The Déjà Vu of Watching Breathless

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When that feeling of déjà vu hits.

To talk about Breathless is, well, to talk about a lot. For an uncomplicated story made on a shoestring budget, Jean-Luc Godard’s debut film from 1960 shook cinematic and, perhaps it is not too much hyperbole to say so, visual culture at large. And this isn’t high school me, who first saw Breathless (À Bout de Souffle in its original French) at Film Forum while taking what you could call another personal day from classes and homework talking. In 2007, The Criterion Collection re-released Breathless in a handsome two-disc set with an accompanying booklet of essays and interviews in a tasteful slipcase cover on the back of which is boldly printed: “There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless.”

Indeed, many a righteous film critic and cinephile have worshiped at the altar of this 90-minute flick. What makes it so remarkable, then, and can something so vaunted not fail to inspire many a lackluster imitator who claim a piece of it for their own productions?

A trailer for the film from 1960.

While the film is considered the cornerstone piece to the nouvelle vague movement in film and Godard its principal architect, the French-led repudiation of studio and Hollywood cinema draws from a blueprint of what is best encapsulated as auteur theory: that a movie is the device of its director. Never shy of a weighty proclamation, Godard once described Breathless as “a documentary about Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.” That is, the two lead actors in the movie are followed by a loving camera.

Michel (Belmondo) and Patricia (Seberg) romance, move about, and chain smoke without so much as a break for lunch, in Paris. The real city, no sets, no false staging, barely any additional lighting, and a camera so noisy to operate that the entire film was dubbed in post-production. Such is the camera’s crush, however, that you never really lose touch with these two (add, too, the abundance of close-ups). You move with them and watch their acted lives — it’s voyeuristic but entirely fictitious.

Michel is a man-child, an extremely handsome individual made in the image of the genre gangsters he imitates, and, in particular, Humphrey Bogart, whom he adores. Patricia is the young American in the city of lights, of a beauty that has adorned mood boards for generations, working for the New York Herald Tribune with an aim to study at the Sorbonne. She’s practicing her French, and ably so as her bombshell-opposite look is always on, drawing innumerable men to her. Breathless, in short, is the story of Michel’s obsessed infatuation with Patricia that it’s criminal. He goes to so many extremes to cultivate this adoration that it ultimately leads to his peril, triggered, no less, by the heart of his heart.

If this is in any way familiar sounding, it’s because Bonnie & Clyde has a similar scenario — Godard was even asked to direct the outlaw opus. But first, let’s talk about tracking shots and jump-cuts. Choosing what to see and what to elide was heavily important for the director. “A tracking shot is a moral act,” Godard said at the time of the film, where following Michel and Patricia as they stroll down Parisian boulevards, in particular, the “Champs,” as Michel called it, created a city in which the viewer is captive to. In that sense, Breathless is recorded similarly to a documentary. We go where they go.

Keep in mind, though, that there are no scenes devoted to any of the supporting characters; they only appear because they’ve crossed the camera’s pane and into the same place as Michel or Patricia. Still, even when the film takes a nearly 25-minute respite to Patricia’s bedroom, the characters’ interiority is more convincingly conveyed from a different cinematographic technique.

“You know William Faulkner?”

The abrupt liveliness of the jump-cuts, executed mercilessly, works a certain directness and excises an uncertain meaningless; the time spent between the action was a waste — this adoring camera had no time for that. Godard, in the multitude of jump-cuts he employed in Breathless is enacting another moral decision: Get to the point, show me more and quickly. He marries the two filmic tricks, yet, even so, we don’t wholly have a sense of why Breathless is such a touchstone.

That, in my wager of now-useless francs, lies with the enigmatic dialogue. Michel and Patricia’s exchanges with one another are charmed, often unrealistically so. The two speak with a flirtation and a sense of presence that mixes the juvenile and enrapture. For instance: On seeing Patricia for the first time since returning to Paris (tl;dr Michel is on the run, and this is also the first time viewers sees her as well), he asks if she’ll go to Rome with him and pats her on the head. “It’s crazy, but I love you. I wanted to see if I’d be glad to see you again.”

She doesn’t answer, but, instead, interrogates him of his whereabouts. She’s hawking Herald Tribunes (in that infamous t-shirt). He buys one using some recently filched francs. “What are you doing here?” she asks. “I thought you hated Paris.”

Rebuffed, Michel hands her back the Herald Tribune he just purchased because it has no horoscope. Not understanding it in the French, Patricia asks what he said. “The future,” he explains. It’s suggestive of Michel’s sensitivity. Or, as he puts it, “I wanna know the future. Don’t you?” His life, so far as viewers can tell, is wild and dramatic and narcissistic and unpredictable and romantic. He’s probably a Scorpio.

It’s all flirting, cinematically speaking. Although this search for intimacy is leaving Michel quietly desperate, however. She relates that she’s here on her parents’ largesse and has plans to enroll in the Sorbonne, etc. They’ve only been together three nights, but Michel is sprung — Patricia seems more level-headed and thinking about her future (the mark of a Capricorn, most definitely), which means being selective and necessarily deflective of the Frenchman’s advances.

Breathless is lousy with this kind of practiced and accentuated talk.

