The fact that an artist writes boringly to convey boredom, or childishly to convey puerility, has no effect on the resultant work being neither boring nor puerile. Self-awareness of a flaw does not alleviate the flaw.
For that to not be true, intent in art would have to matter. In other words, all art would necessarily have to be accompanied by a detailed explanation of itself and its conception by the artist, something that in turn would render worthless the idea of art as its own best explanation. As a result, the very essence of the artwork would be diminished.
Yet, in recent decades there has been the reflexive notion, usually tossed about by bad artists, that intent is almost all in art – or even that it supersedes actual accomplishment. This results in the defense of bad works of art that inevitably rely on defending the work’s intent, not its success in following through on that intent. This has been championed by postmodernism, the “first thought, best thought” Beatniks of the 1950s, and the New Wave of French cinema of the 1960s.
One of the leading lights of that “movement” was Jean-Luc Godard, whose first film, À bout de souffle / Breathless (literally, “The End of Breath,” 1960), made him a superstar director. While Breathless‘s historic importance is indisputable, historic importance should not be equated to artistic excellence. In fact, Breathless has dated horribly; and even were it not dated, it would still be a bad film because it is so self-conscious, so poorly written, and so poorly acted that while sitting through it I felt as if I was actually watching a Roger Corman cheapo horror flick. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]
Now, let me add that there is more “art” in your typical Corman piece from that era, say, The Last Woman on Earth, than in Breathless because Corman’s commentary on the state of filmmaking and art was more subtle (and often unintentional). Godard, by contrast, is so garishly dying to show his audience how hip and intellectual he is that he somehow failed to put any of that hipness or intellect – or any substance, for that matter- into his film.
Godard attempts to capture “reality” on film without realizing that anything filmed becomes unreal – or irreal. In fact, any form of art can never be real. To convey reality most aptly, art needs to be most affected. By shooting his film with a handheld camera while Parisians gawk at the filming-in-process, Godard ends up making the most artificial of films while trying to show the most tedious aspects of life. He thus focuses on the two worst aspects of film – the artificiality of cinéma vérité and the reality of tedium – rather than the two best ones: the “reality” of film as artifice and the “artifice” of poetically chosen reality.
What little story Breathless has to offer starts abruptly. It is an odd beginning, but not unlike many bad 1950s kids’ television shows or contemporaneous B-horror films like Carnival of Souls.
A hood named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car in Marseilles and drives to Paris. On his way there, he is stopped for speeding and shoots a policeman. This goes by so quickly and without explanation that the viewer cannot empathize with him. Once in Paris, he needs to get money from a friend and flirts with an American student, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). The couple wax in and out of fancy with one another, and the next morning, with Michel a wanted man, he breaks into her apartment, where she later catches him sleeping.
The middle of the film is the dead zone of their flirtations admixed with stilted, wannabe-intellectual dialogue. Michel tries to convince Patricia to sleep with him and run away to Italy. She is reluctant for she does not really care for him, despite finding him dashing. After she interviews a famous author for the newspaper where she works, something clicks within her. For a thriller, the duo have some rather pallid adventures before Patricia, for unknown reasons (to cover the fact that she has taken part in some of his criminal activities?), turns him in.
Up to the interview, nothing leads the viewer to believe a sensible gal like Patricia would for one moment go with a thug like Michel – much less go on a crime spree, especially after discovering he’s a murderer. Real character development was obviously not a priority. This plot flaw – known as the dumbest possible action, a staple of later slasher and horror films – is needed for the tale to exist, so we must bear it. Just as inexplicably, Michel accepts his fate, refusing help from a friend, who tosses him a gun as the cops arrive.
If you’re not exactly going “wow” over the storyline, its execution will not propel you that way, either. Martial Solal’s score is poor, with jazz and melodramatic Hollywood crime movie music inaptly placed. Merely quoting such bad music is not mocking it, and there is no justification for its clumsy use.
Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless
Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinematography and composition is also rather forgettable, looking haphazard, poorly framed, and poorly lit. Again, deliberation and the excuse of “realism” does not make up for the murky end result. Also, unlike true film noir, Coutard makes no great use of the power of black-and-white imagery, be it the grays, or the play of shadow and light.
