BREATHLESS in the moment

Why is Jean-Luc Godard‘s BREATHLESS truly breathless? Why does it still feel fresh to me after seeing it countless times, to my filmmaker friends, to my students in their twenties? Watching the 50th anniversary restored print at the Film Forum last week, I relaxed into the large screen version of this French New Wave classic. This film pulses like an organism, moving through space and time quickly and elliptically in the Paris street scenes and then slowing down and luxuriating in the bedroom scene between the intriguingly glowing Jean Seberg and the endearing grumpiness of Jean-Paul Belmondo, a scene that lasts for what seems like half the film. It’s not just that it’s energetic or that it’s full of stylistic surprises, innovative editing even for today, stunning actors, and marvelous real world Paris locations… It’s somehow “in-the-moment” in a way that films rarely are… a kind of Buddhist crime caper…

I acknowledge it seems like an unlikely mix… but the way that Godard keeps poking his audience, drawing attention to the artifice of cinema with jump cuts that jar us, with incongruous cuts that ellipse time, with actors staring at the camera, BREATHLESS constantly reminds us to pay attention lest we get left behind. There’s no time to worry about the thin plot or predictable trajectory we are on. Belmondo plays a kind of wanna-be gangster who foolishly hurtles towards tragedy and Seberg plays a classic femme fatale who both protects and ruins him.  Who cares about a story you’ve seen before… when you are enjoying the glorious moment? I for one don’t. I am content to study the nautical stripes on Seberg’s dress or watch Belmondo rub his lip like Bogart one more time. I pay attention over and over and suddenly the credits are rolling and the lights come up and I am left energized with an hour and a half of  movie meditation under my belt.

How does this differ from other films that are action packed or wound up on a kind of film steroid, fast-paced hyperactive flight?  They say pay attention too but they do it with a hammer not a gentle stick. There’s a difference between being bombarded and surprised. That latter is freeing, the former is stifling. Godard is my film guru… at least this week.

Watch the trailer here: