Let me pitch a movie to you. A kinda-lovable, kinda-shallow petty criminal--a French guy--steals a car and, in the car, he finds a gun. When the police chase him, he flees, but when a cop finally does catch up with him, the criminal--let's call him Mike--ends up shooting the cop, and he spends the rest of the movie on the run. But what does he do while he's on the lam? He returns to Paris, seeks out an old flame (a tres chic American student) for some daytime sex, and he repeatedly tries to see a guy about some money, while the authorities slowly close in.
Sounds pretty good, right? There's crime, violence, murder, sex, the chase, mystery, suspense--everything that would make a Hollywood blockbuster, only this movie wasn't made in California by Jonathan Demme. It was Breathless, made in 1959 France by Jean-Luc Godard--part of the French New Wave that changed world cinema forever.
I don't actually like Breathless, but I showed it to my film class last night. The timing wasn't good. It was a Wednesday night class, and the next two days were our fall break, so lots of students probably spent 90 minutes (that sometimes felt like 900 minutes) comparing me to ugly things and wondering what kind of creep would force a class to suspend their fall holiday to watch such an incoherent black & white movies--with subtitles, no less! But I don't apologize because Breathless is a movie that film-lovers should watch, and it's one I kinda hope to enjoy more someday.
The fact is that, although Breathless has a Hollywood storyline, Godard did just about everything he could to make sure that the final product was NOT a Hollywood movie.
In fact, Breathless is simultaneously a celebration of Hollywood film and a repudiation of its methods. Michel, the pretty criminal, is certainly a fan of American films--his often repeated lip-stroking gesture is a Bogart quotation, reinforced by a notable early sequence in which Michel admires a picture of Bogart outside a French movie theater. In fact, the movie is filled with references to American films, most literally in the form of movie posters and movie theaters, which the camera points out like a tour guide might. And, like I said, the plot outline is a well-worn Hollywood plot, with all the main ingredients.
But that's where the Hollywood ends. If Hollywood movies are most easily characterized by their slickness, a quality created by conventional continuity editing, careful scripting, and the use of easily recognizable stock characters, Breathless is the anti-Hollywood film. It dispenses with continuity editing in just about every imaginable way: spatial continuity is annihilated by cuts that zoom the audience all over spaces undefined by establishment shots; our expectation of eyeline matches leads us to believe that a cut from a character looking screen left to a character looking screen right indicates that these characters are looking at each other, but that's not necessarily the case in Breathless; continuity editing leads us to connect the dots from a character's action at the end of one shot to his/her action at the beginning of the next shot, but Breathless shoots the audience forward in time in herky-jerky jump cuts that leave out all the boring details of how Michel gets from point A to point B or how that guy got hit by a car or where Michel found that newspaper. Over and over again, an audience expecting to be led gracefully from one time and place to another is jarred practically out of their seats by shock cuts and jump cuts that defy all "logic"--Hollywood logic, that is. Breathless is a challenge, a shouted dare, an invitation to a new kind of cinema where the rules no longer apply. As viewers, we can either reject the invitation and say that Breathless is simply a bad movie (meaning that it fails to conform to the definition of "good movie" that Hollywood has taught us), or we can accept it and explore cinematic possibilities that Hollywood--at least until the 1960s--had left almost completely unexplored.
Editing is only the beginning of Godard's rocky argument with Hollywood tradition. I don't know if the dialogue in Breathless is improvised, but it definitely felt like it. The conversations have no structure, no arcs from A to B, no dramatic revelations, no weight, no coherence, even. In short, they sound a heck of a lot more like the conversations I have and hear in my everyday life than the ones I expect to see in movies. If Tarantino defies Hollywood expectations by putting extremely sophisticated discourse in the mouths of unlikely characters (gangsters and hitmen), Godard defies those same expectations by giving his romantic leads virtually nothing "important" to say. My students laughed when characters would say "I'm unhappy because I'm unhappy" or when Michel would answer Patricia's serious question about life or art with yet another repetition of "will you sleep with me tonight?"
Like I said, after two viewings, I can't say that I enjoy Breathless or like it all that much. But I can appreciate the way it fits into and relates to cinema history, and especially the way it counters the Hollywood tradition. And, even though the film as a whole is difficult for me to watch, there are moments when I feel a weird elation, when I feel the freedom of a cinema no longer subject to all the arbitrary rules of Hollywood visual syntax. Life shines through the many cracks in this film, and sometimes I feel the excitement of those little escapes like jolts of cinematic electricity. In thoose moments, I really can say that I feel my breath get taken away, if only for a second.
*Image from Breathless was culled from http://www.greencine.com/static/primers/fnwave1.jsp, a great introduction to the French New Wave.