Monday, 10 June 2013

(12) Breathless (1960): Godard's first full breath

It might be because soon enough I am moving and I am looking at all the lasts I will do and see, last time when I walk down the prom, last time when I will have a cup of coffee in this coffee shop, last time when I will go for a swim here, last... And on and on... However I am trying to look at all the firsts that await me as it awaited Alfred Hitchcock with his FIRST Technicolor film Rope (read my previous blog post on it here) and Breathless is Jean-Luc Godard's phenomenally successful FIRST feature.

Breathless (1960)
Breathless is directed by Jean-Luc Godard who established the French New Wave, it is a jazzy story set in Paris, there is a femme fatale played by Jean Seberg (for which Godard spent a quarter of the film's total budget) and there is a perfect gangster played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, and behind all the crime and games there is a French New Wave kind of love story. It is a mix of truth and beauty, and yet it leaves a feeling that you have just set your foot in Wonderland, where the border between real and unreal has vanished, that is full of unhappiness and ends in madness and tragedy. Yet Breathless is a moment of hope and joy. Breathless brought a breeze of energy and inventiveness into the industry of cinema, with its jagged and unpredictable style the film gaining worldwide acclaim even to this day.

Interestingly, starting with and since Breathless (original title: À bout de souffle) (1960) Godard has been making his own film trailers, Vinzenz Hediger (For Ever Godard, you can also read his piece here) writes:
The trailer for À bout de souffle gives us and idea of what a good classical trailer essentially is: a cinematic list poem about a film.
Please, take your time and before you continue to read, watch Godard's poem about Breathless here.
It is not unusual that a director make trailers for his own films, as Hediger marks, it is more unusual that most of Godard's trailers have been actually used to introduce his films. Making a good film trailer asks for a detachment from the film, which director's usually lack, but as a former film critic for Cahiers du cinéma and an alumnus of Fox's publicity department in Paris, Godard was well aware of what a good film trailer needs. In the trailer for Breathless, a female's voice simply names the things we see, also indicating protagonists and their characteristics ("The pretty girl, The bad boy ... The nice man, The bad woman"), while a man's voice, which is Godard's voice, steps in to inform us, the viewers, that the author of the screenplay is François Truffaut, then names the technical advisor, before going on to name the director and who is starring in the film. Godard's trailers then aren't as much an advertisement for the film, but more serves as an introduction to the film, as Hediger writes, "Trailers, then, let the film begin before it actually begins." In comparison to mainstream trailers, Hediger argues that:
While mainstream trailers often contain all the best scenes from the movie, Godard's films contain all the best scenes that make up the trailer, because in them, as in so many cinematic realisations of Novali's infinite novel, the film never entirely begins, and the trailer certainly never ends.
So it should be, a trailer should introduce the film to the viewer without revealing what is going to happen. The trailer for Breathless portrays the film being in the film noir style, it even pays homage to Howard Hawks' classic Scarface. However, after watching the film, although there are film noir elements - a stolen car, a shooting, a murder - it still somehow feels too light and airy for film noir, though it still leaves a taste of sadness. Godard himself after releasing the film realised, that it is not as realistic as he intended it to be, as David Serrit writes:
[Godard] intended the seminal Breathless to be realistic, but realized soon afterward that it was closer to Alice in Wonderland than to the hard-boiled film noir tradition that he wanted to emulate.
Breathless (1960)
Although the characters are as real as the film allows, the film itself seems somehow unreal, an almost surrealistic world. The protagonists, Patricia and Michel, are both care free, casual, young and beautiful, and full of dreams. That is the lightness that Breathless leaves, that hope for change and blithe life. Breathless is regarded as the seminal film of the French New Wave, nevertheless it still, after more than 50 years, seems revolutionary and innovative, fresh and new, seductively dangerous. It is the camera work, that brings the film to a new level, it is the camera that innovates. Godard valued his own personal expression in cinema, significantly Godard used caméra-stylo or "camera pen", embracing that a film should be an intimate act. As Godard marks "In my early days I never asked myself whether the audience would understand what I was doing", for him the importance of the film was hidden in his relationship with the film. In Breathless, Godard enjoyed doing things for the first time, being innovative, trying something that no one has done before, something that would be more interesting, because the first time is fascinating, when it is done a second time it is less interesting, as Godard puts it "Pictures are made to make seen the unseen."
Godard sees that all three moments in making a film are equally important: before, during and after. In contrast, Godard notes about Hitchcock, "With somebody like Hitchcock everything is calculated down to the last second, so editing is less important. À bout de souffle owes a great deal to the montage. It is a film in three movements, the first half-hour fast, the second moderato and the third allegro vivace again".

"Films are the only things by which to look inside of people,
and that's why people are so fond of movies and why they'll never die."
/Jean-Luc Godard/

P.S. After his successful debut and screening of Breathless at the Cannes film festival (it didn't take a part in the competition) in 1960, Godard gave a somehow sad interview, which leaves us with a feeling that he has lost something, because his first film was so successful.

"We have to fight the audience."