Neither Godard nor his nouvelle vague cohorts invented any of this, however. They only, through ingenious circumstances and ambition, applied their knowledge and techniques in an original manner. Today, the charmed dialogue, tracking shots, jump-cuts, and the well-versed and self-aware mise-en-scène is normalized. Sometimes grossly so. Still, it’s the creativity of Breathless that’s lasted, that’s persisted for so long as to render a meander down the Champs-Élysées one autumn day sublime.

Breathless has not only stature but notoriety. Almost immediately, it created a space for new sorts of experimentation in the medium that infamously inspired Spielberg and his compatriots to absorb the tenets of the nouvelle vague and introduce them to the industry’s machinations, heralding his New Hollywood generation. Which, given the odds, even if you were a punctual high school student, you’ve still probably heard of Breathless, or, just as likely, perhaps, you’ve seen it at some point in your life: in a dorm room, at an art house retrospective, on a second date, in film school. Or, evenly, you’ve seen clips or film stills on social. You’ve just as likely seen the many films which bear its mark, too.

The most obviously indebted film to Breathless is itself called, well, Breathless. Jim McBride’s 1983 remake (cheekily billed as À Bout de Souffle Made in USA in France) stars Richard Gere and Valérie Kaprisky inhabiting the Michel-Patricia tandem, albeit, under different monikers. It is an indirect homage — borrowed dialogue, transposed characters with nationalities reversed in a sunburnt locale. The nihilism and sexual display in this case, however, is brazen. Quentin Tarantino-lite rather than Godard does America.

While the remake takes the makeup of the original and reapplies it onto a Hunter S. Thompson-esque fever dream of the lawless pursuit of sex, sex, sex, it’s difficult to ignore the reworking of the source material. Gere’s character is an adult whose idol, whose entire outlook it seems, is prefigured by the Silver Surfer — a Marvel superhero with a platinum body and awesome powers who, nevertheless, falls helplessly for a beautiful earthling. Kaprisky is more often regarded than heard; no Seberg, she does demure artfully but is, unfortunately, overshadowed by Gere’s Jerry Lee Lewis-loving horndog who is quick to forgo buttoning his shirts as he is to abandon them.

On the technical side, the film is saturated with color and eschews the frenetic jump-cuts and touring tracking shots, leaving the 1983 remake with a comparatively opposite aspect, feel, and mood than the original. Which isn’t to say that Jim McBride needed to update Breathless for a new generation with different tastes, but the remake establishes its distinctiveness through what it doesn’t do as well as the original. (The 1998 remake of Psycho would similarly misread what made the source material brilliant.)

In her 1996 essay “The Decay of Cinema,” Susan Sontag lamented. She connived that the experience of enjoying film — cinephilia — was under attack. “Cinephilia tells us that the Hollywood remake of Godard’s Breathless cannot be as good as the original. Cinephilia has no role in the era of hyperindustrial films.” That the Breathless remake is not great was beside the point. The medium, in her eyes, was fading from what made it an artform, instead, it was churning out works that trollgaze moviegoers, getting them to buy tickets, fill seats, and repeat.

This may seem a bit alarmist, however. There are great and thoroughly enjoyable movies that have been made since Breathless, of course, as well as many since Sontag asked “What place is there today for… the great Godard, who now makes films about the history of film, on video?”

Pursuing a different vector, however reductive, we can see that for everything that came after the OG Breathless, there is a heavy incidence of particular cinematic tropes and narrative structures that have been used to both ill-effect and aplomb in the cinema of the last half-century.

One could devise a locution to indicate how these films bear any or all of these signifiers as a crutch: A French-American dalliance (Beginners, Before Sunrise, Last Tango in Paris, Pulp Fiction) that is engendered during a meander through a city (Lost in Translation, Birdman, Hannah and Her Sisters, All These Sleepless Nights, In the Mood for Love) as they’re a male-female outlaw pair on the run (Badlands, Bugsy, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, True Romance, Victoria) who speak in witty and flirtatious dialogue (Mistress America, (500) Days of Summer, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Amélie, Lady Bird).

Making a film isn’t easy, let alone one that still scans as singular decades later. What does it mean to bear the influence of Breathless if not to hope that, in the pursuit of crafting a story, we don’t fuck it up. So, I can’t say the above movies are all Breathless’ children for sure, but, certainly they would appear at a function together. A dinner table, or an industry happy hour, perhaps, where discussion would land on how curious it is that we still uphold movies with such gravitas. That we can’t unwatch what we’ve seen or stiff arm our precursors is all but inevitable in this business. You, an auteur: Do you attempt to see how long a shadow Breathless casts? Or do you take shelter in its shade and look for yet-unexplored vantages to portray the vista from?

Speaking to Cahiers du Cinéma, his alma mater of sorts, in 1962, Godard remarked on where he felt his surprise-hit film stood in the pantheon: “Although I felt ashamed of it at one time, I do like Breathless very much, but now I see where it belongs — along with Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was Scarface.” Turns out, it was neither the hyperviolent story of a dogged gangster’s comeuppance nor the tale of a fantasy trip full of literary nonsense. Breathless is so much to so many actors, filmmakers, and moviegoers that to see it now is to let go a spool of thread and to follow it to a quilt stitched together with the contents of another film you might recognize from somewhere.

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