Immeasurable Decadence: BREATHLESS
The love for cinema, like any cinephile will often explore and contemplate the contrast in films; storylines, actors’ performances, parallels of aesthetics, and of course themes and as Jean-Luc Godard once said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to” and of course, “There’s no such thing as intellectual property.” Perhaps, the conjecture of these statements is where his true reinvention of cinema really reverberated among the masses and what better vessel than his infamous 1960’s BREATHLESS or as the French say À bout de soufflé “Out of Breath.” So when asked about my thoughts on Godard’s film I said, “I LOVED it.” Of course after having the left side of my face numbed from the dentist and having so much more to say on the matter, challenged my ability to articulate in that moment since I probably sounded like an incomprehensible drunkard. My precise thought once the credits rolled and, I mean this with such delicate pure-ness, as I seldom tend to drop the f-bomb when I say, “That f -er broke the rules!” Not that I’m a complete stickler for rules, but I understand now why he’s so revered. Change. Real change.
BREATHLESS is very much alive and continues to be thrive has having this edgy seductiveness which coincides with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character, Michel who very much personifies himself in the same fashion of Humphrey Bogart. While being on the run, he finds a deep love in an American girl named Patricia played by Jean Seberg who’s a student aspiring to be a journalist in Paris. The two make an unusual pair, and with that rebellious chemistry is what truly electrifies the screen. A mismatched duo plunging into an unconventional love story betrothed by crime, curiosity, and infatuation, all funneled through their own self-absorption and with the cinema verite look really encapsulates a brevity of humanity’s narcissism. Oddly decadent and widely braven at the time, it squeezes the independent spirit into fruition, just as John Cassavetes’ delivered in his directorial debut of SHADOWS in 1959, which was essentially the moment American cinema changed forever.
Perhaps you can surmise Godard and Cassavetes are similar forces just on opposite ends of the world. Both united in the same era of making groundbreaking films, undermining the studio systems and the Hollywood culture that made cinema enticingly viable for the masses. Prior to becoming filmmakers, Godard was a cinephile, a critic at heart while Cassavetes was an actor, who created a workshop that brought methods of really tapping into the heart of characters. And with such talent both Godard and Cassavetes knew they could break another barrier. So their curiosities and knowledge brought them to take a daring risk which brought everyone on the planet independent filmmaking. Sure it was probably rough and bumpy at first with guerilla style filmmaking, bad audio, out of focus shots, and of course the notorious, rebel-defying aesthetic of the “jump cut” but I’m sure it was liberating, being able to call the shots without any other influence pushing their own agenda. Actors but their trust in their directors’ fortitude to preserve and fully submerge themselves in something experimental.
Aside from the compare and contrast charade, let’s get back to the brass tacks of BREATHLESS. Without air is to be without life, without life there is nothing but death and personally is essentially what drives the plot to its outcome. The final close up shot of Patricia’s face as she rubs her thumb across her lips, a total Bogart trademark and yet she embodies the cool, calm, collectiveness much more than Michel. As much as Michel captures the look of Humphrey Bogart, he chases Patricia, even pleads with her to flee with him to Italy which fully doesn’t embrace the Bogey-ness. Most if not all of Bogart’s characters never chased women, which was part of his appeal. If anything Patricia embodies the full spirit of Bogey because she wasn’t doing the chasing. She played it cool, calculating the best maneuver to remove herself from Michel’s insatiable teancaity to fulfill his needs. Patricia lured herself as bait just enough to come to her senses and refused to follow her emotions which would have been a deadly trap. The girl had enough on her plate with being an American in Paris, pregnant, and working to establish herself as a wholesome journalist. She had zero interest or embraced the thought of sharing any time to fully commit to an un-serious dalliance of a criminal’s misgivings and tortured bruteness. After all he did admit to calling himself an “asshole” in the very beginning of the film, so there's that.
In studying the numerous sequences where Michel and Patricia are walking around Paris, something fascinating stuck out at me. It was seeing the curiosity on everyone's faces, just random strangers strolling their neighborhood not fully aware their witnessing the guerrilla-style filmmaking in its total pureness. If you look closer you can see the passerby stare at them or turn their heads trying to figure what is what, or who they are. Its such a fun chunk of reality fused into a fabric of fiction blurring the line between life imitating art and art imitating life. I love that distinction between the two. Also in another vibrant example is how Godard uses part of William Faulkner's brilliance as a playful dialogue piece to distract our two characters while sharing their bed. In the passage of Faulkner's "Wild Palms", Patricia reads, "Between grief and nothing. I will take grief." When Patrica asks Michel, he responds with, "Grief is stupid. I choose nothing. It's no better, but grief is a compromise.You have to go for all or nothing." Its a stunning statement, conflicting in so many ways, yet zealously contrary whether its intentional or not. Anyone who knows me, knows I love to pontifcate into the heady realm of grief. Experiencing it, studying it, producing films and writing about it as it's very much the thread that connects us to one another. The unfortunate power of loss and how we transcend from it, sometimes half-willingly and sometimes wholeheartedly. Okay, I may have spiraled down the rabbit hole a smidge. So what exactly does this mean for Michel and Patricia? Its something to say out loud and as it lingers in the air, one chooses grief and the other chooses nothing. Think long and hard about the ending and notice which character ends with what. This is the immeasurable decadence of Jean-Luc Godard's BREATHLESS.