Jean still takes our breath away
Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless' is celebrating its 50th birthday and it's as influential as ever
Can Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless really be 50 years old? I watched it again, for perhaps the 10th time, just days ago and it feels as modern as tomorrow. In its casual style, attitude and all-round visual trickiness, it feels more like the work of some bratty young debutant director than a revered classic, shot half a century ago.
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as garrulous gangster Michel, and Jean Seberg as Patricia, a young American in Paris who sells the New York Herald Tribune on its streets and boulevards, Breathless was a game-changing movie. Here were French critic-directors assembling elements of overlooked and under-praised American films they loved -- then selling them back to the United States, and the rest of the world, as cinematic poetry. With Breathless, Godard turned film on its head.
He did so with a simple story. Michel steals a car in Marseilles and goes on the run, shooting dead a pursuing policeman. He knows Patricia from a brief encounter, and hides out in her Paris apartment while trying to trace a man who owes him money, so they can escape to Italy. But as the authorities gradually close on him, she betrays him, and the police shoot him in the street.
This story is not exactly original. Its motif of a young couple on the run tips its hat to Joseph H Lewis's 1949 noir classic Gun Crazy, among several other films. But Godard made something completely new from the material.
Indeed, Breathless was so revolutionary and influential that certain myths have grown up around it -- which turn out to be untrue. The first myth concerns the jarring jump-cuts Godard employed in the film -- hardly shocking now, but ground-breaking at the time. It has been widely repeated Godard resorted to jump cuts because the film's budget was so low he lacked the film stock to shoot complete scenes.
"Not true," Pierre Rissient, assistant director on Breathless, tells me. "It was certainly not an expensive film, but the budget was not uncomfortable.
"The jump-cutting was conceived in editing, not during shooting. Godard didn't even have it in mind while he was shooting. But he and his editor, Cécile Decugis, hit on the idea that jump-cutting could be used to (disguise) flaws in the lighting, or even in the acting. Then they began to use it as a device. It became the method."
Breathless is also dimly recalled as the first film of France's nouvelle vague (new wave) movement, but in truth two of Godard's fellow critics writing for the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema beat him to the punch -- Claude Chabrol in 1958 with Le Beau Serge and François Truffaut's The 400 Blows the following year.
Yet Breathless was the first new wave film to put the movement on the global map. It was also the first to flaunt its manifesto so clearly, with its name-checks and references to American actors and directors (Humphrey Bogart, Jack Palance, Budd Boetticher) favoured by the Cahiers crowd.
The flip side of this was the rejection of what the new wave critics termed le cinéma du Papa (Daddy's cinema). In this regard, Breathless is a slap in the face of the existing French cinema tradition -- stolid, stately films, often historical, literary and "important" in tone.
Michel and Patricia's fast-moving, insubstantial and ultimately sordid little story could not be further from le cinéma du Papa.
It's equally true in another regard: Breathless feels utterly young, fresh and immediate. Its youthfulness was understandable: Belmondo was only 26 when the film was shot, late in the summer of 1959. Seberg was just 20. Godard himself was only 28 and Pierre Rissient was 22.
As for the film's urgency, much of it can be attributed to cinematographer Raoul Coutard. He was 35 -- a veteran in this company -- and not Godard's first choice. They were politically opposed; Coutard was the only prominent cast and crew member who admitted to being right-wing.
But crucially, he had spent 11 years in Vietnam, covering the French Indochina War as a photojournalist and his experience suited Godard's vision for Breathless. "We will shoot this film as if we were reporting a story," he told Coutard.
This accounts for its documentary feel, with hand-held camera, jump cuts and the celebrated scene near the end, with the camera tracking a fatally injured Michel from behind as he staggers along a street, ricocheting off parked cars.
Godard wrote the film with the same sense of immediacy. According to Rissient, the shooting script was only three or four pages long: "But Godard was writing dialogue for scenes the night before he shot them, to make them as fresh and spontaneous as possible. Then he would start each day having coffee with Belmondo and Jean Seberg, going through the dialogue."
Godard did not lack for company while shooting Breathless. Truffaut had devised its story, Chabrol is credited as its technical adviser, while director Jean-Pierre Melville, a mentor to new wave film-makers, has a cameo as a novelist at a press conference.
But it didn't end there, according to Rissient: "There were no extras as such on Breathless. Almost everyone in the film, even if they only appeared for a second or had one single line, was one of a group of cinephiles in Paris. It was a great community. I knew all those people well."
Now you see the influence of Breathless everywhere. It's there in Bonnie and Clyde, in Easy Rider and in much of Quentin Tarantino's work: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, which both featured talky gangsters, and in his script for True Romance -- an homage to Godard's masterpiece, among other films.
Fifty years on, and it's not out of breath yet.
Breathless runs at the IFI from today until July 30. See www.ifi.ie for details