August 26, 2016
When it appeared in 1960, Jean Luc-Godard’s debut Breathless was immediately recognized as one of the signature films of what became known as the French new wave period of film during the 1960’s. The film is about Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo), a character we barely know but after the first scene we realize that he is just an irresponsible, hard-smoker, sociopath who thinks himself as Humphrey Bogart (he even adopts the mannerism of drawing his thumb across his lip as Bogart did in his last film, The Harder They Fall). After stealing a car, Michel is chased on the highway by the police and in an attempt to escape he shots one of the policemen and kills him. In consequence, he heads to Paris to hide. That’s when he renews his relationship with Patricia, an American journalist student whom he met a few weeks early. Patricia helps Michel to dodge the police, while they steal cars together in order to raise money for a trip to Rome. At the end we see that things didn’t go very well to the couple. Throughout the movie, we never know how much of the real Michel we are seeing, and that makes more puzzling the fact that Patricia sees anything in him. But, either way, we do not see much interest in Patricia at all. She only apes everything she sees and frustrates Michel playing along with him the whole movie.
Breathless is often used as the best example of French New Wave to represent all of the movement’s characteristics like existential themes or the breaking of many of film’s established rules. However, the storytelling methods in Breathless are perhaps the most fascinating part of the film. It is the editing in Breathless that sets this film apart and the clever and unique ways in which the editing conveys themes in the film. The film uses disjunctive editing, a lot of jump cuts that intentionally created gaps in the action. The jump cuts are shots in which the same subject in both shots is varied slightly, giving the impression that time has “jumped” or is no longer continuous. Godard uses this technique several times in the film, including when the main characters (Michel and Patricia) had a sequence in a car at a certain moment; there was a shot of one, then a shot of the other, as they spoke their lines. This editing technique is employed to accentuate the underlying themes in the film. Michel’s reckless behavior is also emphasized by the editing technique. The jump cuts suggest that the audience only see what is important in this film and at times seems reckless or irresponsible, just as Michel’s character is. For example, after Michael shoots and kills a police officer, for almost no apparent reason, a jump cut is used to show Michael in Paris, making no attempt to hide from authorities.
Besides using jump cuts, we also have in the middle of the film a scene edited as a long shot for about twenty five minutes long. This scene shows a conversation between Michel and Patricia in her bedroom. The sequence is basically an extended meditation on two people passing time together; it simply consists on their talking about casual stuff like literature and poetry while Michel is just trying to seduce her but she’s rather more ambivalent about his intentions, more interested in cultivating her own ingenuous pretensions to culture and existential angst. Sequences like this one demonstrate that Godard was concerned with the look and feel of his characters and not just about the story.
The plot reads almost like a crime thriller typical of the 1930-40’s; a criminal on the run from the police, the distraction of a beautiful woman, a gun, the escape, and eventually someone’s death. The score it’s an ironic European homage to jazz without actually being jazz just as Belmondo’s performance is an ironic homage to the anti-heroes of Hollywood gangster films. As a mentor said to me once as an example, “this movie is to people who really like gangster movies.” But it is in Godard’s approach to film style and use of new technologies that the typical crime thriller was turned on its head. Goddard makes the editing a character itself. It is the nervous narrator hurrying the film along. It breathlessly awaits the next scene, and leads the viewer to do the same.
All in all, this movie was edited in a very innovative way that people had never seen before. If Godard wanted to make his debut picture to show how well he understood American ideals and the history of cinema, he couldn’t have made a better picture. Breathless introduced Godard to a new generation and confirmed him as one of the most talented and creative foreign directors. Directors of the likes of Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese wouldn’t have shaped modern cinema the way they did if they had not influenced their styles with Godard’s. Breathless completely changed the face of cinema and, even today, It stands as one of the most influential films ever made.