To paraphrase Lester Bangs regarding The Velvet Underground, modern cinema begins with Jean-Luc Godard. The strangest part is that Godard’s trajectory has been somewhat like that of the great French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Both would be primarily recognized in their lifetimes for their first creation. For Céline it was the groundbreaking spleen of Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) and for Godard the film in question (his first full-length feature). The most criminal aspect of this whole equation is that Godard IS STILL ALIVE AND MAKING GREAT, GREAT FILMS!
For awhile, my dissatisfaction with the public’s reception of Godard over his long career led me to undervalue his earlier works (to perhaps balance out the disproportionate attention these films get in relation to his oeuvre as a whole). What cannot be denied, however, is that Breathless (literally “at the end of breath”) is as important to film as Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage…) is to literature. There are more similarities. Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is not so different from Céline’s Bardamu. The spirit of youth and anarchy run throughout these two works…all of it tied together with a dark humor which disarms as much as it offends.
The key to Godard’s film is that it is radical while also being somewhat subtle. Perhaps this is only accurate in hindsight (considering what has followed Breathless in the cinematic canon), but the avant-garde nature of the film is really in all of the little rules it breaks. The most oft mentioned are the jump cuts (and there are plenty of them). A deeper reading into the history of the film might reveal that Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman were responsible for this novel approach as much as Godard. Agnès Guillemot did not become Godard’s regular editor until Une femme est une femme (or Le Petit soldat…take your pick). There is reason to believe that the jump cuts were mainly in the service of keeping the action going. Along with Martial Solal’s excellent noir jazz, the pace rarely slackens but for a few contrasting scenes.
What is less-discussed is the plethora of filmic references which play like an inside joke for the Cahiers crowd. Breaking “the fourth wall” is just one of the many transgressions which Godard takes up joyfully in this affront. One might venture to guess that what was truly “dégueulasse” to Godard was the state of the French film industry leading up to his first real foray into direction. At every turn, the “tradition of quality” is left in the dust as Breathless speeds away wild and free.