Patricia: “Listen. The last sentence is beautiful. ‘Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.’ Which would you choose?”
Michel: “…Grief’s stupid, l’d choose nothing. It’s not better, but grief’s a compromise. l want all or nothing.”
The one film that I mention during every class I teach is “Breathless” (1959), the groundbreaking piece of cinema directed by Jean Luc Godard. Sixty years later it remains a vibrant and alive piece of cinema that any person who considers themselves serious about the art should see at least once in their life. Some people, myself included, will say that it marked the beginning of modern cinema as we know it and remains one of the most influential films of all time. It broke free from previous conventions. You shouldn’t approach it with trepidation – I know some of my students groan when they see that it’s an old black and white film and that it has subtitles. Although its innovations have been assimilated, it still has a crisp freshness, the power to shock and ignite a feeling of wonder. Besides that, it is unbearably sexy and cool.
One of its greatest revolutions was the usage of the editing technique known as ‘jump cuts.’ A jump cut is a cut in film editing in which a single continuous shot of a subject is broken into parts, with footage missing, creating the feeling that we’re skipping ahead in time. The effect is jarring. Bits of information, moments of the action are missing, and your brain has to adjust. So in a scene where the two main characters are riding in a convertible, the camera is focused on the back of the neck of Patricia, and the background will leap ahead, changing perspective.
While Godard was editing the film, he was advised to make it ninety minutes long. Actor and director Jean Pierre Melville suggested he made the scenes shorter by taking pieces out of them. The result is elliptical, and it doesn’t allow you to see a fluid sequence. It forces you to pay closer attention and be more connected to what you’re experiencing. You also get a Brechtian feel, being conscious that what you’re seeing is a film, a creation. Although born out of necessity, the choice is a stylistic one as well, content mirroring form. Film critic Andre Sarris analyzed the usage of jump cuts as representing “the meaninglessness of the time interval between moral decisions.” It captures the live-for-the-moment essence of its two main protagonists.
I may be blinding you with science and not selling this film. It’s set in Paris and you get an almost documentary-like feel for the streets and avenues of the city of lights (including a ride through Place de la Concorde) in the late 50s. And in its center there’s a pre and post coital scene between a sexy-ugly Jean Paul Belmondo (swoon) and Jean Seberg in which they discuss and quote artists and poets ranging from Faulkner to Renoir.
“I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy,” Patricia says. The two main characters are aware of their existential situation. Michel is a young car thief who kills a policeman within minutes of the film’s start. She is an American student and aspiring journalist who sells the New York Herald on the boulevards of Paris. Penniless and on the run, he takes refuge in her apartment. He doesn’t seem to be affected when he finds out that she’s pregnant with his child. After all, I’m an asshole,” he admits. She turns on him when she finds out the cops are after him. Bosley Crother, the main film critic at the New York Times, wrote after seeing it, “It is emphatically, unrestrainedly vicious, completely devoid of moral tone, concerned mainly with eroticism and the restless drives of a cruel young punk to get along. Although it does not appear intended deliberately to shock, the very vigor of its reportorial candor compels that it must do so.” I think he meant to be negative, but he actually sells the film to me. The nihilistic qualities of the two of them will inspire the anti-establishment portraits prevalent in1960’s cinema, including “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Working with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard captures their frenetic couple of days with tracking shots, naturalistic lighting and handheld camera work. The film has a pulsating jazz score and the soundtrack indulges in the cacophony of daily life. In the best possible way, it is an assault on the senses. With Godard we’re totally aware of the hand of the filmmaker. He’s present in every frame.
He’s also making you aware of cinema. Long before Tarantino began doing so, Godard references cinema and other works of art. Michel is obsessed with Bogart. His look and way of talking and walking is copied from Hollywood movies. Godard nods to Nicholas Ray, Hitchcock, and Fritz Lang amongst others. “Breathless” is cinema itself. I invite you to get lost in it.
