REVIEW: Cinema Release: Breathless

Film: Breathless
Release date: 25th June 2010
Certificate: PG
Running time: 86 mins
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Jacques Huet
Genre: Crime/Drama/Romance/Thriller
Studio: Optimum
Format: Cinema
Country: France

The opening line of dialogue in Breathless is "After all, I'm an arsehole,” the first of one of many admissions by Jean-Paul Belmondo's Michel that he isn't the perfect guy to be in a relationship with. It's not the only confession on show; Jean-Luc Godard may have gotten more overtly political with age but his debut is well and truly throwing down the gauntlet.

After stealing a car, Michel proceeds to speed wildly through the French countryside, culminating in a police chase which he settles by shooting and killing a uniformed officer. He reacts to this with not an inkling of consideration or regret (Godard's cinematic style is often too brisk to allow for that anyway), and moves onto yet more shady dealings in the heart of Paris's criminal underworld. You get the impression that he isn't exactly dealing with the crème de la crème of the city's amoral hierarchy, as their exchange is a tad amateurish and very nearly foiled. Nevertheless, he hopes to obtain a wad of money from the venture, and runaway to Italy with an American woman he met in Nice three weeks previously.

Jean Seberg, as the American 20-year-old Patricia, knows that Michel is no good, despite all of her entertaining to the contrary, testing his commitment to her by questioning his feelings, even though she knows that the preferred response isn't coming. At one point, she even steps onto a balcony Juliet-style to illicit romantic affection from her would-be Romeo, only to be admonished and told to come down. For all of their flirting, it becomes painfully obvious that Michel and Patricia are completely unsuited to each other. As well as being recklessly uncommitted to any one girl or goal, Michel is hopelessly unable to gauge anyone else's feelings or opinions, content to measure their tryst through physical, sexual intimacy…

With Breathless, Godard intended to create a more crime-based noir setup, with the forefront of the story coming from Michel's misadventures as a tearaway villain, rather than his connection to Patricia. The film's sudden shift from the opening act of hooliganism to a more intuitive, romantic drama feels so sincere and immersive to be even slightly orchestrated, and their relationship is interrogated to the extent that it becomes lucidly sadistic to watch.

Godard's entry into the era of the French New Wave is undoubtedly antagonistic and provocative, mirroring the discord of filmmakers towards mainstream cinema at this time. Michel speaks directly at the camera, a vessel for the authorial intention of Godard, as he spouts the lines, "If you don't like the countryside, if you don't like the mountains, if you don't like the city - get stuffed.” Godard's style of direction and its disregard for cinematic protocol defines Breathless to a point, but doesn't deter from what is a scintillating, profound study of a man and woman drawn together through primal necessity. As Bertolucci later did with Last Tango In Paris, Godard instigates a situation where we aren't necessarily involved with either proponent of the romance, but captivated by their desire to live in the moment, regardless of their future life and loves.

Perhaps there's something about Breathless that appeals to romantic sensibilities, the feeling that when you're young you aren't bound to commitment, even though you secretly crave it, and that, when tested, loyalty counts for very little. One can mistake love for sex, physical attraction, the need to rebel, but when push comes to shove, we know what we don't want.

Michel, as a dreamer, has a very narrow concept of success and failure, and doesn't recognise that Patricia is keen enough on him to try and construct a more positive image of the guy as a loveable rogue. Patricia is most identifiable from an audience standpoint in her introspective infuriation with Michel, and thankfully Godard never pertains to iconize Michel as a martyr of anarchism, and if anything portrays France as a haven for exploitation and deceit.

The French New Wave is often characterised by the sharp cuts and jazzy accompaniment that peppers Breathless and its superficial glamorisation of Paris and its citizens. The film bears many similarities to ‘30s crime dramas like John Cromwell's Algiers and Howard Hawks' blistering, original Scarface, in that it discourages empathy for its leading man, charting his downfall through a sprawling, neo-noir setup. Godard can get away with re-interpreting ‘30s gangster pictures and ‘40s noir cinema as a desperate, tragic waste because Michel is such a profligate, disconcerting presence, so unconcerned with getting caught in the first place. Unlike Hawks' film, Breathless isn't consciously delivering an impression of Michel so much as allowing Belmondo the freedom to be indefensibly fearless (the worst kind of courage?), and is a much more impacting feat because of this. That's perhaps why Patricia's pressured role as an informant to the police doesn't have the melodramatic caveat of a Raymond Chandler novel, and why the lack of real devotion towards any character or story strand works so well.

This Paris, like ‘30s Algiers, is a ruse for grubbier disgrace. The wrenching sadness about Breathless is in its confirmation of life as unfulfilled, and Michel's late proclaim that he's "had enough" sums up the film's dogged independence as an entity eager to shun rules as much as Michel himself. A rapid, slightly abrupt finale reads as if Godard had just put the phone down on a call that was somehow getting out of hand.

Even though Breathless won't always amount to everyone's idea of polish, the result is so much meatier than the sum of its parts. CR

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