Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Breathless" At 50

Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard.

There was once a time those names meant something to the movie going public. Now, 50 years after the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) made its splash with Godard’s “Breathless” ("A bout de souffle" 1960), the public seems to have forgotten them.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of “Breathless”, considered by many film buffs to be Godard’s most influential work and the most symbolic film of the French New Wave. Though the movement started a year prior with Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” (1959).

“Breathless” was initially viewed as a revolutionary film due to its pacing and rapid edits, introducing us to the term “jump cuts”. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert says the film represents the beginning of modern movies.

Looking back on “Breathless” one can see why the film caused a stir. It was unlike most movies a mainstream audience would see. The frantic energy of the film and the self-referential nature of it.

This is a movie for people who love movies. There is a direct reference to “Bob the Gambler”, the lead character in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le flambeur” (1956). The hero of “Breathless” (Jean Paul Belmondo) goes by an alias Laszlo Kovacs. That is the name of the prominent Hungarian cinematographer. Our hero also models himself after Humphrey Bogart. And Belmondo’s character, Michel, is an extension of the kind of character Bogart or Jean Gabin played.

For years my thought was “Breathless” was a gangster film. A movie about a young car thief on the run after shooting a police officer. But now I think it is more of a love story between two deeply flawed people.

Jean Seberg plays Patricia, Michel’s love interest. She may or may not love him. The two play a cat and mouse game of emotions. She even hints she might be pregnant with his baby.

You couldn’t really call Patricia a femme fatale yet Godard is having fun with noir conventions. “Breathless”, like several noir films before it, ends with the same message. A woman is more dangerous than any weapon.

The impact of “Breathless” and the French New Wave is still felt today. In 1983 a remake of “Breathless” was made starring Richard Gere. The techniques of the movement can be seen in the work of Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino.

After 50 years both the French New Wave and “Breathless” still have the ability to rattle us and make us rethink the conventions of cinema.