Michel Poiccard : “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy and The Criterion Channel. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV+ and iTunes.
Written by François Truffaut
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
About Screenwriter François Truffaut
Truffaut was born into a working-class home. His own troubled childhood provided the inspiration for “Les Quatre Cents Coups” (1959; “The 400 Blows”), a semi-autobiographical study of a working-class delinquent. It is the first of the Antoine Doinel series, tracing its hero’s evolution from an antisocial anguish to a happy and settled domesticity. When it won the best direction prize at the 1959 Cannes film festival, Truffaut was established as a leader of the French cinema’s New Wave—a term for the simultaneous presentation of first feature films by a number of French directors—a tendency that profoundly influenced the rising generation of filmmakers around the world. The New Wave marked a reaction against the commercial production system: the well-constructed plot, the limitations of a merely craftsmanlike approach, and the French tradition of quality with its heavy reliance on literary sources. Its aesthetic theory required every detail of a film’s style to reflect its director’s sensibility as intimately as a novelist’s prose style retraces the workings in depth of his mind—hence the term le camera-stylo (“camera-pen”). The emphasis lay on visual nuance, for, in keeping with a general denigration of the preconceived and the literary, the script was often treated less as a ground plan for a dramatic structure than as merely a theme for improvisation. Improvised scenes were filmed, deploying the visual flexibility of newly developed television equipment (e.g., the handheld camera) and techniques (e.g., extensive post synchronization of dialogue). The minimization of costs encouraged producers to gamble on unknown talents, and the simplicity of means gave the director close control over every aspect of the creative process, hence Truffaut’s term auteur, or film author.
Outside his art, Truffaut was reticent about his private life, although it is known that he left school at age 14 and worked in a factory before being sent to a reformatory. His interest in the cinema, however, brought him to the attention of critic André Bazin, doyen of the monthly avant-garde film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. After Truffaut enlisted in the military and then was imprisoned for attempting to desert, Bazin helped him secure a discharge and incorporated him into the magazine’s staff. For eight years Truffaut asserted himself as the most truculent critic of the contemporary French cinema, which he considered stale and conventional, and advocated a cinema that would allow the director to write dialogue, invent stories, and, in general, produce a film as an artistic whole in his own style. Thus, he was influential in the cinema world before he actually made a film. Like his leading character in “Baisers volés” (1968; “Stolen Kisses”), another film in the Doinel series, he was expelled from his military service. Again, like Doinel in “Domicile conjugale” (1970; “Bed & Board”), he married and became a father. Truffaut’s initial creative effort, the short piece “Les Mistons” (1958; “The Mischief Makers”), depicted a gang of boys who thoughtlessly persecute two young lovers. It met with sufficient appreciation to facilitate his first feature-length film, “Les Quatre Cents Coups.” An evocation of the adolescent’s pursuit of independence from a staid adult world of conformity and protocol, for which Truffaut evinced a romantic sympathy, the film proved to be one of the most popular New Wave films, especially in England and the United States, where he received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. Two tenderly pessimistic studies in sexual tragedy followed— “Tirez sur le pianiste” (1960; “Shoot the Piano Player”), adapted from a 1956 American crime novel (“Down There” by David Goodis), a genre for which Truffaut displayed great admiration, and “Jules et Jim” (1962). During this time he also made a second short, “Une Histoire d’eau” (1961; “A Story of Water”), a slapstick comedy for which Jean-Luc Godard developed the conclusion. After this burst of creativity, he seemed to have a period of hesitation.
