In honor of the 50th anniversary print of Breathless, currently playing at Film Forum, I sat down to examine the film's relevance, aesthetics, and intrigue with my friend Ben, who I would best describe as a Godard fanatic. What is interesting before reading our examination is to know that both of us entered the discussion intent on ripping to the film shreds. Ben dislikes Breathless in relation to the complexities of the rest of Godard’s body of work, while I find myself becoming more and more frustrated with its historical sentimentality while lacking any actual emotion. While attempting to articulate these ideas, we instead re-glorified the film and its importance in history. And perhaps that is the overall power of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.
Due to the length, I have divided the discussion in several parts.
Part one: aesthetics and gender
Monica: So why don't you lead the discussion: how do you feel about Breathless?
Ben: Out of breathe
Monica: Is it the defining film of the new wave? Or just a novelty?
Ben: There is no wave kill your idols
Monica: "'New wave' is neither a movement, nor a school, nor a group, it's a quantity, it's a collective heading invented by the press to group fifty new names which have emerged in two years (59-60)."
Ben: It’s a product for you to spend money on and for horrible docs to be made about and for classes to be taught about and for books to be written about good advertising though
Monica: For our purposes it’s a movement that was named that
Ben: It’s a strong brand. No seriously
Monica: It existed, at least in the early 60s, its death can be debated
Ben: The new print is nice. What was striking was how overexposed some of the frames are a few of the earlier scenes hurt my eyes. The sheets in the bedroom were intense and one lamp was letting out rays of god and the darkness was extra dark
Monica: It really didn't bother me actually. But yes, I thought the print was pristine
Ben: Could be some metaphor for how striking and bold and unpretty the film is
unpretty? Many of the shots are out of focus and rough that was its glory
its DIY there are no sharp lines
Monica: What is DIY?
Ben: Do it yourself. Don't you know
Monica: Anyways, yes, I think the greatness of Breathless comes from is visuals
the fact that everything is raw, amateur
Ben: But first and foremost, I think what is so attractive about breathless to many can be boiled down to three things. ok...
1. postcard paris
I was struck by how many obnoxious shots there are just showing off the city. There are two shots of Notre Dame one near the beginning another overhead one near the end an overhead shot of the Louvre, the Eiffel tower, the champs
Monica: Ya, when I watched it again that bothered me a little, because it felt the same as the opening of 400 blows
Ben: Right, those images do nothing new. They sell the product of hip Paris, of history. They say "this is important - this is poetry." Yes, Paris is glorified compared to the industrial landscape of 2 or 3 things, Godard's real masterpiece
those are actually incredible beautiful too
Monica: He has several...
Ben: He has several but that is the ONE for me at least…but Breathless has a classical landscape that is the one we'd have to send to the aliens
Monica: the scene where he complains about the modern building going up
Ben: Yeah, I felt that scene is out of place
Monica: It’s just like how so much of the film is a reference to the past, past cinema, past France
Ben: Michel is a conservative
Monica: Exactly, so he wouldn't like a changing city
Ben: He is obsessed with sex, violence, cars, used to be in the military (and supposedly worked at cinecitta and for air france)
Monica: I found it very interesting
Ben: But really he is like a stereotypical bro
or in short…an American
Ben: He doesn't identify with the young either "I prefer the old!" he says. And he actually likes cops.
Monica: Exactly what my point was about the building
Ben: Right, but the classical Paris does work. But who are we kidding? The romance of the city is infectious. As much as we fight it
Monica: Who said I fight it?
Ben: watching the scene on saint Michel just made me want to return to Paris but it just cheapens the vibe a bit
Monica: I think the romance of the city parallels nicely with the romance of the film…though I might even say that the city hold up better
Ben: The great thing about Godard is that I think he got relationships. Le Mepris may be the best film about relationships ever. Of course we can talk about the misogyny. Richard Brody would say this film is just another example of Godard's erectile dysfunction and fear of woman or something, but we will forgive him. He had to sell books
Monica: I think sometimes he gets relationships
Ben: Well he gets the masculine side
Monica: yes exactly
Ben: And particularly feelings like jealousy. The feminine side is a mystery, and can be very alienating for a female viewer. When Seberg tells Michel..."I’m trying to find out why I like you." I feel like there is something poignant to that people search for reasons to like people and once they find those reasons they commit mentally. There is a turning point in the head.
