What does Godard mean to us in 2008? It’s a question that’s surely been asked, or could have been asked, in any given year since 1960, but it’s one worth asking again now, certainly on the occasion of Film Forum’s extensive retrospective, Godard’s 60s, starting today and running through the beginning of June. And with Richard Brody’s already acclaimed biography, Everything Is Cinema, hitting bookshelves the week after next, and the fact that we’re currently “celebrating” (always an emotionally contradictory task) the events of May ’68, now on their fortieth anniversary, it’s obvious that Jean-Luc Godard is on a lot of people’s minds these days (not that he’s ever really gone). Yet when we talk of Godard, certainly in terms of post-68 France, we’re talking about a cinema not just politically engaged but transformed into a medium for political confrontation: filmic missives that refuse to cloak their agenda in tangential details like narrative or character.
Godard’s first film, then, was to always remain unlike any of those that followed; political only as it related to genre representation and the decimation of his beloved art form in the hopes of rebuilding something new in its place, Breathess was both a new beginning and a full stop. Even in his subsequent New Wave genre plays, like Alphaville and Band of Outsiders (whose “lightness” betrayed an increasing discomfort with their own rules and built-in hegemonies), he had already moved past Breathless, with its deceptively simple subversions that still relied on emotional interplay and cause-and-effect narrative strategies. The effortless casualness of Breathless (which by all accounts had been worked out to the minutest detail by Godard beforehand, despite the film’s appearance of slapdash ingenuity) was to be so swiftly replaced by a harsher, more rigorous formalism that the film promptly became something of an orphan. Immediately following its buzzy Cannes premiere, in a May 1960 television interview, “Reflets de Cannes,” Godard said, “I feel like I love cinema less than I did a year ago, simply because I made a popular film. I hope that people hate my second film so that I can enjoy making movies again. Audiences trust me now. I hope I disappoint them so they don’t trust me anymore.” Though Godard has changed his interrogatory political and aesthetic approach countless times over the years, this last statement still rings true to Godard’s intentions—and if he ever begins to let audiences trust him, then his exhilaratingly confounding career would be as good as defeated.
Maybe the more pertinent question then, if Godard’s debut remains such an anomaly, is what does Breathless mean to us in 2008? Naturally, the film is the opening weekend feature of the Godard’s 60s series, and it’s the spark that’s meant to set off the rest of the month’s fireworks. It’s a deflating cliché to call something “remarkably fresh after all these years,” but, yes, Breathless does stand as an exciting and fitting opener: it’s so packed with seemingly off-the-cuff moments and little flickers of spontaneity that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, there’s always something you either hadn’t noticed or had forgotten was there. Upon this last viewing I was struck and moved when Jean-Paul Belmondo’s macho tomfoolery, while waving goodbye to Jean Seberg as she’s on her way to that robustly irritating airport interview with Jean-Pierre Melville, is interrupted by an extra exiting a door and walking right into him; Belmondo’s little grimace of surprise is the perfect response, and further grants the film the sense that Godard’s experiment was to capture those interstitial moments that would never make it into the final cut of other “gangster films.” Likewise, there’s endless joy in watching Belmondo and, specifically, Seberg, who’s constantly reckoning with both her character and her own movie persona—so rudely had she been thrust into the limelight and then cast aside after Saint Joan and Bonjour tristesse that she seems both exhilarated and fearful of the freedom the camera afforded her in Breathless. When she’s on-screen, her exquisitely symmetrical features providing necessary contrast to his pugilist’s mug, she fitfully becomes the protagonist: she’s the one who must make the moral choices, after all.
Breathless was a one-off, but never arbitrary. And unlike those other monolithic, epochal films that changed the face of narrative cinema (Citizen Kane, 2001, Pulp Fiction), Godard’s film still feels slippery, and so self-consciously clever that we feel like we may never fully grasp its intentions. It’s fun, but never easy, even if it seems like Godard’s most accessible. All filmmakers should strive for such simultaneous clarity and obfuscation. So maybe that’s why we should still care about Breathless—not as a designated Classic, preserved in amber and placed on the shelf, but as a call to arms for filmmakers, not to repeat what they’ve seen but to use current technologies to reject narrative formulas and properly confound audiences and themselves. There will be plenty of more visually mesmerizing or intellectually stimulating films on display this month during the Godard’s 60s series, but none of them as sprung from youthful zeal to overturn the status quo.