In another life Michel Poiccard, aka Laszlo Kovacs, was married, and a steward for Air France. That other life couldn’t have been long ago, since he is evidently still in his twenties. When we are introduced to him in the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, though, he is stealing a car. Within five minutes, he has casually shot a traffic cop, using a gun discovered in the glove compartment of the hot-wired vehicle.
The stage is now set for a chase of the kind promised by the movie’s title, except that Michel does not run, or even hide. While Parisian newspapers print his picture prominently, he remains in the French capital. Rather than camp out near the home of a friend who can help him escape to Italy, he keeps trying to contact him by phone, while pursuing his main interest: an American girl called Patricia. He’s as obsessed with his immediate desires as a child, and does whatever it takes to fulfill them. Patricia, like him, is amoral, but equivocates about everything. She may be pregnant, Michel may be the father, she may love him. The Franco-American dalliance plays out in parallel to De Gaulle’s welcome of Eisenhower.
The couple’s response to situations constantly undercuts our expectations, as does the film’s style. Much has been written about Godard’s invention of the jump cut, which is the joining of two shots of an object or person without a significant change in angle, creating a visual jerk. Unlike smooth transitions that aid our suspension of disbelief, jump cutting draws attention to the film as an artefact. Fifty-two years after Breathless was first released, jump cuts have become commonplace in commercial action flicks, but Godard’s use of them remains unique. He intersperses ellipses with relaxed takes that go on for over a minute at a time. Even where jumps are used frequently, they don’t necessarily hurry the narrative forward. For instance, more than 20 minutes are devoted to a single scene in Patricia’s bedroom, where Michel tries to convince her to sleep with him, and to accompany him to Italy.
There’s a school of thought that claims the director only used the novel technique because the first version of the film was overlong. It’s true that Godard felt a lot of footage needed removing because the story, originally written by Francois Truffaut, was too slight to carry a two-hour running length. However, he was hardly the first director to face such a situation. None of the hundreds of directors who had trimmed material before 1960 had done so in such a radical fashion. Most of them chose the utilitarian option: keep the action and humour and do away with scenes of small talk. Godard on the other hand used the challenge as a way to create a new kind of rhythm in cinema. The key to Breathless lies in that rhythm, crafted by interspersing conventional shots, long takes and jagged passages. It’s broken but compelling, very much like the relationship at the film’s centre.
Those who don’t take to the technique can concentrate instead on Jean-Paul Belmondo in a career-defining performance. His Michel models himself on Hollywood tough guys, particularly Humphrey Bogart, a poster of whom he gazes at reverentially at one point. The charm and insouciance Belmondo brings to the character, however, is leagues removed from the hard-bitten gangsters and cops of American noir. Michel does despicable things, stealing from old people and ex-girlfriends, lying every time he opens his mouth, littering the street rather than use dustbins, but we are too taken by his fluid walk, lithe body, and strangely attractive though not handsome face, to care overmuch. That’s the radical ethical lesson of gangster movies which Breathless foregrounds: we like people because they’re cool, it doesn’t matter if they’re killers, as long as we aren’t emotionally connected to those they kill.
By Girish Shahane on July 23 2010 11.14am