Monica: Not for me. I feel like as a female, I feel and then I know
Ben: Right, but we look for reasons to legitimize the feelings. She was looking for that. What's great is that after she rats him out, he still is arguing with her trying to rationalize the situation. He says "there is no happy love" as if trying to rationalize what she did as a way of convincing himself that she still loves him.
Monica: That’s a very masculine thing to do
Ben: Godard understood the fascism that is relationships
Monica: And I suppose then its a feminine thing to rat him out?
Ben: In Godard's eyes at least
Ben: Woman don't commit I suppose, they teeter totter
Monica: In Godard's eyes
Ben. Right… About the woman ratting out: remember the scene at Air France, where Tolmatchoff's secretary rats him out to the cops? Much is said about the randomness in breathless but there are striking patterns in the narrative
such as the repeated females ratting out Michel
Ben: But remember who else rats out Michel? Godard himself In that wonderful iris
Monica: The girl at the diner
Ben: Perhaps Gordard is identifying himself with the woman, as a bearing of truth. Remember when Mielville is asked whether Rilke was right about the alienating effects of modernity
and he says "Rilke was a great poet so he much have been right." That is a striking answer because for me...poetry and truth are not the same but this statement if interpreted as coming from Godard
Monica: its also striking when he says that a cute girl in a striped dress and sunglasses can get ahead
Ben: Well, yes but let me finish my thought, I was saying that for Godard - aesthetics convey truth
however, I view poetry and trust as the same...in other words he is a cognitivist theorist of aesthetics in the same camp as Plato. Art's job is to convey truth and thus…it is him who must rat out Michel, and the woman as well.
Monica: Patricia is associated with art through out the film, putting up the Renoir poster
Ben: High brow cliche art, right: Romeo and Juliet, Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Mozart, Paul Klee and Picasso are also in that room…more of "postcard Paris"
Monica: its interesting that in so many of Godard's other films that male becomes associated with those things
Ben: Yeah well Michel is the low brow
Monica: Or is that a product of his relationship with Karina perhaps?
Ben: Probably, that’s one of the great things about Breathless though: the merger of high and low brow, monogram pictures AND Paul Klee. That type of merge is common now, maybe it was then too. I don't know.
Monica: it is less elitist than most of his films
Ben: Yeah its pretty inviting, again to bring in 2 or 3 things...that move is alienating, but inviting in a different way. it is the platonic ideal of an auteur film because he is whispering to us through the whole film. We are literally in his head. its an attempt at pure cinematic phenomenology
Monica: And what are we in breathless?
Ben: With Michel I think. it is very much a character driven movie, for Godard at least. Or still with Paris...
Monica: its interesting because I consider myself aligned to Patricia when I watch the film
Monica: Perhaps it is my reading of Michel. He’s ridiculous, from scene one
Ben: Neither of them are likable at all. They are both weak in their own ways but he is far more charming
Monica: I think she is far more likable
Ben: He is like dean in on the road
Monica: She’s the stylized figure
Ben: Yeah, but she sleeps around for her job. She is a careerist and is more by the book. He is more authentic. He is the "all or nothing" guy.
Monica: I feel like her its pure aesthetics that gain my loyalty. She is the icon, the hair the clothes, the sunglasses etc.
Ben: right. "New York herald tribune"
Monica: Michel in his dress takes on the appearance of a poser, oddly fitting suit etc
Ben: with tweed and silk socks!
Monica: He’s longing to be Bogart, but failing
Ben: Did he fail? He became immortal and then died!
Monica: haha. did he though?
Ben: I dunno. Pierrot went out much more romantically, in blue with the dynamite. Same thing though died for the romance
Monica: Suddenly feels like Godard's wearing his heart on his sleeve there
Ben: He always wore his heart on his sleeve, that's one of his charms