Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Breathless (1960)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #13

In the years 1959 and 1960, there were three films that have been credited with genesis of the French New Wave: Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (which will be covered in a later edition of this series) and Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour in 1959 and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless in 1960. It's the lattermost film, though, that was the most influential, its impact still reverberating through film history. If Truffaut's film was the bridge between Italian neorealism and New Wave detachment, and Resnais' film is a clever deconstruction of expectation, then Godard's film is a cinematic pipe bomb lobbed directly at conventional filmmaking.

There's plenty of then-revolutionary ideas in Breathless, starting with its plot. Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a fan of low-rent American gangster movies, decides to steal a car, resulting in him killing a motorbike police officer. He runs back to Paris to hide out with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American who sells newspapers on the streets. Based on an actual event, Godard uses this thin plot as the skeleton for his anarchic desires. The dialogue is loose and amorphous, and the editing alternates between rapid cutaways and remarkable long takes. The handheld cinematography - reportedly achieved by Godard pushing his cameraman around in a wheelchair for some takes - gives the film an off-the-cuff feeling. This was independent guerrilla filmmaking before such a thing really existed.

But for all those elements, what continues to stand out the most about Breathless is how it explores adolescence in a vibrant, unexpected way.

More after the jump.

Now, this isn't to say that the film is about adolescents. Indeed, neither Michel and Patricia are children, but rather young adults at least in their 20s. What I mean is that the film reflexively explores the way that pop culture shapes the way we act in our youth and our ideas of the world. Michel fancies himself to be like the gangsters in the movies he sees; in particular, he sees a little bit of Humphrey Bogart in himself. He touches his lips with his thumb in a clearly intentional performance, because he wants to mimic their "coolness." Sure, Michel is already something of a shady man, but he conflates his crimes with the performance he gives as a gangster from the movies. Similarly, Patricia performs the role of a bookish Audrey Hepburn, interested in poetry and philosophy. She's a tourist in a strange land, but she pretends to belong to it. It's all an act.

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't try on a new persona during their youth. It's a fairly common act; you're growing up, and as you find that you and your friends are changing, you experiment with different "masks," looking for one that fits. What Breathless cleverly acknowledges is that almost everyone is influenced by the art they consume when they try on these masks. Cliques at high schools aren't so much established in reality as they are reinforced by television programs and films aimed at that age group, and in turn those cliques become reality. We mimic what we see the famous doing, whether that be through acting or reality television. Art has a powerful influence on our lives, especially when we're young, and our performances of new versions of ourselves are ultimately an extension of "life imitating art imitating life."

In the years since its release, Breathless has been held up as the essence of French "cool," as well as every film geek's perfect example of what "real cinema" is. Yet, for all of its many great innovations and influence, it remains an underrated examination of performance in adolescence, which may be Godard's most stealthy achievement.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Apocalypse Now (1979)

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