DVD Review Of Breathless
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/1/06
The fact that an artist writes boringly to convey boredom, or childishly to convey puerility, has no effect on the resultant work not being boring nor puerile. Self-awareness of a flaw does not alleviate the flaw. For this to not be true intent in art would have to matter, meaning that all art would necessarily have to be accompanied by a detailed explanation of itself and its conception by the artists, which would therefore render the idea of the art as its own best explanation worthless. Naturally, this would rent the very essence of the artwork.
Yet, in recent decades there has been the reflexive notion, usually tossed about by bad artists, that intent is almost all in art, or even that it supersedes actual accomplishment. This results in defenses of bad works of art that inevitably rely on defending the art’s intent, not its success in following through on that intent. This has been championed by the ‘first thought, best thought’ Beatniks of the 1950s, modern Postmodernist thought, and in the 1960s New Wave of French cinema. One of the leading lights of that ‘movement’ was Jean-Luc Godard, whose first film, Breathless (A Bout de Souffle [literally, The End Of Breath]- 1960), made him a directing superstar. While one cannot dispute the historic import of such a film, historic import has never been equivalent to artistic excellence, and Breathless is a horribly dated film. Yet, even were it not so dated, it would still be a bad film because it is so self-conscious, so poorly written, and so poorly acted, that I thought I was watching a Roger Corman cheapo horror film. Let me state, however, that there is more ‘art’ in your typical Corman piece from that era, say The Last Woman On Earth, because its commentary on the state of filmmaking and art was more subtle, if often unintentional. Godard, by contrast, is so garishly dying to show his audience how hip and intellectual he is that he somehow forgot to put any of that, nor substance, into his film.
He attempts to capture ‘reality’ on film without realizing that anything filmed becomes unreal, or irreal, as opposed to surreal. Thus, the art of film, or any art, can NEVER be real, and to convey reality most aptly, it needs to be most affected. Godard, by shooting his film with handheld camera, as Parisians gawk at the filming in process, thus makes the most artificial of films, even as he tries to show the most boring aspects of life, glossing over crimes and ‘deep’ moments that other films contain, to show the dull times. He thus gets the two worst aspects of film- the ‘artificiality’ of cinema verité and the reality of dull life, rather than the two best: the ‘reality’ of film as artifice and the artifice of poetically chosen reality.
What little story the tale has starts abruptly. It is an odd start, but not unlike many bad 1950s kids’ television shows, nor contemporaneous B horror films like Carnival Of Souls. A hood named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car in Marseilles and drives to Paris. On his way there, he is stopped for speeding and shoots a policeman. This goes by so quickly and without explanation that the viewer cannot empathize with him. Once in Paris, he needs to get money from a friend and flirts with an American female student named Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) he has had an affair with. They wax in and out of fancy with one another, and the next morning, with Michel a wanted man, he breaks into her apartment, where she catches him sleeping. The middle of the film is the dead zone of their flirtations admixed with stilted wannabe intellectual dialogue. Michel tries to convince Patricia to sleep with him and run away to Italy. She is reluctant for she does not really care for him, even though she finds him dashing. After she interviews a famous author, for the newspaper she works at, something clicks within her, and the duo have some rather pallid adventures (for a thriller) before Patricia, for unknown reasons, turns him in, possibly to cover the fact that she has, with him, committed some crimes. Nothing, up to the author interview, leads the viewer to believe a sensible gal like Patricia would for one moment go with a thug like Michel, much less go on a crime spree, especially after knowing he’s a murderer. Real character development was obviously not a priority. This plot flaw, known as the dumbest possible action- a staple of later slasher and horror films, is needed for the tale to exist, and plot to unfold, so we bear it. Yet, this is a dead giveaway that the film’s plot is on a respirator. Then, just as inexplicably, due to the awkward plot, Patricia turns on Michel, and, equally inexplicably, he accepts his fate, refusing help from a friend, who tosses him a gun as the cops arrive. They shoot him. He runs and drops dead in the street, calls Patricia a scumbag, and she asks what that means, as she stares at the camera, then turns around.
