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Breathless

…because if you still have any questions about cinematic style, here’s the answer key. Perhaps the most influential (but definitely the coolest) film of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard's debut feature is an iconic depiction of life, love and not giving a damn in 1960’s Paris. Defying almost every established convention, the film combines radical jump cuts, minimal lighting and long tracking shots to capture the freewheelin’ rhythm of the time and place. Godard’s improvisational approach to making "Breathless" established him as an auteur who believed that film and life were one and the same.



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If Francois Truffaut, who came up with the story for "Breathless," had won over the hearts of international audiences with "The 400 Blows," then Godard excited the senses with his debut film. Whether due to budgetary or artistic reasons, Godard shot the film as though he were making a documentary. He used hand-held cameras, natural lighting and DIY technical solutions like a wheelchair for tracking shots. Although he had written a script based on Truffaut’s story, Godard often did rewrites and made spur-of-the-moment changes on set, reportedly only filming when the creative mood met his standards…even if it meant not shooting anything at all that day. If that sounds like the kind of temperamental artistic luxury that no filmmaker could get away with today, you better believe it drove the film’s producers crazy back then too. Yet Godard actually was trying something new and refreshing, which is evident on any viewing. Because of course, Godard didn’t suddenly become a panicked studio executive in the cutting room. He continued to experiment, mostly with discontinuity editing through jump cuts and angles that ran counter to typical shot-reverse shot pairings. The juxtaposition of Godard’s jarring montage technique with long, tracking shots – the last of which very famously seems to go on and on and on for comedic effect right during the dramatic climax – make "Breathless" a true work of cinematic art.

The French New Wave, while a somewhat loose grouping of filmmakers more so than a movement with a written manifesto, arose as a reaction against the standards of Hollywood filmmaking. In "Breathless," Godard takes a more complicated view of the relationship to Hollywood. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character Michel breaks the fourth wall and self-consciously models himself after Humphrey Bogart, making the film one of the first to acknowledge the impact of mass film culture on society (what we might call meta-cinema today). His relationship with Patricia, an American, continues the metaphor of the relationship to Hollywood cinema. "Breathless" is both an homage and a rejection of American gangster movies. Godard took the archetypal story of a criminal who corrupts an innocent young girl and turned it on its head. Rather than subscribing to the typical dichotomy of good and evil, Jean Seberg’s Patricia shares her gangster boyfriend’s in the moment amorality, and is neither redeemed nor corrupted by her relationship with him. As was mandated for every early gangster movie, crime doesn’t pay in the end, but the reasons suggested by the film are not nearly as simple as in the Hollywood ending.

Auteur Theory may sound like the worst part of every film class, but "Breathless" is a great example of why it actually matters. Basically, the crux of the theory is that good directors consider every element of their films as opposed to telling a story via a standard cinematic formula. In other words, you should get the idea that whoever made the movie is trying really hard for a specific artistic purpose. In this light, it’s impossible to watch "Breathless" and not feel Godard’s presence behind the camera. Every radical camera angle, jump cut or tracking shot in the film suggests that Godard spent a lot of time thinking about the most interesting way to tell this story. Maybe every decision he makes in the movie doesn’t work; maybe there’s no obvious reason why he did it, other than trying to stand apart from the crowd; maybe it would have even worked better had he been a little more conventional. The point is, you’ll have to ask yourself these questions after the movie, in a way that you probably don’t for something like a member of the "Fast and Furious" series (the answer being the filmmakers wanted to do some crazy-ass stuff with cars and Vin Diesel). So maybe you’ll watch a film like "Breathless" and wish Godard simply told a moralistic good girl meets bad boy story…so you’ll be happy to know that there’s a Hollywood remake from the 1980’s.

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Book

Breathless: Jean-Luc Godard, Director (Rutgers Films in Print series)

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The French New Wave and a Look to the Future: Nicholas Paige

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Article

“A Bout de Souffle” by Jean-Luc Godard: How Did It Reinvent Modern Cinema?

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Go See Breathless: Godard’s debut reinvented the movies, and it’s never looked better

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New Wave Film – Breathless

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