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.

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