{Breathless} by Jean-Luc Godard

Synopsis

Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a petty thief who makes money by stealing cars and driving them to Paris to resell. When during a job Michel is pulled over by a motorcycle policeman he shoots him dead and must find a way to escape the closing dragnet. In Paris Michel pilfers more money from an old girlfriend, and mugs a stranger in a rest room, and looks up American girl friend Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) an aspiring journalist who hawks the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysees. Michel needs to collect money for his car but also emotionally is drawn to Patricia having slept with her previously and seeking some more stable bond but Patricia is apprehensive about their eventual success together. After Michel has collected his money and makes plans for him and Patricia to go away together, Patricia learns from the Police about Michel’s crime background and must make a heartfelt decision that may change their lives forever.

Analysis 

The first five minutes of the French New Wave film Breathless (1960) uses several techniques that signal the viewer of its awareness as a film. The film’s main character, Michel, directly addresses the camera. There are jump cuts between scenes and shots. The camerawork is often handheld. The lighting is uneven and mainly natural.

The beginning of the film starts with alternating shots of a close-up of Michel and a close-up of a woman signaling Michel, nodding at him. This use of close-up between these two characters causes the viewer to believe these characters are close to each other. However, when we get wider shots of them and their surrounding area, we see that they are not. The use of close-up confuses the viewer, especially those who are accustomed to the continuity style editing of Classic Hollywood.

Getting the signal from the woman, Michel promptly steals a car. We are then shown a lengthy sequence of Michel driving, talking to himself as well as addressing the camera (“If you don’t like the shore…if you don’t like the mountains…if you don’t like the city…Then get stuffed!”). The sequence is mostly stream-of-consciousness from Michel, talking about his surroundings while the camera, inside the vehicle and mostly handheld, looks at him and his surroundings. This sequence once again breaks the rules of continuity editing. By showing us this sequence, Godard does away with elliptical editing, which would have skipped this driving part almost entirely, and presents to us the candid nature of Michel.

We are then brought to the main action of the scene: Michel’s run-in with the law. While driving, Michel gets chased by the police. In an effort to evade them, Michel drives off-road and loses all the cops but one, who finds Michel and is then promptly shot by him. The shooting of the cop takes advantage of jump cuts and close-ups to disorient the viewer of what’s going on. When the cop stops and asks Michel to “Freeze,” we see a close-up of Michel and a close-up of a gun, presumably being pointed at Michel. We then hear the gun fired and we see the cop fall into a bush.

Jump cut to: a panning long shot of Michel fleeing the scene on foot through a wide open meadow. The scene is dimly lit, and with the exception of Michel’s white shirt, is almost washed out in its grayness. And that is how the first five minutes of the movie unfolds.

From a Hollywood filmmaker’s perspective, this can be seen as very amateur or daring. And it would be both as it was Godard’s first film. And indeed, if judging by the cinematic guidelines set up by the Classic Hollywood era’s continuity style of editing, it is breaking the rules in many ways. The purpose of Hollywood’s continuity editing style was to bring the story to the forefront, setting up a cinematic language that made its editing invisible and seamless to the viewer, and mainly as a mode of bringing its focus on the plot and characters.

But by breaking the rules of this style of editing, what effect does this achieve? By consciously breaking these rules, Godard and many of the participants of this French nouvelle vague were acknowledging the fact that, yes, this is a film and you are the viewer. They are not trying to hide the nature of the medium they are using to tell us a story. The editing, and many other techniques made hidden by the continuity style of editing, were now a part of the way the story is told. By acknowledging its nature as a film, the director has more options in how to convey his story stylistically. Godard takes advantage of the medium, using jump cuts, extremely long takes, close-ups, and handheld and portable cameras, to make the viewer actively participate in deciphering what they are seeing, as opposed to the passive nature of the audience watching a classically edited Hollywood film.

Conclusion

Breathless is simply a sterling example of cinematic alchemy, a project that just as easily could have been a forgettable flop, as Belmondo and others intimately involved with the project originally thought it would be. That it turned out to be such a world changer, against all odds, is attributable to the same mysterious forces that, from time to time, help uniquely iconic visions that are, to some extent, arrogant towards the mass of humanity find a more receptive audience than their creators and those who facilitated or opposed their creation ever expected.

a) French New Wave filmmakers were inspired by Italian Neo-realism. The hallmark of French New Wave was its independent and limited filming budget. The constricted resources available to directors were a direct result of the economic climate of post-war France. In response to a lack of funding, directors turned to alternative means of production. French New Wave film intends to show the darker and less-flattering sides of society and humanity. Normally, heroes and villains could hardly be seen in those films as the characters are depicted as neither good nor bad.

