Breathless

by mikeyzjames

As my film classes moved into the sixties, I thought it was essential that they get exposed to the French New Wave, thus we watched Jean-Luc Godard’s debut Breathless. Now, Breathless isn’t my favorite Godard; it probably isn’t even in my Top 10. Stylistically, it doesn’t really resemble the rest of his work, and it certainly doesn’t resemble his more important work thematically. But there’s a spirit to Breathless that is undeniable, and that spirit definitely lingers throughout Godard’s films and the rest of the New Wave (especially his pre-1968 work). There’s an antagonistic, revolutionary spirit that has always been why Godard is my favorite director.
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Breathless is probably most famous for its use of the jump-cut, an editing trick that was supposedly the solution to an over-length first cut. With the rise of YouTube and Vine, the jump-cut has become so superfluous today that I’m not sure the impact is still tangible. But even so, it isn’t really used the way Godard uses it. I find most Vlogs insufferable for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the use of the type of jump-cut employed here:

I can’t figure out the logic of this type of editing. The practical answer would be that the edits are linking together distinct “takes”, but it seems clear that this is a single take, with small bursts edited out. Perhaps, then, the goal here is just to shorten the video by taking out any gaps in speech or action.

The logic is that the YouTube audiences are easily bored, and any unnecessary screentime increases the likelihood of someone clicking off the video. But again, it seems like the amount of time actually being edited out is minuscule and time isn’t actually being saved. For me, the edits are purely stylistic and serve more to create the illusion of speed than to actually save time. Often, the edits happen after every sentence, so 1 sentence = 1 shot. The edit, then, really just serves as a visual period marking the end of a single thought, and a new thought gets a new take. This doesn’t actually condense time, it just creates a jarring hiccup that makes us feel like we are jumping forward when we actually aren’t.

Godard’s jump-cuts don’t work like this. Most of his jump-cuts are non-sequitors. They don’t move us more quickly to the point of a scene, but rather, they often move us further away from it. My favorite example is a sequence in which Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is attempting to steal a car. As he investigates the dash of a convertible in the foreground, we can see the car’s owner emerge in the background. He sizes up Michel and moves towards him. There’s a sudden cut, and Michel is now at a different car. Through the jump-cut, Godard has implied a conflict without actually showing one. Throughout the film, his jump-cuts are jarring, in that they move us significantly forward in time and space, not just a few seconds, but they don’t propel us towards plot developments or action. In this case, they actually eliminate it.

Throughout Breathless, Godard plays these kinds of games. That’s what made the film so appealing to me as an angsty teen. Godard is screwing with his audience and testing the conventions of films. If most films use plot points to move the film, what happens when I spend all my time between those points? What happens when a “major plot point” drops, but I pretend it didn’t, such as the scene where Patricia (Jean Seberg) reveals she’s pregnant, and the characters basically ignore it?

Viewers respond to this in two ways (generally): they either see it as a joke and fall under the film’s spell or they get frustrated at the lack of plot or character development. For Godard, plots are arbitrary (and actually suspicious), so their absence shouldn’t really matter. Getting over these things is probably the biggest hurdle to diving into non-Hollywood cinema. The great directors of Europe and Asia just aren’t as interested in plot as we normally conceive it. For many, the things they were interested weren’t best explored through conventional narratives. Like Breathless, the plotting often just serves as a backdrop for larger philosophical, moral, or aesthetic concerns.