If you’re not exactly going ‘wow’ over the storyline, its execution will not propel you that way either. The film score is bad, with melodramatic Hollywood crime movie music and jazz inaptly placed. Merely quoting such bad music is not mocking it, nor does it justify its clumsy usage. The black and white cinematography and composition is also rather forgettable, haphazard, poorly framed, poorly lit- and again, deliberation, and the excuse of ‘realism’ does not make up for the murky end result, nor its poor quality. And, unlike true film noir, cinematographer Raoul Coutard makes no great usage of the power of black and white imagery, the grays, nor shadow and light. There are also poor stock film inserts of Paris that do not match the rest of the film’s quality nor style. The famed jump cuts may have seemed cool or revolutionary upon its release, but nearly a half century on they seem self-conscious and do absolutely nothing artistically, save make those uninformed of their intent think the film copy was in bad shape. Their form does not serve the function of the narrative the way a breathtaking series of jump cuts in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories documents the psychic decay of a character.
Across the pond, in America, at the time Breathless was being filmed, John Cassavetes was also making his feature film debut as a director, with Shadows, and although there is an amateurish quality to some aspects of that film, and it was not nearly praised as highly as Breathless, it was much less amateurish than this film, and holds up far better today, as a ‘realist’ piece of filmmaking. Breathless, by contrast, can only be defended as a historical curio, not artistically on its own merits, which is exactly what virtually all online essays that defend it do. Cassavetes’ first film, by contrast, stands alone, and his usage of overlapping and realistic dialogue, not culled nor self-consciously quoted from Hollywood film dialogue, is far better than Godard’s, which was stillborn when fellow auteur Francois Truffaut abandoned the screenplay to Godard. Godard captured none of the film noir joie de vivre that he hoped to, while Cassavetes brought American real life dialogue to the screen at the same time. Godard’s characters never utter a believable line of dialogue. It is all a put on, for Michel is no more a gangster type than Belmondo- the actor who plays him, is, nor even Humphrey Bogart- the actor Michel imitates throughout the film. This is seen by apologists, however, as the film’s style, although this so-called style is really stylelessness, and that is no more artistic than claiming formless Dave Eggersian puerility as a writing style.
As for the DVD, there is an inane and uninformative film commentary by film critic David Sterritt that basically consists of him oohing and ahing the most meaningless dialogue or technical contrivances. As with most apologists, he does not defend what the film achieves, only what it intends. He calls the film’s end ‘extraordinary’. Why? He never says, but I’d presume it’s because Michel makes lovingly playful faces at Patricia, as he did earlier in her mirror, thus showing he doesn’t care that he’s dying, nor that she betrayed him. Ooh, cool man. Belmondo may have gone on to become a respected actor, but it’s not for his work here. Jean Seberg, of course, was a goddess, although her character is poorly wrought. She does well with what little she had to work with, and her bone structure had me thinking of Natalie Portman or Keira Knightley, always a plus. Another bonus was that this was the rare DVD of a black and white film where the subtitles were not in white, making them quite hard to read, but thankfully in color- vivid yellow! Of course, a good dubbing would have been better. The film is also full frame. I do not know the original aspect ratio, but this is the sort of film where minor details like this have no bearing whatsoever on the viewing experience.
To close, because something has had influence does not mean that that influence was good, nor the actual thing, itself, was any good. Later filmmakers went leagues beyond Godard, and actually demanded their innovations serve the film’s tale, rather than merely being a piece of self-indulgence a haphazard and wan tale is draped over. This film lacks all subtlety and spends far too much time showing off its many influences, thereby also its derivativeness, even as clueless critics missed that manifest fact, and lauded its supposed innovations, such as its improvisations. Yet, with no good execution, no real depth, nor character development, what was intended as satire becomes, instead, awkward and obvious imitation, not witty enough for comedy, and more resembling something like film noir lite.
John Cassavetes was doing similar things in America, but doing them much better, for his filmic improvisations never came across as ‘improvisations’, but ‘reality’. In short, for all the claims to the contrary, this film, at least, does not reveal a unique innovator in his art form, but an old Romantic masquing as a hipster, and wildly cobbling together a Frankensteinian mess. In America we call that person a poseur. In France they apparently call them geniuses….just like, um, Jerry Lewis.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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