20 August 2010

Breathless ('60). Okay, also some Breathless ('83).

"Truffaut was too complacent, too precious, too superficially cinephilic, too sentimental about children, and far too willing to let his extraordinary cinematic fluency carry what would otherwise have been so much inconsequential bourgeois fluff. Let it be said that this position is rather heavily dependent on a comparison between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and between their respective approaches to politics and narrative during the crunch moment of the late sixties - Godard the revolutionary antinarrative firebrand versus Truffaut the apolitical storytelling lapdog. As May '68 and its polemical extremes have faded into the distance, Godard's cinema has retained much of its power, while his politics have come to seem modish and fairly ridiculous. Meanwhile, Truffaut's body of work has only become more impressive with each passing year. His often remarked facility with the language of cinema, as evident in his great films as in his minor ones, now seems less noteworthy than his daring sense of speed, his attraction to complicated emotional states that few of his colleagues would even touch, and the always remarkable proximity of life and death in his work. Not to mention the continual sense of surprise."

Kent Jones introducing the Criterion edition of Shoot the Piano Player. I thought of it last night during a screening of Breathless, as I was wondering the extent of Truffaut's influence on the film. He's credited with the story. The legend is the film began without a full script; Godard wrote scenes in the morning and fed the actors lines, sometimes during the scene.

Though I sensed a lot of Truffaut during the hotel scene between Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. There's his brand of philosophical playfulness and romantic insight; most of the adjectives Jones used in his above introduction as ways of describing Truffaut, as ways of differentiating between the filmmakers, are present in the scene: speed, complicated emotional states, proximity of life and death, continual sense of surprise - doesn't that describe Breathless? It's rather fun to hang out around the film and ask these questions, to speculate using a knowledge of the filmmakers and their films. What seems manifest is a shared ideology, whether Truffaut wrote lines or not, Breathless feels like an utterance of many.

The question of creative leadership has a curious corollary, How much of Godard is in Breathless? What percentage of Godard's capabilities, as we know them in the present, are detectable in Breathless? One of the fascinating aspects of Godard is his remarkable dexterity and amazing leaps in style. He seems capable of true invention and fantastic vision, classic and romantic pursuits in cinema, and incredible qualities for a filmmaker who makes daring, masterful use of dramatic form, and hovers his narratives conspicuously near his characters, as to ground them in a human element. Godard is about the explosion of cinema from the interior self to the exterior screen. There is playful presaging of this theme in Breathless, in the strong presence of cinema throughout. Belmondo admires Bogart's photo outside the cinema; a police pursuit ends in a cinema; Belmondo and Seberg experience cinematic dimensions as filmic characters when they see a western movie they end up becoming. The special effect is a trigger of the imagination, the elevation from reality by the channeling of characters' desires as interpreted by the grammar and reality of film.

So is Band of Outsiders a fuller Breathless, for example? There seems so little trail-blazing in Breathless today; it feels like an essential statement, a first-voice moment for a great filmmaker. Whatever conventions Breathless challenged upon its release, whatever expectations of narrative it reversed, were further untangled and unbound in Band of Outsiders. What's more beautiful and makes better use of Raoul Coutard, Breathless or A Woman is a Woman, or My Life to Live, Contempt, Pierrot le fou (or a non-Godard?!)? The questions seem to impose their answers on the experience of the film, though they shouldn't. I see enough footholds and special attributes within Breathless to allow the perpetuation of the question, How good is Breathless?

It's pretty fucking good. It still feels spontaneous, fluid, and frenetic; dangerous, sensuous, and playful. The match-cuts of Seberg in the convertible are riveting, Les Champs-Élysées is ever as gorgeous, and Belmondo is eternally charming. The movie is a game of meaning between Godard and the audience, and of seduction (shimmers of love) between Seberg and Belmondo. I don't think the diminishing power of its stylistic luster exposes surprising flaws; it might allow a clearer view of the emotional range of the characters. The films tours the minds of two characters pinned to Paris, 1960, and you really get to know and experience them, really enter their heads. I wonder if its specificity, in style and content, narrows the entry doorway in the present. It doesn't for me, but the projectionist last night told me there were an unusual number of walk-outs, and most people I know don't even bother seeing Breathless anymore.

Is one viewing of Breathless enough? Is it not a great film? Is there a better Godard film? Back to these questions, somehow back to these questions. The cinematic well of Godard goes deep and continues to deepen, and I think back here at the start is a great place to be. I think we have to continue to ask ourselves where we're coming from if want to know where we're going.

So last night was the first time I'd seen Breathless as a bigger fan of Truffaut than Godard, and the film still worked. It was also the first time I'd seen Breathless ('60) since I saw Breathless ('83). The latter Breathless is a remake that's faithful to the letter but not the spirit of the film. Mostly the same things occur, transplanted to '80s Los Angeles. The director is Jim McBride, the co-writer is L.M. Kit Carson, Gere stars in it, and everything else about it is average. It doesn't have the magnetism of Godard's film, nor the scope. But it's not horrible. I don't think it's horrible. It was even effective as an agent in further appreciating the original, because it allowed me to see the first film's intentions explored, to have a point of reference, and an expanded interpretation of the film.

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