Breathless ★★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 13: French New Wave

I was mentioning yesterday, during my review of The 400 Blows, how it's important to acknowledge that part of why the French New Wave got popular at the time it did was not just because of its radical rethinking of filmmaking as less of a factory and more like the writing of a novel (with the director as its author providing its singular vision, where we get the now familiar term "auteur"), but also because it was primarily a youth movement, filled at the time with scads of sexy little chain-smoking twentysomething Paris hipsters, with their pixie haircuts and their skinny ties and their blithe shrugging-off of the horrors of World War Two which had so dominated the European intellectual landscape for the last twenty years. We could see this a little bit in 1959's The 400 Blows from yesterday; but where this really becomes a cultural force for the first time is in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless from a year later, a film that by all rights shouldn't work at all (but more on this in a bit), but that not only does but has become a perennial favorite among hipsters ever since, because our protagonists are just so damn stylish and unflappable, an instantly enticing combination that draws us to them like moths drawn to their impending heat-death by flame.

The debut feature of Godard, who like François Truffaut yesterday had already been a film critic for years at the academic magazine Cahiers du cinéma, and who had already made plenty of enemies within the existing film industry for his angry rants about how French film had become too stuffy, too cliquish, and too obsessed with doing things in the "proper" way, Breathless in many ways comes across as a defiant manifesto of deliberate anti-professionalism: there's no real plot to speak of (other than, "Young asshole bums around Paris while evading the police for a murder he recently committed in the French countryside, trying desperately to get a girl he barely knows to sleep with him again, who puts up with his semi-rapey advances with an admirable amount of patience for several days, before she turns him in to the police for no particular reason other than to prove to herself that she's not actually into him that much"); the dialogue was literally made up on the go while they were filming; the whole thing was shot with shaky handheld cameras, often under guerrilla conditions on the streets of Paris without any city permits; no dolly equipment was used, Godard instead accomplishing his tracking shots by literally sitting in a wheelchair with the camera and being pushed; no artificial lights were used, which Godard accomplished by using still-photo film which could shoot under much darker conditions than current film stock, which he jerry-rigged into motion-picture film by splicing together hundreds of those "20-shot rolls" that people used to buy at the camera store; but since the perforations of still-photo rolls didn't fit into the sprockets of most motion-picture cameras, he had to use a special old crappy camera that just barely accomplished this; and since this camera makes a loud noise when being used, Godard had to literally re-record 100 percent of the dialogue again after the original shoot was over, then inexpertly lay it back into the finished movie; and this is not to mention that when he discovered the film was a bit too long for the standards his distributor wanted, the way he shortened the film was to literally go into scenes and just arbitrarily cut five seconds here, ten seconds there, out of establishing shots like the couple driving down the street in a car, leaving a disjointed mess that sort of lurches from one bit of dialogue to the next through a series of offputting jump cuts.

Sheesh, no wonder that nearly everyone involved thought this movie was going to be a disaster, after they had seen the final cut but before it had been released to audiences; to be frank, when judged purely on formalistic terms, the movie is an example of rank amateurism, quite literally like if you had handed a camera to some 14-year-old who had never seen a movie before, then said, "Here, now make us a two-hour feature film." But lo and behold, turns out that this is exactly what a new generation of young, experiment-friendly arts fans wanted, making Godard a visionary prophet of the countercultural times that were just around the corner; and with films like these coming right at the same time as Kennedy's ascension to the White House in the US, the rise of free-form jazz, and the first wide dissemination of the Beat poets' work to a large and mainstream audience, a film like Breathless was merely a piece of a larger sea change going on all over the planet at once, an example of these critics' rants throughout the '50s about the tired old arts industries now being put into practical motion.

Now, all that said, I myself still found it kind of a slog to get through Breathless, which is why it's only getting 4 stars from me today; because for sure this also establishes another stereotype we were talking about yesterday, of the term "European cinema" being synonymous in many eyes with "overly talky, endlessly digressive, blathering pretentious twaddle," and it's hard for even fans of this movie to deny that the dialogue here goes nowhere, serves no purpose, yet goes on freaking forever. I still liked the movie, though, for the same reason that millions have liked this movie in the 57 years since it first came out -- because its embrace of rebellious, disaffected youth is infectious, and its depiction of this disaffected youth at a point in history when such youth were dressing and looking more sharply than almost any other point in history is an undeniable asset, one this movie would lack if, say, set in the 1980s, like the later films of Godard's New Wave buddy Eric Rohmer clearly show us. If nothing else, it's absolutely one of those seminal movies that anyone serious about film history needs to see at least once; and if you were going to pick only one French New Wave film to see in your entire life, this one would make a pretty logical choice, because of its wide influence over not only the rest of this movement but upon the entirety of the film world in the decades since. As always with the French New Wave, you need to approach Breathless with an open mind, a sense of patience, and a commitment to being fully invested in the film while it's running (these aren't the kinds of films you can half-watch while checking Facebook); if you do so, though, you're bound to be in for a rewarding experience, no matter what you might personally think of the film itself once it's done.

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