Breathless (1960): Black and white film

There are 2 common themes of French New Wave films, which is anti-authoritarian and feminine orientated. Anti-authoritarian refers to the young people who rebel against the tradition. They also tend to engage with immoral acts such as going against their parents, break the rules, stealing, robbing, and killing and so on. On the other hand, most of the female characters in French New Wave films are feminine. The female characters not only have the significantly stronger and more powerful compared to the women who are in conventional Hollywood films, but they also having the capability to control and perform decision making process.

The filmmaker of French New Wave film tends to alter the audiences’ ability to perceive and react to the film. Therefore, French New Wave films reject traditional film rules and went against the conventional Hollywood filmmaking style by not following the fixed narrative structure. The plots in these films tended to be loose-structured and open-ended storyline. The actors were encouraged to improvise their lines, or talk over each other’s lines as would happens in our real life. Monologues were also used as voice-overs to express a character’s inner feelings. As there is no prior planning, the actors are allowed to speak spontaneously. This leads to lengthy scenes of inconsequential dialogue like the one in the Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard in opposition to the staged speeches of much traditional film acting. For example, Michel driving on the street at the beginning of film; Michel seducing his girlfriend to have sex with him in Patricia’s hotel room.

Unlike most of the classical Hollywood films, French New Wave films tend to break away from the rules of continuity editing and using free editing style. The editing often drew attention to itself by being discontinuous. Self-reflectivity constantly reminds the audience that they were watching a film, unlike the escapist nature of Hollywood films. Therefore, the filmmakers always use jump cut or abrupt cut in editing. Godard, in particular, favored the heavy use of jump cut, where two shots of the same subject are cut together with a noticeable jump on the screen. In Godard’s first featured film, Breathless, jump cuts are used during a lengthy conversation in a room and in a scene of a car driving around Paris. For example, Michel kills the cops in the beginning of film while he on the way to Paris; Lengthy conversation between Michel and Patricia in a room; Patricia and Michel have different background and culture, therefore they isolated each other; Michel is a criminal, while Patricia is an American.

Long takes were commonly used in French New Wave film. In the film, filmmaker tends to use typical long tracking shots. It can be referred to as a shot which do not have a cut editing in between a long period. For example, in the film Breathless, Patricia tells Michel about her feeling in the photography studio. She was also having monologue while walking around the pillar repeatedly.

These filmmakers used to work on real location shooting rather than in the studio. It would be more casual and natural looking compared to films shot in the studio. The available light was always preferred compared to studio-style lighting. For example, in the film Breathless, Patricia sits against a window in her apartment & lights a cigarette. Unlike studio film making which remixes the sound, the direct and available sound such as improvised musical scene was preferred over extensive studio dubbing. For example, in the film Breathless, a passing siren outside Patricia’s apartment nearly covered her conversation with Michel during the long central scene; The scene of Michel and Patricia meeting on champs-Elysee (street of Paris); Michel driving the car and being chased by police on the highway.

While watching French New Wave films, we can discover some of the scenes that look shaky and unstable. It is because the filmmakers tend to use lightweight handheld cameras that quicken the way a film could be shot; it also allowed them to shoot on location easily and create many long tracking shots to promote spontaneity and fluidity of the actors on set. Furthermore, handheld camera is able to provide more freedom and realistic feeling. For example in the film Breathless, the director used the camera to follow the characters while walking along the streets, into cafes and bars, or looking over their shoulders to catch their point of view; When Michel walking along a complex path in travel agency’s office, the cinematographer is actually sitting on the wheelchair and holding camera to capture the scene.

Breathless (1960): Godard shoots the film using handheld camera

The protagonist in French New Wave films were always marginalized, young anti-heroes, and alienated loners, they live with no family ties, behave spontaneously, and often act immorally. They were frequently seen as anti-authoritarian because of their disobeying of rules, and not goal-oriented thus acting in a very immoral way. For example, the protagonist in Breathless, Michel was a car thief who steals car in Marseilles and killed a cop on the way to Paris, who also steal money from his girlfriend. It had shown Michel’s attitude toward life as aimless.

Breathless (1960): Michel is a car thief and murderer

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