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November 15, 2017

‘Breathless’ will leave you out of breath

When most people think of the phrase “avant-garde film” they imagine a movie without any sort of narrative structure, full of surrealistic imagery that doesn’t make any sense, characters who are totally symbolic and speak in cryptic, unconnected metaphors and filmed with a shaky camera or edited out of chronological order. Sometimes, despite having budgets larger than a working class family’s home is worth, the films will have some sort of explicit anti-capitalist message. Naturally, these films are French, in black and white and directed by a beret-wearing, chain-smoking decadent.

Those people have never seen “Breathless.”

The first film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Breathless” was originally released in 1960 and starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel Poiccard, and Jean Seberg as Patricia Franchini. In 2009, it was restored for its 50th anniversary. The restored edition was released in May of this year.

On the surface, it’s the story of a small-time criminal, Michel, and his attempts to evade the police after killing one and convince Patricia to come with him to Italy. But it goes much deeper than that. For example, Michel and Patricia were in a brief relationship prior to the events of the film and many of the developments are driven by the previous relationship and their confusion over whether or not they love each other.

Godard’s directorial style is heavily evident in the film. There are numerous homages to American films, especially Humphrey Bogart’s films noir. Belmondo’s character Michel, for example, actively bases his appearance and attitude on Bogart—fedora and trench coat, smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes. Moreover the entire middle third of the film is a real-time scene set in Patricia’s apartment, which is a Godard staple.

One of the film’s most “avant-garde” features is its use of jump cuts, which was accidental—using traditional “shot-reverse-shot” cinematography, the movie ran over three hours. Using jump cuts allowed Godard to keep “Breathless” under an hour and a half.

Another Godard staple is the use of language. Most of the characters are native French speakers, while Patricia is an American and occasionally has difficulties with her French. Godard is fascinated by language barriers, with Patricia’s confusion over French slang occasionally working into a plot point. This fascination would become more pronounced in Godard’s later work, such as “Contempt,” which involved a French writer and actress, a German-speaking director, an American producer and set in Italy.

The most startling thing about the film (though oddly traditional for the avant-garde) is the blatant sexism. Michel is very misogynistic, threatening to strangle Patricia unless she smiled and stopping a taxi to get out and lift up a woman’s skirt before hopping back in. A scene involving Patricia interviewing the novelist Parvulesco, played by “New Wave” director Jean-Pierre Melville, has him saying, “People are only concerned about two things: for men, women and for women, money.” Patricia’s boss at “The New York Herald-Tribune” does not even pretend that he views her as anything more than someone to sleep with. Michel treats her with as little respect, constantly calling her a coward.

Travel is another key theme throughout “Breathless,” providing a key source of tension between Michel and Patricia. Michel hardly ever stands still—from rubbing his lips or rolling around in a bed to stealing cars and planning his escape to Italy. One of the few true things revealed about his past is that at one point he was an Air France steward. In contrast, Patricia tends to stay still. She rarely drives, she sits down to talk to people, she has a permanent residence and she doesn’t want to go to Italy. It’s ironic—so many foreigners come to Paris, but the Frenchman hates it and wants to escape.

“Breathless” is still today one of the best films ever made—seeing it will not make you want to puke.

Matt Robare can be reached at mrobare@student.umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “‘Breathless’ will leave you out of breath”
  1. Oh how I favorite the music penalty from the eighties, everything seemed to be way much original than penalisation.

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