Godard’s Masterpiece an Ode to New Wave Cinema
Quick. Brash. Violent. Young. Rebellious. Anarchistic. All words that come to mind when watching the opening sequence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, a film that delineates the history of cinema along the lines of “Before-Godard” and “After-Godard” according to Francois Truffaut. It’s not hard to understand why. Breathless is as much a cinematic experiment as it is a narrative, filled with gutsy editing decisions that throw out all sense of cinematic normality and replace it with a style all Godard’s own. Jump cuts, hand-held shots, breaking of the fourth wall, tracking shots accomplished in the middle of everyday Paris bustle, self-references, the list of groundbreaking elements goes on and on and are summed up perfectly with a line of dialogue delivered by Michel midway through: “I told you,” he barks at Patricia. “The worst flaw is cowardice.”
There is nothing about Godard’s film that is cowardly, which makes sense, because the director himself was a fiery young man, a contrarian who thrived on conflict. Once saying, “I prefer to work with people when I have to fight,” Godard believed he worked best when he was miserable. Mirroring his personality in the film, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), our anti-hero, opens the film with the admission, “After all, I am an asshole,” over the image of a pin-up model in a newspaper with her back turned to us, her head on a swivel. This shot to open the film is mirrored in the shot’s final moment, when Patricia (Jean Seberg) turns her back on us, her head on swivel as well. Indeed, the film’s first images and its last images are connected in several ways. Our first image of Michel is in extreme close-up, a thick cigarette dangling from his lips and billowing smoke skyward. When last we see Michel, he takes his last puff of nicotine before we see him close his own eyes and die in extreme close-up. Patricia’s close-ups in the final scene are mirrored in the open as well, as the young woman who helps Michel steal the car are center-framed from the neck up, just like Patricia is. By connecting his open to close, Godard delivers his theme of the ever-tightening noose finally capturing and destroying the anti-hero, his crimes paid for with his life, an inevitable and expected end for a man who lives life recklessly with very little regard to consequences. If they come, so be it. Michel knows who he is, and he knows he is living with a ticking clock. Always running from that clock leaves him tired by film’s end, and death comes as a relief, symbolized by the character closing his own eyes, allowing himself to finally rest. His final words, “You make me want to puke,” delivered to Patricia and confirming at the last what he offers 90 minutes earlier: “I am an asshole.”
Godard was the last of the Cahiers du Cinema critics to release his first feature, and by the time it came out, the La Nouvelle Vague was in full swing. This offered Godard a chance to slip in a highly self-referential moment when Michel is confronted on the street by a woman selling the journal. Moments after he walks past a movie poster on the street with a tagline, “Live dangerously until the end,” the woman approaches Michel with a Cahiers du Cinema journal outstretched and asks, “Have you anything against youth?” To which Michel scoffs and answers, “I prefer old people.” The moment is funny and had to serve as a shot in the arm to his fellow Cahiers critics, who were nothing if not confident and rebellious in their youth. Godard references film itself throughout Breathless, including a dedication to Monogram Pictures in the opening credits, using the theater for a chase-scene escape, and, of course, Michel’s signature move, the slow lip-rub with his thumb, an ode to his hero, Humphrey Bogart, whose connection is offered obviously at the outset of the film when Godard spends several seconds in long, intercutting close-ups between Michel and Bogey by way of movie poster. Through the constant references to cinema, Godard expresses his love for film with great emphasis, and helps to cement the New Wave’s reputation as being comprised of passionate cinephiles.