Godard’s Breathless

Short response on the French New Wave film Breathless, written in 2012:

Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless is one of the most famous and influential films from the French New Wave. The film is characterized by the use of new techniques during shooting and production, yet managed to achieve mainstream success. Unlike popular Hollywood cinema of the time, Godard used hand held cameras, discontinuity editing, mise-en-scene and on-location shooting to give his film a new look. This experimental treatment by new wave directors, which made films seem amateurish and casual, was markedly different from the polished look of French films from the 1930s and 1940s. Multiple times in the film Godard would stray from the main narrative, Michel’s attempt to flee the country. Many scenes included information that did not move the story along in any direction, such as the longest scene in the movie when Michel and Patricia talk about inane issues in her bedroom. This gave the film an added element of realism and was unlike the passionate, character driven plotlines of Hollywood.

Editing in Breathless was one of the films most distinguishing accomplishments. Godard loved to incorporate jump shots and cared not for continuity in his editing. Tired of the conventional camerawork of the time, he broke from the norm and would on numerous occasions use the jump shot and hand held camera. One scene that typifies this style of editing is also one of the most crucial scenes in the film. The first time Michel encounters the law, and in the process shoots the patrolman (the central action around which the film is based). After breaking a few traffic laws and whizzing by a truck Michel finds himself being chased by two policemen. The camera pans from inside the car to look out the rear window where the police are seen overtaking the truck. The first jump cut of the segment is then utilized, with a long shot similar to the previous one of the police, except this time the truck is nowhere in sight. This discontinuity suggests a little time has passed as both the police and Michel have zoomed far ahead of the truck. Godard then breaks the 180-degree rule, showing two shots in quick succession. The first shows Michel’s car race across screen from left to right and then a cut to the two police officers riding in pursuit across screen from right to left. This minor shift of perspective is not enough to greatly confuse a viewer but is Godard’s playful way of experimenting with convention. Michel then parks his car off-road to deal with a mechanical problem. A series of medium shots of the police driving by on the road and Michel struggling to fix his car are shown. Eventually the second policeman notices the car and drives towards Michel. It is here we noticed Godard’s most significant use of the jump cut for much of the film. Michel, seeing the officer, reaches into his car via the open window and grabs his gun. The officer is heard off screen telling him to stop. The film cuts to a close up of Michel’s hat, slowly panning down to his face. There is then a jump cut pan down his arm to the gun. We hear him cock the gun. There is another jump cut to an extreme close up of the gun, panning along the bullet chamber and barrel and then the sound of the gun firing is heard. Following this there is a medium shot of the officer falling backward into bushes and then an extreme long shot of Michel running across a field. The jump cuts in this scene make the murder seem swift and as a result ruthless. The cuts can also be seen as Godard’s way of having us relate to Michel, who is apathetic and, much like a jump shot, disconnected. The restlessness of the characters is suited to the restless rhythm of the editing. The jump cut also forces the audience to focus on what is important in the scene, in this case the murder. Once the act is done the scene ends.

When one attempts to consider what molded Godard’s stylistic choices, it must be remembered that most French new wave directors were eager to push boundaries and try techniques and technologies that were new to them. Godard himself said Breathless “was the sort of film where anything goes: that was what it was all about. I [also] wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of film-making had just been discovered or experienced for the first time.[1]

This scene is a perfect example of new wave film editing and is a product of a new, rising post-war France. During the war, France’s reputation, economy and influence had taken a hammering. Now with the past behind them, many had started to refer to France as “awaking from its slumber[2]”. There was pride in the way the French people began rebuilding their country and its image. The fundamental changes within French society were reflected in the rebooting of their economy and the ‘New Look[3]’ in fashion. The significance of this new and exciting time was not lost to the young new wave directors. They jumped on the bandwagon with great abandon, hoping their new style would draw new audiences in a new era for cinema. Critics such as Godard berated the old guard of French directors for not putting effort into their art and fancied themselves as filmmakers. Many went on to gather money from friends and benefactors and do low budget films, with hand held cameras swiftly and efficiently (much like Breathless). “Literary and cultural criticism expanded during the late 1950s and early 1960s[4]” in France, further emboldening this new group of rising directors. “New forms, new modes of production, and new audiences proved that French culture was indeed undergoing what L’Express called a nouvelle vague [new wave], and that Wave was now proving significant to every aspect of Parisian life.[5]

This film’s defiance of traditional narrative techniques and editing make it a perfect example of French New Wave films. A familiar story told a different way, Breathless was more style than substance, but a style that was uniquely Godard and steeped in what would become new wave influence.

[1] Jean-Luc Godard, “‘From Critic to Film-Maker’: Godard in Interview [Cahiers du Cinema 128, December 1962]” (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 1985)

[2] Richard Neupert, Ch. 1, “Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?” in A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)

[3] Richard Neupert, Ch. 1, “Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?” in A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)

[4] Richard Neupert, Ch. 1, “Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?” in A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)

[5] Richard Neupert, Ch. 1, “Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?” in A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)


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