French classic offers timeless vision
Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, September 6, 2005
Director Jean-Luc Godard once said that “film is the truth at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie.” Taken on those terms, his 1960 debut “A Bout De Souffle” (“Breathless”) has much truth and as many lies in its brief, busy ninety minutes.
“Breathless,” along with Francois Truffaut’s equally incendiary “Les Quatre cents coups” (“The 400 Blows”), was the picture that launched the French New Wave, a revolutionary movement that changed the face of cinema.
“Breathless” follows Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a fugitive carjacker, who is running from the law after having killed a police officer. Michel is in love with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American student and aspiring journalist. As the Paris police close in, the two lovers struggle with their inability to connect with each other.
A mere plot synopsis does little justice to the film’s dialogue and style. Godard is an acknowledged influence on Quentin Tarantino, and that influence is evident throughout, as the director maintains a sense of detached cool that resonates in every frame.
The direct translation of “A Bout De Souffle” is “Out of Breath,” which is perhaps a more fitting title, as Michel spends most of the film simultaneously on the run from the police and trying to win over the heart of Patricia.
“I’m tired,” he says as the film reaches its conclusion, and Godard imparts the sense that Michel is not only tired, but exhausted. At the film’s brilliantly abrupt conclusion, he is both literally and figuratively out of breath.
Much has been made of Godard’s stylistic tendencies, a jarring juxtaposition of rapid edits and long-takes. Its technical innovations are part of what made it so influential, as everyone from Scorsese to Tarantino owes a debt to its confidently strident style. Godard popularized the “jump cut,” an edit in which, according to noted film professor David Bordwell, “two shots of the same subject are cut together but are not sufficiently different in camera distance and angle.” This creates a dizzying effect as backgrounds change, but the composition of characters remains largely the same.
Adjacent to these elliptical edits are languid long-takes, in which the camera follows characters for nearly minutes before cutting to the next shot. The juxtaposition of these two vastly different shot-types is what gives “Breathless” its vertiginous stop-and-go style, which is alternately leisurely and frantic.
Sometimes a film that is technically groundbreaking fails to resonate in later years. This is true of 1927’s “The Jazz Singer,” the film that helped popularize talking pictures, and it is true of 1915’s “Birth of a Nation,” which has a mixed reputation due to its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan.
It is decidedly not true of “Breathless,” which is still as entertaining and fast-paced today as it was in 1960. Godard would go on to have an interesting, often-brilliant (and just as often maddeningly frustrating) career. His latest film, “Notre Musique,” was released last year to positive reviews.
“Breathless” is a cinematic experience and a fantastic film. While many of Godard’s cinematic techniques have entered the standard lexicon, his style and the singularity of vision remain. “Breathless” is more than just the work of one of the cinema’s most notorious mavericks, it is one of the finest pictures of all-time.