It was a rare thing, in 1960, for a person to make a film who did not know how to make a film. Today, the unskilled film-makers outnumber the competent ones, which is perhaps why “Breathless” is still revered after fifty-five years. There were plenty of eccentric films made by independent filmers around the time the French New Wave broke, but they were not without background in the craft. Allen Baron, for example, was a set designer and assistant director before he made “Blast of Silence, “ and Herk Harvey directed 400 industrial films and commercials in addition to “Carnival of Souls,” his one feature film. Jean-Luc Godard, however, had done little outside of a few amateur shorts before undertaking “Breathless.”
The attempt to package this 50th Anniversary re-release as a “hip” movie could not be more off the mark, as Godard was notoriously right wing at this time of his life. It would be seven years before he became radicalized enough to make “La Chinoise,” and another four years before his first coherent Marxist statement, “Tout Va Bien,” Until then, his work was the result of incompetence outstripped by ambition. He failed to counterfeit Antonioni in the dismal “My Life to Live,” and “Les Carabiniers” showed how badly a Roberto Rossellini script could be botched if not directed by Rossellini himself. He proved himself inept at light musical comedy with “A Woman is a Woman” and was outclassed and over-ruled by Brigitte Bardot in the filming of “Contempt.” As for “Breathless,” it is nothing but Belmondo contemplating Bogart.
The original script came from a story outline by Francois Truffaut based on the true story of a French car thief who hides out in Paris after killing a cop. Godard had developed the idea with Truffaut in 1956 and now wanted to use it as the basis for his feature debut, as Truffaut, with whom Godard was very competitive, had already found success with “The 400 Blows .” Since Godard had no idea how to go about filming the movie envisioned by Truffaut, he reduced it to something within his own scope and capabilities, which led Truffaut to disengage himself form the project completely, although the new print credits him as screenwriter.
There is a telling moment in “Breathless” in which Jean –Paul Belmondo castigates the Americans for their embracement of the worst French entertainers, such as Maurice Chevalier. The irony here is that twenty years later, Belmondo would be just such a personage, one whom the French youth would ridicule as a bourgeoisie institution that only stupid Americans took seriously.
The New Wave didn’t change European Cinema. It brought France up to speed with changes already brought about by directors such as Rossellini and Antonioni. Neither is Godard, at least in his first efforts, a particularly good representation of the filmmakers involved in bringing French cinema up to date. Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut created work that had a much greater significance. What Godard and “Breathless” did was legitimize lazy filmmaking. His following actors around with the camera made it okay for a director to not bother with planning camera set-ups. His jump cuts make it okay for a director to not worry about continuity, His narrative incoherence made it okay to forget about scripts. As long as there was an audience that enjoyed watching Jean Seberg wander around an apartment in her underwear, technique did not matter.
Much of today’s independent cinema is a regression to the smudgy indolence of “Breathless.” Uninteresting people sitting around apartment rooms, the camera lurching about like a curious poltergeist, looking for something interesting to record. Fifty years ago, when each movie by a Fellini or Antonioni or Bergman raised the bar a little higher for those artists working in the medium of film, could it have been imagined that such a primitive effort as “Breathless” would be so revered by 21st Century cineastes, while the often brilliant work of the mature Godard receives scant distribution?
In 1980, with “Sauve Qui Peut (la vie)” Godard found his own voice and began what would become a true revolution of the idea of cinema, but in 1960 he was a Hawksian who had learned nothing from Hawks. The ignorance of cinema that bleeds from every frame of “Breathless” even makes his previous writing on film suspect. We don’t see much of Hawks, Ray, or Hitchcock in “Breathless.” We have, however, seen too much of “Breathless” in the American independent cinema of recent years. The same year “Breathless” was released, Antonioni’s “L’avventura” was awarded a special prize at Cannes for “the beauty of its images, and for seeking to create a new film language.” If only we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of that benchmark film today, rather than Godard’s clumsy first effort, we might be looking at a very different American Cinema than the one we currently have.