Why Godard Leaves Me Breathless (In a Good Way)

Conventional wisdom states that Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 masterpiece Breathless is one of the truly formative works of modern cinema. The experts say it belongs with an elite class of movies that changed the direction of film forever, like Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, and Citizen Kane. I have no reason to dispute Breathless’ unique importance in cinematic history. Nevertheless, my recent screening of the 2010 restoration of Godard’s debut feature was preceded by slight trepidation. I had seen Breathless on DVD some time ago, but now I was watching it on a bigger screen at Chicago’s magical Music Box Theatre. I was anxious that perhaps the hype surrounding this film would prove excessive, and I would fail to connect with it on an emotional level. This fear was not entirely unfounded. My experience of Eisenstein’s Potemkin, for example, remains sterile, no matter how many times I watch it, or am dutifully reminded of its undisputable historical significance. Would viewing the restored Breathless on the big screen entail a mere academic exercise, intellectually valuable but devoid of the emotional experience I demand from an authentically great cinematic work?

I am happy to report that Godard’s inaugural masterpiece, in spite of its canonical status, is still as vibrant on the screen today as it was fifty years ago. It was not just ahead of its time in 1960; our contemporary filmmakers have not fully explored the implications of its artistic innovations. At its heart, Breathless is the story of Michel, a petty criminal, and Patricia, his young American lover. Michel coldly shoots a cop and is on the run. Patricia harbors the young hooligan at the same time that she has doubts about Michel’s actions and her love for him. Breathless, one of the French New Wave’s first films, famously uses jump cuts in place of classical narrative editing styles. Rather than producing clear transitions, Godard literally cuts out sections of film so that we abruptly shift from one frame to another. The result was probably disorienting for the film’s original audience. For the post-MTV generations, though, this technique seems like standard practice. Everything from car commercials to episodes of Lost to Lady Gaga videos stand in the shadow of Godardian jump cutting.

While watching Breathless, I couldn’t help but think about how Godard, and the French New Wave at large, influenced later filmmakers. Obviously, postmodern stylists like Tarantino are indebted to the auteur’s nascent elliptical editing, hip nihilism, and extended scenes of playful dialogue. However, clearly the New Wave’s influence extends far beyond the mavericks of the Sundance and Miramax generations. Breathless’ quick pace was novel in 1960, but now seems as common as the latest Transformers movie. Godard and his fellow cineastes influenced not just the independent underground, but the Hollywood mainstream as well.

Why, then, do I find Godard’s early work so utterly engaging and so many cotemporary Hollywood commercial films devoid of vitality? Godard, in his infancy as a filmmaker at least, was at heart a storyteller. Sure, critics love to talk about how the French New Wave deconstructed the notion of story and played with every narrative convention of the cinematic past. While this platitude rings true, I have become convinced that Godard’s “playfulness” is typically in service of the story. I am struck in particular by the famous “bedroom scene” between our two protagonists at the film’s midway point. Michel and Patricia sit in bed and simply smoke, talk, and flirt for about twenty-five minutes. This dialogic scene accounts for almost one-third of the film’s total running time. Godard not only flouts the conventions of classical film structure, but also seems to anticipate, and consciously counter, the stereotype that would form about the film’s brisk pace. Sure, earlier in the film Godard presents the shooting of the cop and the events leading up to it with a few fleeting shots whereas “traditional” filmmakers would prolong this dramatic moment through traditional continuity editing. The jump-cut style used throughout does give the film a sense of perpetual movement and restlessness. So, what purpose did Godard have in slowing the film down for almost a half-hour to simply have his characters talk?

I believe Godard’s elongated bedroom scene represents not just an attempt to counter customary narrative techniques, but rather demonstrates the belief that story and character are of the utmost importance. Whereas most directors working in the “crime genre” would spend more time on the film’s most melodramatic moments–the shooting of the cop, the killing of Michel, the cop’s trailing Michel around Paris–Godard realizes that we’ve seen all these moments thousands of times before. Indeed, the filmmaker goes out of his way to remind us over and over that we are only watching a movie. While the film’s protagonists, particularly Michel, are based on Hollywood character types, we haven’t seen these exact characters before. Godard realizes that the relationship between our two anti-heroes is more interesting than banal melodrama. We learn more about these two leads in the lengthy bedroom scene than we do elsewhere in the film. We become familiar with their pasts, their hopes for the future, their outlooks on life, and their personalities. The effect is that we actually care what happens to them. We sit on the edge of our seats when the cops are trying to find Michel, because we’re concerned about his fate. We wince as Patricia makes a series of bad decisions. When Godard resumes the film’s fast pace, we feel somehow refreshed and enlightened. We feel more equipped to follow the contour of the movie’s action.

Now, when is the last time you saw a thirty-minute dialogue scene in a Hollywood blockbuster? Unfortunately, our contemporary commercial directors have appropriated the purely technical aspects of the New Wave—the brisk editing style, the fast pace—and often neglected the more important elements of character and story. I didn’t care one lick about the characters in Transformers 2 because Michael Bay didn’t take the time to develop them. Therefore, there were no stakes for the action sequences. Why should I concern myself with the fate of the insipid people I see on the screen, even as they find themselves in perilous situations?

Indeed, whereas Godard’s film left me invigorated, much of today’s commercial cinema leaves me fatigued. It occurs to me that the word “breathless” has several different implications. On one hand, a person can be breathless from exhilaration. When I see something that completely overwhelms my spirit, I am so full of enthusiasm that I might temporarily have trouble breathing. My heart might skip a beat. On the other hand, one can be breathless from unwarranted exhaustion. Godard invokes the former meaning of the word in his film. Obviously, one cannot simply live in the past and wax nostalgic about what once was. However, I think it’s time for modern Hollywood to recapture some of Godard’s early vivacity. Indeed, too many contemporary movies leave audiences breathless … and I don’t mean in a good way.