Why Godard Leaves Me Breathless (In a Good Way)

Godard’s inaugural masterpiece, in spite of its canonical status, is still as vibrant on the screen today as it was fifty years ago


Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Jacques Huet
Length: 90 minutes
Studio: Les Productions Georges de Beauregard
Year: 1960
US Release Date (Restored Version): 2010-05-28

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.





On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.


Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings Team for Wonderfully Sparse "Where Or When" (premiere)

Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings' "Where Or When" is a wonderfully understated performance that walks the line between pop and jazz.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.