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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless'

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire August 7, 2014 at 11:37AM

In praise of a Godard who was as playful as he was revolutionary.
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Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in 'Breathless'
Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in 'Breathless'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

"Breathless"
Dir: Jean-Luc Godard
Criticwire Average: A+

At 83 and after over 100 feature films and shorts, Jean-Luc Godard is still making films that start arguments among cinephiles. His latest, "Goodbye to Language," found mostly positive reception at Cannes this year, but the likes of "Film Socialisme" and "Notre Musique" polarized critics between cries of "genius" and "impenetrable rubbish." Godard first divided people with his 1960 debut "A bout de souffle," or "Breathless," between those who balked at its characters' amorality and Godard's breaking of laid out film "rules" and those fascinated by its jagged rhythms and cool detachment. Years later, it stands as one of the most important films of its era, a film that signaled the French New Wave's run of movies that were in love with movies. 

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg star as a hood on the lam for killing a cop and his lover, respectively, but the film is less about the crime or its implications and more about its characters' attitude. Belmondo's character is more fascinated by the idea of being a gangster (and more of a movie gangster than a real one) than anything else, and his every movement and gesture is calculated for effect, for maximum "cool," all to hide how much of a kid he really is. Seberg is more difficult to read, with purpose: we can never really tell what she thinks of Belmondo, of his crime, and whether she'll go along with or betray him out of strong feelings or curiosity.

But close readings of "Breathless" almost seem beside the point, since its greatest pleasures are more immediate. Its use of jump-cuts were revolutionary, but even without that knowledge they're still playful and perfectly suited to the film's irreverent mood and energy. They're also a great match to Raoul Coutard's handheld camerawork, which only add to the on-the-fly feel of both the filmmaking and the characters' lives. And years later, when Godard's interviews and late-period films give the feeling of a grouchy and deeply frustrated man, it's great to remember a time when he was just having fun.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

"Breathless" offers a lesson in the principles of cinematic meaning by systematically confronting them. That Godard chose to use the jump cut as a quick strategy for whittling his two-and-a-half hour version down to ninety minutes almost seems irrelevant. Godard's cheap shortcut underscores his devotion to realizing his ideas in steadfast resistance to failure. Out of that resistance emerged a new kind of style: stream-of-consciousness filmmaking of the highest order. Read more.


Jeannie Kermode, Eye For Film

That said, "Breathless" is a visually innovative film. It looks startlingly modern when viewed alongside other work of the period, partly due to Godard's use of jump cuts to pull us in and out of the action (and perhaps to illustrate Michel's distracted state). By contrast, the long climactic take verges on the surreal, bringing emotion back into focus after all those studied denials. There are some things our bold antihero cannot escape from. Patricia muses on the nature of freedom; Michel, by contrast, seems to have so much of the stuff that he is condemned by his own indecision. Read more.


Joe Leydon, Variety

If you’re a true-blue cinephile, you’ll be amused by the movie allusions Godard cheekily tosses about like flavorsome garnish. For example: There’s a witty, in-jokey reference to a certain “Bob Montagné,” the protagonist of Jean-Pierre Melville’s street-smart "Bob le Flambeur" ("Bob the Gambler"), a 1956 drama often cited as an influence on New Wavers. (Turnabout is fair play: In Jim McBride’s under-rated 1983 remake-in-name-only of "Breathless," someone is accused of ratting out a hood named “Johnny Godard.”) But, really, you don’t need to know anything about the movies that Godard references to appreciate that his film remains, even after five decades, almost shockingly vital and involving. Read more.


This article is related to: Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, Criticwire Classics


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