All of his later works, however, were intensely personal and explored one of two themes: studies in forlorn childhoods—e.g., the Doinel saga and “L’Enfant sauvage” (1970; The Wild Child), the chronicle of an 18th-century doctor who attempts to domesticate an uncivilized child—and sensitive melodramas sadly celebrating disastrous confrontations between shy heroes and boldly emancipated or possessive women…A certain hero worship, also, is discernible in Truffaut’s long published conversations with the veteran British American filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, rev. ed. 1984), whose work he admired in complete defiance of his earlier theories. Of Truffaut’s features, only “Fahrenheit 451” (1966), a film version of Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction novel, falls outside these categories, though it relates to the American style and the poetic-melodramatic form. Through his production company, Les Films du Carrosse, Truffaut co-produced, among other films, Godard’s first feature and Jean Cocteau’s last. His own later films included “La Nuit américaine” (1973; “Day for Night”), for which both his direction and screenplay received Oscar nominations; “Le Dernier Métro” (1980; “The Last Metro”); and “Vivement dimanche” (1983; Confidentially Yours”)…Two autobiographical books, “Les Films de ma vie” (1975; “The Films of My Life”) and “Truffaut par Truffaut” (1985; “Truffaut by Truffaut”), shed further light on Truffaut’s philosophy and modus operandi. (britannica.com)
About Cinematographer Raoul Coutard
Raoul Coutard, whose innovative camera work for Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut made him the leading cinematographer of the French New Wave…Mr. Coutard, a former photojournalist in French Indochina, had never operated a movie camera when he was asked to “do some photos” for “The Devil’s Pass,” an adventure film being made in Afghanistan in 1958. “I agreed, but if I had known that the job was actually director of photography and that the film was to be in Cinemascope, I would never have said yes,” he told The Guardian in 2001. After the film was nominated for the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, its producer, Georges de Beauregard, hired Mr. Coutard as a cinematographer for his next project, “Breathless,” Mr. Godard’s directorial debut. It proved to be a turning point in French cinema…Shot in documentary style, in natural light, with a constantly moving hand-held camera, “Breathless” overthrew the polished aesthetics of 1950s French film, introducing a B-movie rawness and energy. “We tried to make it like we were a news crew,” Mr. Coutard told The Houston Chronicle in 2010. “I handled the camera and the lighting, and I had one assistant who was the focus puller. There was no gaffer for the light, and just one grip who was moving around equipment.” Sometimes described as “the eye of the New Wave, ” Mr. Coutard went on to make more than a dozen films with Godard, including “Contempt” and “Weekend,” and four films with Mr. Truffaut, notably “Jules and Jim” and “The Bride Wore Black.”…He became known for his mobile camera and long tracking shots. Using the latest film stocks, he achieved a lustrous chiaroscuro in his black-and-white films, and dazzling, saturated hues in his color films. Armond White, surveying his career in Film Comment in 1989, called him “the first superstar cinematographer.’’
Raoul Coutard was born on Sept. 16, 1924, in Paris, where his father was an accountant for Hoffmann-LaRoche, the pharmaceutical company. He passed the entrance exam to study chemistry, but, lacking the tuition money, he went to work at a photo lab. In 1945 he enlisted in the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and served in Indochina, rising to platoon sergeant in northern Laos. After completing a tour of duty, he returned to do war photography for the French Military Information Service. At the same time, he accompanied ethnographic expeditions in the region, recording village life and customs and photographing the landscape. He later worked from Indochina as a freelance photographer, contributing to the magazines Radar, Paris Match and Life…In Hanoi he befriended Pierre Schoendoerffer, another photographer, and the two made a pact, which Mr. Coutard described in a memoir, “L’Impériale de Van Su: How I Broke Into the Movies While Eating a Bowl of Chinese Soup” (1997). The first one to make a film would bring the other along. In 1958, Mr. Schoendoerffer found himself directing “The Devil’s Pass” with Jacques Dupont and, true to his word, invited Mr. Coutard abroad. The two went on to make many films together, notably “The 317th Platoon” (1964) and “Drummer Crab” (1977). “Drummer Crab,” a Conradian tale of the high seas, showed Mr. Coutard at his most ravishing…His collaboration with Mr. Godard ended when France was engulfed by the political events of 1968. “Jean-Luc is a fascist of the left, and I am a fascist of the right,” Mr. Coutard told The Guardian. But the two reunited in the early 1980s to make “Passion” and “First Name: Carmen.”
