U. S. exchange student named Patricia (Jean Seberg). He wants her to skip out to Italy with him, but she’s trying to begin a journalism career, and she goes back and forth over whether she wants to accompany him. She ultimately betrays him to the police, who shoot him when he tries to flee.

I don’t mind giving the story away, largely because it’s the least important aspect of the film. It functions in much the same way a canvas does for a painting: necessary, but of next to no interest by itself. Godard is far more interested in rendering the personalities, attitudes, and experiences of his two protagonists. He doesn’t build tension towards the story’s resolution. To the extent the film climaxes at all, it does so on an epiphanic note, and while rather poetic, it’s far more intellectual than emotional.

Most viewers don’t pay much attention to the ending, anyway. (This is doubly true of those who don’t speak French; the English subtitles, at least, are rather poor, and the translation of the dialogue in the final scene is particularly confusing.) Audiences are generally struck by how alive and immediate the film seems. Godard doesn’t seem to have created a story so much as he has distilled the experience of the everyday onto celluloid. The film rarely feels staged: the everyday bustle of Paris suffuses the scenes, and the characters don’t seem to be following a script so much as their own whims. The staccato editing emphasizes this impulsive quality. It dramatizes how, at least in modern life, perception doesn’t flow and encompass what’s around one. It perpetually shifts to what strikes one as important, and there is only peripheral awareness of everything else. Godard’s pseudo-documentary style achieves what Alfred Hitchcock claimed for melodrama: it’s like real life, but with all the boring parts taken out.

Key to the film’s appeal is the considerable charm of Michel and Patricia. It’s ironic, because they’re both amoral, destructive people. It’s not unfair to label them sociopaths. Michel is the sort of violent criminal that virtually everyone would be happy to see either locked up or dead, and Patricia, while nowhere as overtly dangerous, casually uses and discards people without any thought to the consequences. After betraying Michel to the police, she tells him she doesn’t want to be in love with him, and that she turned him in to prove to herself that she wasn’t. The prospect of his being killed or imprisoned never really occurs to her. She thinks she’s just being mean. As repugnant as some of Michel and Patricia’s actions are, one can’t really hold these against them. There’s a childlike sweetness to both of them. For them, every moment seems opportunity to play, and for the most part, one smiles at their behavior the way one does at the antics of children. And as with children, one can’t really hold their destructive behavior against them. One knows that at the most basic level, there’s no malice behind it. At their best, Michel and Patricia are a delight, and at their worst, one just looks on and accepts.

Godard also gets one laughing at the adolescent flightiness of the two. They are constantly trying on roles and attitudes that they subsequently reject, although that doesn’t mean they won’t pick them up later only to reject them again. During the extended scene of the two in Patricia’s apartment, Michel gets his face slapped after making a grab for her backside, but she doesn’t mind him fondling it a moment or so later. Shortly after that, she’s back to slapping him when his hands get adventurous. The idea of being a good girl appeals to her one moment, she couldn’t care less about it the next, and then she’s back to fancying herself a good girl before she accedes to his desire to have sex. Both she and Michel are like this about everything: what they like and dislike, whether they want to be with this person or that one, and even their ambitions for the future. They don’t take anything seriously (or if they do, it’s because they like the idea of taking something seriously), and the audience can’t help loving them for it. Whatever else they may be, they’re probably the most relaxed (and relaxing) characters in all of film.

Godard captures the charm of Michel and Patricia’s inability to commit to a thought or an attitude, but that doesn’t mean he’s not aware of its negative aspects. These are not only the obvious harm for Michel’s victims; there is also the harm for Michel and Patricia. The film’s ending presents them as tragic figures who can’t even commit to their own tragedy; they can only go through the motions of that as well. Godard highlights that with the film’s handling of a single word: dégueulasse. It’s French slang for vomit, and to say something is dégueulasse is the equivalent of saying, in the contemporary English vernacular, that it sucks. The word is heard throughout the movie. Michel’s French girlfriend calls him it when he asks her for money, Michel uses it to refer to Patricia after she goes off to meet an editor about an assignment, and an author whose press conference Patricia attends uses it to describe his opinion of Chopin. The usage is so casual that it has no weight as a term of disapproval. And at the end, when Michel lies in the street dying from a gunshot wound, this emptily nasty term is all that comes to mind. “C’est vraiment dégueulasse / This really sucks” are his final words. He’s so offhand about everything that he can’t even find the language that treats his death with dignity.

Godard compounds the pathos with the sick joke of having no one understand what Michel said. Patricia stands over him as he dies with the cop who shot him. She asks what he said, as she’s never encountered the word dégueulasse before. (She was out of earshot when Michel insulted her with it earlier in the film.) But he cop misunderstood what he said, and instead of repeating that this (i. e., the situation) sucks, the cop tells her that Michel said she sucks. She still doesn’t understand, and the film closes with her staring blankly into the camera. The terrible flipside of these characters’ nonchalance is revealed: with them, nothing matters, not even one’s words in the face of death.

Breathless leaves one with much to consider when looking at Godard’s subsequent films. How does he build on the marvelously immediate atmosphere he created for this picture. How does he expand on his portrayal of the mindset of young people in his time? How much further can he take his insights into the inadequacy of language and its usage? There’s also the question of whether any of his films can be seen as a culminating or epitomizing effort. Godard established himself as one of the greatest film directors with this debut, and one of the most challenging with the work that followed. He always leaves one asking what comes next.

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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