Saturday, May 29, 2010

Personal Canon: 21. À Bout de souffle (1960)

À Bout de souffle, aka Breathless (1960)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
Grade: A
**Read this retrospective review and others like it at InRo**

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, as part of a trio of films dedicated to revolutionising French cinema, is well and truly throwing down the gauntlet. The restless bravado and adrenaline-fuelled antics of leading man Belmondo may lay claim to the film's enticing title, but only form part of the nature of "Breathless" as a crash course in rebellion.

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 run away to Italy with an American woman he met in Nice three weeks previously.

Jean Seberg, as the American twenty 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 guage anyone else's feelings or opinions, content to measure their tryst through physical, sexual intimacy.

The feeling I get from "Breathless" is that 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 so 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. Like 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 my 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 iconise Michel as a matryr 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 accompinament that peppers "Breathless" and its superficial glamourisation of Paris and its citizens. "Breathless" bears many similarities to thirties 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 thirties gangster pictures/forties noir cinema as a desperate, tragic waste because Michel is such a profligated, 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 thirties 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. He's said all he needs to say, and 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.

*A digitally restored version of "Breathless" was shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival last month, and is released in cinemas from May 28th*

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