He also had a falling-out with Mr. Truffaut, with whom he had collaborated on “Shoot the Piano Player” and “The Soft Skin.” “The Bride Wore Black” (1967) was their last film together. “I had the ridiculous idea to quit smoking at the same time we were filming the movie,” Mr. Coutard told The Houston Chronicle. “I was very unbearable and very unpleasant, so we parted ways after that.” Mr. Coutard was the cinematographer on Jacques Demy’s “Lola,” which made a star of Anouk Aimée, and on two of the best-known films by Costa-Gavras, “Z” and “The Confession.” He also contributed to “Chronicle of a Summer,” a 1960 film directed by the cinéma-vérité pioneer Jean Rouch with the sociologist Edgar Morin. As the New Wave ebbed, he began making his own films. “Hoa-Binh” (“Peace”), which dramatized the effects of war on the children of Vietnam, won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo and in 1971 was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign-language film. Mr. Coutard followed up with “Operation Leopard,” about a 1978 military raid by French forces in Zaire, and “SAS in San Salvador,” a political thriller…He worked as a cinematographer on more than 80 films, most recently Philippe Garrel’s “Wild Innocence,” released in 2001, but his collaborations with the directors of the New Wave remain his legacy. It was a time he recalled with fondness and a touch of amusement. “At the beginning of the New Wave, they thought they could do anything because they had no idea what cinema was,” he told the journal Post Script in 2010. “That’s what made it dramatic, that they didn’t think there were limits to what you could do. I put together a system to make it easy to work.” (nytimes.com) Coutard passed away in 2016.
About Director Jean-Luc Godard
Born in Paris in 1930 and raised in Switzerland, Godard studied ethnology at the Sorbonne but reportedly spent more time in movie theaters than in class. He began to write about the films he saw in Cahiers du Cinema and formed alliances with artists who would become the nucleus of the French New Wave. Though loosely modeled after Hollywood gangster pictures, Godard’s debut feature “Breathless” (1960) challenged cinematic conventions and stunned critics, filmmakers and audiences alike with its improvisational style, impulsive handheld camerawork and intentional jump-cuts. As this iconoclastic film took the world by storm, its director became a leading spokesman for the New Wave. Throughout the sixties, Godard’s work became more radical, both in form (“A Woman Is a Woman,” 1961; “Contempt,” 1963; “Band of Outsiders,” 1964; “Alphaville,” 1965) and in content (“Pierrot le fou,” 1965; “Masculin féminin,” 1966; “Two or Three Things I Know about Her,” 1967; “Weekend,” 1967) until finally in 1968, following the events of May, he abandoned the framework of commercial filmmaking entirely. Along with Jean-Pierre Gorin, he formed a leftist filmmaking collective dubbed the Dziga Vertov Group. They made “cinetracts” – films outlining the group’s beliefs such as “Vladimir and Rosa” (1970), “Tout va bien” (1972) and “Letter to Jane” (1972). The Dziga Vertov Group dissolved in the early seventies. Godard’s subsequent work maintained his career-long commitment to the symbiotic tension between form and content as well as the ongoing duality of high and low art and sound and image. His later films are often marked with a formal beauty that belies the roiling tension within, for example: “Passion” (1982), “Prénom Carmen” (1983), “Je vous salue, Marie,” which was condemned by the Catholic Church for alleged heresy (1985), “King Lear” (1988), “Germany Year 90 Nine Zero” (1991) and “For Ever Mozart” (1996). In his ambitious eight-part documentary “Histoire(s) du cinéma” (completed in 1998), Godard examined no less than the totality of film as the great 20th-century art form. Godard’s latest film, “Film Socialisme,” debuted at Cannes…in 2010. (oscars.org) a few of his most recent works include “Goodbye to Language” (2014) and “The Image Book” in 2018.