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Breathless (1960)

October 28, 2010

9/10 Tainted Loves

Could have been made yesterday…if folks actually remembered how to make ’em like this.

Breathless is about a womanizing car thief who guns down a cop while on the run and then meets up with an old fling in the city to stay out of sight. Lo and behold, he continually tries to get her in the sack, she continually plays hard-to-get, emotions are rekindled, emotions are tested, more cars are stolen all with the authorities hot on his tail.

Plot-wise, there’s not a whole lot going on here. It’s essentially a 90-minute cat-and-mouse story with a lot of talking heads where the fuzz spend the whole time chasing this guy down while he’s spending his days tiptoeing in the shadows trying to get smooth-talk his way into an American girl’s pants. Something tells me I’d be a bit too preoccupied with not getting killed/locked up/yelled at to pay my mojo any mind, but those French bad boys sure got their priorities set in stone.

Anyway, this all might seem pretty straightforward and unspectacular in theory, but in practice, it is absolutely enthralling. So what is it that sets this classic apart?

Two words, baby: jump cuts.

He may owe a crap-ton of credit to my man Jean-Pierre Melville for giving him the idea (although JP is given a great bit role here as an expert on the male/female dynamic), but the way director Jean-Luc Godard uses jump cuts here is a thing of beauty. It’s just a fool-proof solution to all the problems that have always plagued pacing in films. Scene running too long? Jump cut. Looking to turn every scene into a highlight reel instead of having to wade through all the obligatory fluff to get there? Go right ahead and jump cut that noise. Dialogue dragging? Run-time extending? Faucet leaking? Godard knows the drill and, boy, does he know it well.

You really have to see it in action. At first, it’s a bit strange to process when one second our guy shoots a cop on a dirt road in the countryside, the next instant he’s sprinting halfway across a razed hay field, and then you blink and he’s standing in the heart of a bustling city rubbing his lips and eyeing down chicks. But you get used to it because it flows, it keeps you on your toes and it all feels so damn natural.

For instance, the whole second Act is one long bedroom conversation between our international lovers. That’s it. Half-an-hour in the same room talking about sex, life and sex. The scene should have bored me to tears, but between the script and the delivery, it’s like the camera isn’t even there and we’re just watching two everyday people go on about everyday things. The said scene with Jean-Pierre Melville is very similar in this regard, and while that’s shorter than Act Two, it’s always something to see something that feels so unscripted and genuine.

And the relationship between these two just gets more and more interesting as they get more and more involved. Jean-Paul Belmondo (was it a law back then for every guy to be named Jean-something?) fits the bill quite nicely as carjacker extraordinaire/human chimney, Michel Poiccard. Kind of a dick at first, but he grew on me to the point where he might even be called “cool”. And Jean Seberg with all her Audrey Hepburn-ness is a perfect complement as Patricia Franchini. Girl’s a peach. But as easy as they are to watch on their own, it’s so much more fun watching them peel back the layers together.

Michel tends to wear his heart on his sleeve and doesn’t hesitate to tell anyone what’s on his mind regardless of whether they’re asking, but Patricia’s an enigma alright. She never really justifies her emotions with a straight answer, it’s hard to say why she’s so hung up on this small-time crook aside from the fact that nice guys do tend to finish last, and when all is said and done, it’s still hard to put a finger on what’s going on in that heart of hers. The girl’s absolutely adorable and I love all the back-and-forths between her and Michel, but the real draw to her character that keeps the script so interesting is her unpredictability. Guess you really can’t help who you fall in love with no matter how hard you want to feel otherwise.

For a movie nerd, there’s a lot to admire and go ape over here. For the average viewer, a lot of this ranting sound excessive, although I still like to think that there’s a lot to dig. But if there’s one thing to be said about this movie – and I think a lot of people say this – it’s that it was way ahead of its time. Breathless is simple, it’s gorgeous, and 50 years later it still feels fresh out the oven. You look at someone like Edgar Wright and you can see how jump cuts have evolved over the years, but this is what changed the game and continues to make most 21st Century efforts look like they actually were made 50 years ago. Doesn’t shine a whole lot in the crime genre, but being disappointed by that is missing

Not a bad place to start for my first Godard movie.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2010 3:44 pm

    Tres Bien! Jean Seberg is the epitome of cool and is stunning too boot! I must admit, I have only seen two Godard films, which is a bloody shame because Breathless is absolutely brilliant and Sympathy For The Devil is one of the best freaking band docs I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. I’ll have to check out some Godard for my 70’s theme I’ve got going on, I’m guessing he has a few from the decade.

    • October 28, 2010 4:47 pm

      Never seen Sympathy for the Devil, only ever heard of Gimme Shelter and a more recent Stones doc – that I forget the name of – about them recording Exile in Main St. Will check it out though, but I hear Breathless is the Godard to see.

  2. November 2, 2010 1:57 pm

    I was totally expecting this to be another one of those historically important, but otherwise uninteresting, films but it took me by surprise.

    Like you said, the film flowed so well and the characters were interesting. I was surprised by how invested I got in the story.

    Those jump cuts were more than just a flashy trick, but a way for Godard to tell a story in an economical manner, making the film a tight and enjoyable experience.

    As for other Godard films, a word of caution, some of his films are infuriatingly hard to watch. He becomes ideologically dense and that reflects in a lot of his later work.

    However, please check out A Woman is a Woman. It’s a delightful and joyous film that I think is even better than Breathless.

    • November 2, 2010 3:21 pm

      Yeah, I loved that about the jump cuts. No idea why more directors these days (or for the past 50 years for that matter) don’t utilize them the way Godard did. Just felt perfect. And I’ve heard that about some of his other films, but I hear good things about Pierrot le Fou, so will be checking that out along with A Woman is a Woman. Thanks for the heads up, man.

  3. November 12, 2010 4:28 pm

    Perhaps my favorite non-Aronofsky movie — most definitely my favorite non-American movie. God, when I watch this I feel like the kewlest guy int eh world, and then I realize that most people think that people who like French film are weird and I get sad.

    • November 15, 2010 1:28 pm

      Very sad state of affairs, folks do not know what they are missing out on with this. We may very well be the kewlest guys int eh world.

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