Sometimes I hate writing about important, famous movies - it's much harder to find something new or interesting to say than it is for lesser known ones. Such is the case with Breathless, directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1960. It was a hugely influential film, and everything from the editing to the characters have inspired numerous films. Ebert mentions that it is about as influential as Citizen Kane, which makes sense to me, although I know much less about this movie than Kane. I've seen a lot of the films that he brings up (mostly the New Hollywood movies I've talked about here - Bonnie and Clyde especially), and I do see where the filmmakers took their inspiration. However, where I heard for ages what things Citizen Kane did, I never heard about Breathless, so I have a harder time making any definitive statements about it. Plus, Ebert says about all there is to say about the movie's influence, so I'll try to keep this mostly about my reaction. For anyone who is sick of French New Wave, the weird spree of it will be over for a little while tomorrow. :)
So, the film. It's about Michel, a strange and ugly man who likes to steal cars. He kills a policeman, and soon is wanted. He meets an American girl, Patricia, who sells the New York Times and hopes to be a journalist. She has a relationship with him, but it's hard to figure out what she likes about him, if anything. She realizes with no readable emotion that Michel is a killer, and eventually turns him into the police. Both characters are really narcissistic, and spend a lot of time just smoking and lolling about.
I was pretty mystified by Patricia. Why does she hang around with Michel? He seems annoying, and I found him so unattractive. He seemed to flatly say callus things, which I found off-putting, but Patricia just shrugs it off. Ebert writes about her bizarre act of turning Michel in, writing, "Even her betrayal of him turns out to be not about Michel, and not about right and wrong, but only a test she sets for herself to determine if she loves him or not. It is remarkable that the reviews of this movie do not describe her as a monster--more evil, because she's less deluded, than Michel" (Great Movies II, 78). I sort of loved that I was intrigued and confused by her, though. Most movies spell out everything for you, and its always nice to see something that you actually have to think for yourself about.
The way the film was made and shot seems to be just as important as the actual plot and tone of the movie itself. Godard improvised much of the film, and he just sort of wrote many of the lines on the spot (Wikipedia). He also used a lot of new editing techniques that still impact film today, such as his use of jump-cuts. The cinematography is infamous, done by Raoul Coutard. Ebert writes, "It was only Coutard's fourth film, and his methods became legend: How when they could not afford tracks for a tracking shot, he held the camera and had himself pushed in a wheelchair. How he achieved a grainy look that influenced many other fiction films that wanted to seem realistic. How he scorned fancy lighting. How he used hand-held techniques even before lightweight cameras were available" (Great Movies II, 80-81). It was revolutionary when he did these things in 1960, and some of these techniques are still used today (and often to be rebellious against modern film techniques as well!). I can only imagine that his methods inspired many amateur filmmakers who couldn't afford fancy equipment or lighting. For a project in college, my group and I used a wheelchair for tracking shots, and I know many others who improvised interesting, cheap lighting and dolly methods.
Ebert's essay on the film is great - he writes a lot about the history of the people who made it, and how it was created. He also has a lot of great facts about what movies later referenced Breathless, and what movies Breathless referenced, which is all interesting stuff. Not only do I love this movie for inspiring some of my favorite films, but I simply just enjoyed it as well. It's a bit slow, but I was in the moody for a film like this today. I was fascinated by Michel and Patricia and their relationship. I loved many moments of beautiful cinematography. I am the type of person who likes to explore the movies that influenced my favorite directors, so I was really interested in watching this movie. It's streaming on Hulu right now, and it's really worth checking out - let me know if you see it!
Have any thoughts about Breathless? Share them in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Breathless