Thursday, September 18, 2008

Vivre dangereusement jusqu'au bout!

Phrases like "groundbreaking" and "one of the most influential films ever" are bandied around enough to almost be devoid of meaning, but Breathless is one of the few pictures actually worthy of the tag. The section of the film that shows Michel driving from Marseille to Paris loses none of its ability to disorient even after almost 50 years (and in my own case, even after the 100+ times I've seen this film in the past 10 years). Nearly every rule of continuity editing is purposefully violated, and as if to push our buttons even further, Jean-Paul Belmondo looks right at the camera (and subsequently, at us spectators) and tells us if we don't like, we can fuck ourselves. It's not just the editing rules that Godard throws out the window, but the whole moviemaking process. There was no screenplay, shooting script, or storyboards. François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol appear in the credits but that was essentially just to secure funding, since Chabrol and Truffaut had already made a name for themselves and at this point Godard had only one short film under his belt. Godard wrote the dialogue each morning before shooting, and sometimes they only had enough material to shoot for an hour or so.

Of all the films we've screened so far, this one bears the heaviest mark of the cinephilic tendencies of the French new wave directors. Before the film even starts, Godard tells us that it is dedicated to the Monogram picture company, an American production studio famous for gangster B-movies. Breathless also looks a bit different than the other films we've seen so far. Even though it was shot on a very light sensitive film stock, it was pushed almost to the limit in processing to give it a grainy look, perhaps again to emulate the B-movie pictures of the Monogram studio on a stylisitic level. The alias Poiccard chooses for himself, Laszlo Kovacs, is the name of a Hungarian cinematographer. Poiccard is also enamored of Humphrey Bogart. Like Bogey in one of his most celebrated roles (Rick in Casablanca), Michel plays the tough guy role but has a soft spot for a woman, which in the end will be his undoing. Perhaps in a nod to the escapist tendencies of the cinephile, Michel and Patricia duck into a theater to hide from the police. Godard also uses the films at these theaters like songs in a soundtrack to comment on the characters. The film being shown in the first theater that Patricia goes into on her own is Otto Preminger's Whirlpool, and the dialogue we hear a woman being asked "Does this cheap parasite mean so much to you that you're willing to cover for him?", clearly an allusion to Patricia and her situation with Michel. The use of a Preminger film has another layer of meaning as well, since Jean Seberg had starred in a Preminger film the previous year.

Michel himself is an intriguing character. Godard again breaks convention by having the leading man be someone who doesn't necessarily deserve our sympathies. With his very first line in the story he tells us, "After all, I'm an asshole." Michel's actions certainly convey this throughout the film as we see him steal money from a lady friend of his and a stranger he karate chops in the bathroom, steals numerous cars, berates a cab driver, and sneaks into Patricia's hotel room. He really doesn't exhibit any redeeming qualities, yet you can't help but want him to escape to Italy.

It's interesting to see in Godard's first feature some of the ideas that he used in later films, even though stylistically they would be radically different. Michel plays classical music records much like Jean-Pierre Léaud's character in Masculin Feminin. The long take or Patricia walking in a circle and pontificating out loud seems to be echoed in the later films, like the scene in Le Weekend when three reporters are following a young girl in a field asking her long, drawn out philosophical questions. And of course dipping into the gangster genre again with the heady mix of crime, love, and music that was to come in Band of Outsiders.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The 400 Blows

Truffaut's The 400 Blows begins with a series of shots all focusing on the Eiffel Tower. After all the times I've seen this film I can't figure out his motivation for starting the film this way. The tower is never referenced again during the film and the bulk of the story takes place in Montmartre, a low rent area of the city where the tourists go to "slum it" with working class and bohemian types. I guess this could just be another example of the high/low culture juxtaposition that new wave directors favored, or perhaps a commentary on Antoine's character who is metaphorically going around in circles?
Jean-Pierre Léaud's performance is one of my favorites in all of French new wave cinema. Truffaut's choice of hiring an unexperienced actor to play this role was a minor stroke of genius. I think with an experienced actor you would've seen a performance that wasn't as naturalistic, since it would've been an actor trying to act like a troublemaking young teenager. Truffaut just cut out the middle man and hired a real troublemaking teen. This way he got someone who could actually fait les quatre-cents coups (raise hell) instead of having to be directed to do so.
Truffaut's cinephilic tendencies are clearly shown when Antoine and his friend cut class to go to the theater, but there is perhaps a reference to the earlier history of film. During the scene when Antoine is on the ride that spins around in circles, there are some shots from his POV. The bottom half of the screen shows the opposite wall of the ride, but the top half shows the people watching the ride spinning. This creates an image suggesting a zoetrope or a kinetoscope, those pre-filmic visual toys that showed moving pictures.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Les Cousins

Of all the French new wave films I've seen so far, Les Cousins did appear to be the most mainstream, or perhaps a better way to describe it was that it was the most conventional, as far as the standards of classical Hollywood go. The only major stylistic deviation comes in a scene where Charles gets in the car with Paul, who shows him around Paris. There is a rapid succession of shots from the POV of inside a convertible driving along the Champs-Elysées. There is no logical order to the cuts, and you experience a sense of giddy disorientation you feel when looking all around that area of Paris for your first time, trying to take in all the sights at once. This scene seemed to me to be a precursor to the sequence in the beginning of Godard's "Breathless" when Jean-Paul Belmondo is driving and then shoots the police officer.

One of the major themes of the new wave that is present is the blending of high and low culture. For example, during the party scene in Paul's apartment, he insists on listening to classical music while everyone is getting drunk and fights break out. While the yé-yé music craze was still a couple years off, Chabrol could have used some other sorts of music more "appropriate" for such a party such as jazz, but instead he chose Wagner.

There was something else I noticed that Godard touches on in Breathless (and in a handful of his other films before he went into the extreme experimental/political realm) and that is the attitude that love is for squares, or something to be avoided altogether in favor of casual relationships. When Florence falls for Charles, Paul and his slimy friend (whose name I can't recall) essentially browbeat her until she gives up the notion of being in a relationship with Charles, and she goes on to have a fling with Paul. Belmondo's Michel Poiccard also seems to lament the fact that he has fallen for Patricia when he tells his friend Berruti, "What's worse, I think I'm in love with her" to which he replies "Damn!" You could read this either as another example of how the French new wave rejects the conventions of the classical Hollywood love story, or also perhaps as a rejection in general of their parent's generation's ideas of love and relationships.