(This is the 38th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
Many modern reviews of Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature discuss the impossibility of reclaiming the moment when Breathless first arrived on our screens. Its innovations, not just in technique but in attitude, were so influential that even now, in 2012, films and television shows and commercials exist in homage to Breathless. If you saw it for the first time today, it would be impossible to share the startled delight of those who first saw it in 1960. The technique and the attitude are now commonplace, and there is some question whether Breathless can still stand on its own as a great film.
Happily, I can sidestep the issue by falling back on the continuing theme of Favorite vs. Best. Breathless is one of my favorite movies, dating back to the first time I saw it. That was already the early-70s, but I was only just beginning my film education, and it didn’t occur to me at the time that something like Bonnie and Clyde owed a lot to Godard’s film. Which is to say that I was able to approximate the feeling of 1960, which is something, at least. I sat through the film, and I didn’t leave the theater … I watched it a second time, the only time I can recall ever doing that (outside of Yellow Submarine once when I was high).
I claim to be a substance-over-style guy, but making this list has shown me how shallow is my feeling for this. Directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Ophüls, all of whom have turned up recently on my list, are certainly style-first directors, even if they are only “superficially superficial.” (Run Lola Run surely fits this, as well.) Breathless is definitely style-over-substance. The “plot” barely exists, and whatever “meaning” can be extracted from the film must always confront the ultimate playfulness with which Breathless was made.
In the middle of the film, Breathless stops for about 20 minutes while Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg talk in her apartment. (I use the actors’ names intentionally … Godard has said the film could be seen as a documentary about the two.) It’s like seeing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in a prequel to the “Before” movies, if those two played amoral, self-absorbed icons instead of something resembling real people.
Breathless is also another movie that stands in for many others. Suffice to say that Jean-Luc Godard was going to make my list, and I could have placed half-a-dozen in my top 50 without stretching (off the top of my head, I’d add Vivre sa vie, Masculine Feminine, Weekend, Band of Outsiders, and Pierrot le fou). I don’t know which to recommend first for someone who has never seen any Godard; Band of Outsiders, which Tarantino loves, or Masculine Feminine, with the immortal self-description, “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” But Breathless works for me.
What little commenting there was focused mostly on which Godard was the favorite of the commenter. Well, that’s a stretch … the first commenter said he thought I would have picked Masculine Feminine, I was the second commenter, and the third (and last) cast her vote for Breathless, as well.