First published by the British Journal of Photography
Upstart and “arsehole” Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a man in motion. On the run and racing off in a stolen car before his female accomplice even has time to get in with him, he speeds down the motorway, cursing anyone who dares slow his breakneck progress. Michel embodies a fugitive brand of modernity, too fast and fleeting to pin down, so that even the innovative editing that captures his mobility is jumpy and restless – and yet he will come crashing to a halt in Paris, while he waits for his American lover Patricia (Jean Seberg) to decide whether she will move on with him to Rome.
Patricia wants to stay and to finish her studies – and yet far from representing the stasis of the past, she is in fact younger than Michel, sports a thoroughly modern hairstyle, and wants her own independence rather than to play a pre-written rôle in Michel’s story. For here, (new) wave and shore are mutually defining and forever at war – and Michel and Patricia’s erotic clash is expressly figured both as classic “Romeo and Juliet” and as contemporary “Franco-American rapprochement“, even as the lovers are filmed guerrilla-style in the streets against the highly visible backdrop of an actual (now historic) meeting between Presidents de Gaulle and Eisenhower. Add to this the appropriated influence of Hollywood – the fast cars (American models, of course), the cops and robbers, the self-conscious touches of film noir – and you can see, both flashing and frozen on the screen, a moment of transition and a brief pause in all the forward momentum, as cinéma de papa gives way fleetingly to something more youthful and new.
Now, 55 years on, Breathless is itself “Dad’s cinema”, even if Dad is still making films and recently, aged 83 with Goodbye to Language (2014), showed young filmmakers two or three things about the extreme potential of stereoscopic cinematography in cinema’s narratology. Yet Breathless – and the movement in the French cinema of the Sixties that it spearheaded – is not merely revered, but regarded as still feeling fresh, even if its events are rooted in a particular time and place. This strange tenacity is in part because Breathless was a kind of hello to (film) language, laying out the fractured syntax of a new grammar that successive generations of Young Turks have been using ever since to mark their status as the next waves in cinema’s endless, turbulent sea. And it is also in part because, for all its reputation as a revolutionary entry in the Histoire(s) du cinéma, Breathless is effortlessly accessible – unlike much of Godard’s later work post Week End (1968).
The other thing is, you can never forget Paris. Films like Breathless (and, say, Agnès Varda’s Cleo de 5 à 7, 1962) serve, amongst other things, as moving symphonies to the City of Love. They capture Paris at a moment when it was beginning to slough off the humiliation and guilt of wartime Occupation, but had not yet been fully reinvaded by McDonald’s and Starbucks (although The New York Herald Tribune, which Patricia is seen hawking on the streets, vies for attention with France Soir). In Breathless, Paris is shot handheld, on the fly (and without crowd control or filming permission), both a zone of reportage and a playground for Godard’s games with genre and gender. The black-and-white still photographs that Raymond Cauchetier took of the production in 1959 (recently collected in Raymond Cauchetier’s Nouvelle Vague) have also helped cement the place of both Godard and Breathless by catching in motion their convention-flouting process, and converting the filmmaker’s spontaneous approach to something icon(ograph)ic.
From the flirtation and friction (expressed in national, cultural, political and sexual terms) between Patricia and Michel, there emerges an edgy, equivocal romance that epitomises ‘the cool’ – and much as the cool is always backward-looking (note Michel’s adoration of his sartorial muse Humphrey Bogart), Breathless lays out a model of outlaw hipsterdom that abides, precisely and paradoxically, because of its datedness. If Michel is a man on the lam, always fruitlessly trying to stay ahead of the curve that is cresting over his back, he is now ossified in that posture, forever living fast, forever dying young and forever giving expression, in his final breath, to a disgust that is not fully articulated, or indeed understood.
With that general dissatisfaction comes rebellion against the prevailing dispensation – a deconstructive spirit with which any new generation can easily identify. Yet Michel’s delinquent recalcitrance is in – and is defined in – its complicated dialectic with the (relative) conservatism that Patricia pursues to secure her own future. Essential to what makes Godard’s film seem not only so temporally and culturally specific but also so timeless and universal is the way that it gazes, Janus-like, backwards and forwards. It barrels along, but keeps one eye ever fixed on the rear-view mirror – which is how we all roll.