It’s films like Breathless that make me feel like just the worst film fan. How can I have never seen a film directed by Jean-Luc Godard before?! A pioneer of French New Wave! Is this the FIRST French New Wave film I’m watching?
Put me in handcuffs and take away any cinephilic credentials. I don’t deserve them.
But since I have taken the time to sit down and watch Breathless, I’ll at least write a couple of sentences about what I thought.
We begin following an abhorrent man named Michel who steals a car in Marseilles. He is driving the car along a country road towards Paris when he shoots and kills a Policeman who is following him. He seeks help from his American girlfriend, Patricia, where he tries to plan his escape to Italy.
What is the French New Wave Movement?
Loosely, French New Wave is a term to describe a style of French filmmaking from the late 1950s and 1960s. They are set in present day and deal with social issues. It was essentially about rejecting traditional styles of filmmaking and playing around with the form as much as possible.
In Breathless, the main character Michel played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) speaks directly to the camera and breaks the fourth wall. This way, we are given insights into his personal opinions and unique view of the world. This could be seen as a good way to learn more about the deeper narrative of the film but it’s also a more clearly biased viewpoint as we only get gain an insight into the one character.
The cinematography is also more documentary style. It’s handheld and less stable. The cinematography follows the action rather than cutting back and forth. This requires less planning and is much more spontaneous, also giving the illusion that it is more ‘honest.’ But the cuts are also less fluid and more jarring, so who knows the effect that the filmmakers were going for.
Essentially, what we need to take from the French New Wave movement is that they were just trying to break free of the norm a little. Fair enough, right?
I use ‘abhorrent’ to describe Michel because he is. Within the first ten minutes of the film, he judges women on their appearances and states “women drivers are cowardice personified.” So yeah. Something says that either this man is supposed to come across as a bit of an arse, or that the film is directed towards men who are arses. He also litters and calls his female pals ‘sweetie.’ He reminds he slightly of Alfie from Alfie (1966).
Luckily, Michel’s girlfriend Patricia is able to hold her own. She’s a modern 60s girl who managed to persuade her parents to partly fund her galivanting to Paris at least. She’s obviously capable of looking after herself. And can speak French. How many American girls in the 1960s could speak French?!
At least that’s what I thought.
I always try and watch films that are several years old with the intended audience in mind. This film was released in the 1960s, so what would a 1960s audience have thought of Breathless? Would Michel’s constant pest-like behaviour towards Patricia and her acceptance of it be shocking? Or infuriating, as it makes me feel? Or should I be more concerned with Michel’s nonchalance about being wanted for murder?
In some ways, I liked Breathless. I love the ‘modern’ setting and of course, the Paris location was a winner. I thought Patricia, in particular, captured the changing winds at the start of the 1960s. Women would become more educated, wear their hair shorter and have more opportunities beyond whatever the closest man wanted them to do or be. Granted, she’s not Joan of Arc but she’s getting there.
But this started off as a film about a senseless car theft and murder. And then it turned into an extended bedroom scene. What does this film want me to focus on? Just how much of an arrogant guy this Michel is? That he was doomed from the beginning? That America is a threat to French culture? Charming women and handsome men? I’m not sure, I just think I need to watch one or two more films from this French New Wave before I can make up my mind about whether this is ‘innovation’ or just a somewhat subdewed rage against the machine.
Have you ever seen Breathless? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!