There are also poor stock-film inserts of Paris that do not match the rest of Breathless’ quality or style. The famed jump cuts may have seemed cool and revolutionary upon its release, but nearly a half century on they feel self-conscious and do absolutely nothing artistically. Their form does not serve the function of the narrative the way a breathtaking series of jump cuts in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories documents the psychic decay of a character. (Those Breathless jump cuts may, however, make the uninformed believe they are watching a battered print.)
Across the pond, at the time Breathless was being filmed John Cassavetes was also making his directorial feature-film début with Shadows. Although there is an amateurish quality to some aspects of Shadows (it was not praised nearly as highly as Breathless), it was much less amateurish than Jean-Luc Godard’s effort. Indeed, as a “realist” piece of filmmaking Shadows holds up far better today.
By contrast, Breathless cannot be defended on its own merits – but only as a historical curio. (That is exactly what virtually all pro-Breathless online essays do.) Cassavetes’ first film, however, stands alone. His use of overlapping and realistic dialogue, neither culled nor self-consciously quoted from Hollywood film dialogue, is far better than Godard’s. In fact, Godard captured none of the film noir joie de vivre that he hoped to, whereas Cassavetes brought real American dialogue to the screen. (The Breathless dialogue was stillborn when fellow auteur François Truffaut abandoned the screenplay to Godard.)
Just like Godard’s characters never utter a believable line of dialogue, Michel is no more a gangster type than Jean-Paul Belmondo is Humphrey Bogart, whom Michel imitates throughout the film. This is seen by apologists, however, as the film’s style. But this so-called style is really stylelessness. To claim that stylelesssness is artistic is akin to claiming formless Dave Eggersian puerility as a writing style.
As for The Criterion Collection’s Breathless DVD, it offers an inane film commentary by film critic David Sterritt that basically consists of him oohing and aahing over the film’s most meaningless dialogue and technical contrivances. As with most apologists, Sterritt does not defend what the film achieves, only what it intends to achieve. He calls the finale “extraordinary.” Why? He never says, but I’d presume it’s because Michel makes lovingly playful faces at Patricia (as he had done earlier, in her mirror), thus showing he doesn’t care that he’s dying or that she has betrayed him. Oh, cool, man! Belmondo may have gone on to become a respected actor, but that definitely didn’t happen because of his work here.
Of course, Jean Seberg was a goddess, but her Breathless character is badly underwritten. She does well with what little she has to work – and her bone structure had me thinking of Natalie Portman or Keira Knightley, always a plus. Another bonus was that this was the rare DVD of a black-and-white film where the subtitles were not in white, but in vivid yellow. (A good dubbing would have been better.) The film is also full frame. I do not know Breathless’ original aspect ratio, but this is the sort of film where minor details such as this have no bearing whatsoever on the viewing experience.
Also worth noting is that the fact that something has been influential does not mean that that influence was good, or that the trend-setter was any good. Later filmmakers went leagues beyond Godard, actually demanding their innovations serve the film’s narrative rather than merely creating a bit of self-indulgence over which a haphazard story is draped.
Breathless spends far too much time showing off its many influences – thereby also its derivativeness. Clueless critics missed that obvious fact, lauding the film’s supposed innovations, e.g., the many improvised moments. But with no good execution, no real depth, and no character development, what was intended as satire becomes instead an awkward and obvious imitation, one that is not witty enough to be considered a comedy, resembling instead something like film noir lite. (Cassavetes’ improvisations, for their part, never came across as “improvisations,” but as “reality.”)
In short, for all the claims to the contrary, Breathless reveals not a unique innovator, but an old Romantic masking as a hipster, while wildly cobbling together a Frankensteinian mess. In America we call that person a poseur. In France they apparently call them geniuses … just like, um, Jerry Lewis.
© Dan Schneider
À BOUT DE SOUFFLE / BREATHLESS (1960). Dir.: Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Jean-Pierre Melville. Scr.: Jean-Luc Godard; from a story by François Truffaut.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. Also, a version of this Breathless review was initially posted in October 2006.