"Breathless" was the sort of film where anything goes; that was what
it was all about…. Although I felt ashamed of it at one time … now I
see where it belongs along with "Alice in Wonderland." I thought it
was "Scarface." Jean Luc Godard, December 1962
I thought the crazier you behaved, the better artist you would be.
And there was a time when I had a lot of energy to display how crazy
that was. Dennis Hopper, May 2002
"Not for the kids!" cautions New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther,
referring to Jean Luc Godard's Breathless, one of the first blasts of
the sixties fired across the bow of the sinking ship of the fifties
only weeks after John F. Kennedy took office and announced the New
Frontier. Released a year earlier in France as À bout de souffle,
Breathless is being shown at New York's Film Forum through June 10 in
honor of the picture's 50th anniversary.
"Sordid is really a mild word for this gross pile-up of indecencies,"
according to Crowther. "It is emphatically, unrestrainedly vicious,
completely devoid of moral tone … an element of youth that is
vagrant, disjointed, animalistic, and doesn't give a damn about
anybody or anything, not even itself"; its two "downright fearsome"
main characters are "an efficiently self-defensive animal in a
glittering, glib, irrational, heartless world" played by Jean Seberg
and an "alarmingly amoral" French "car thief and hoodlum" played by a
"hypnotically ugly new young man by the name of Jean-Paul Belmondo."
As for the direction of this "unattractive subject," it "progresses
in a style of disconnected cutting that might be described as
The intensity of moral alarm in Crowther's response to Godard's first
full-length film presages the cultural divide that became deeper and
wider as the new decade progressed. Seven years later Crowther was
considered so out of touch with the currents of the time that he lost
his job after a 27 year run, primarily due to his panning and
continued disparaging of another iconic sixties movie, Bonnie and
Clyde ("a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy … as pointless
as it is lacking in taste"). This one-man vendetta apparently cost
him his chance to vent on the "unattractive subject" of drug-crazed
hippiedom in another archetypal sixties picture, Easy Rider, whose
director and star, Dennis Hopper, died May 29 at the age of 74.
Thus the rough beast of the sixties slouched toward Woodstock,
Manson, Altamont, and Nixon through ten years of assassinations and
innovations, rock and roll, race riots and wars, from Breathless,
which ends with Belmondo's Michel dying in the middle of the rue
Campagne Première, doing his Bogart face one last time as Seberg's
Patricia, the American girl who betrayed him, stands by in a
knee-length, peppermint-striped party dress (a veritable ode to the
fifties); to the spectacular Tommygun dance of death conclusion of
Bonnie and Clyde; to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda blown away like so
much road kill at the end of Easy Rider in 1969.
Godard must have been delighted by Crowther's heated reaction, not
just that the great grey eminence of the buttoned-up buttondown
fifties is raving, feverishly excited in spite of himself, tripping
over his phrases, scattering gems like "hypnotically ugly," but
because he seems to be recoiling from an attack, spewing a
smokescreen of words that testify to the infectious climate of the
film even as he struggles to condemn it, concluding breathlessly,
that, like it or not, Breathless is "a chunk of raw drama,
graphically and artfully torn with appropriately ragged edges out of
the tough underbelly of modern metropolitan life."
Godard had mixed feelings himself about Breathless, which premiered
in Paris 50 years ago this March. In the interview from 1962 quoted
above, after admitting that the "anything goes" nature of the project
surpassed his expectations, taking him to Wonderland instead of
policier-style reality, Godard claims to have once even been ashamed
of it. Why ashamed? In a filmed interview from Cannes given some
months after the picture's original release and triumphant reception,
he admits, "I feel as if I like cinema less because I made a popular
film," adding that he doesn't want the audience to "trust" him.
Imagine Fellini saying of La Dolce Vita, which caused a great stir of
its own in 1960, that he liked cinema less because he'd made a
popular film or that he doesn't want the audience to trust him.
Godard's not merely sounding off when he speaks of popularity as a
threat to his love of cinema, he's casting his lot against the
system, an outlaw provocateur whose subsequent films will test and
provoke the audience instead of making love to it the way Fellini
does. True to his anger and his art, Godard means what he says. The
interview format, casual or formal, is central to his aesthetic, and
his belief in taking responsibility for what he says at any given
moment is a principle he has Anna Karina charmingly articulate at
length in Vivre Sa Vie (1962).
In 1964, facing another interviewer (both filmed interviews are
included in Criterion's excellent 2-disc DVD), Godard's already
looking masked and middle-aged as he reiterates his feelings about
Breathless ("Its success was a mistake"), though his terms are more
grandiose. He sees it as "the end of cinema," a compelling notion to
embrace when you're setting your sights on the next new thing.
Room 12, Hotel de Suede
In 1960, when Godard tells a reporter from Le Monde that Breathless
is "a documentary on Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg," he's
probably thinking of the film's best-known sequence. Take a small
hotel room, with no more than eight or nine inches between bed and
bedside table, a few steps between bed and bathroom, nowhere to go
but the almighty bed, and add two actors who show up each morning
with no idea what lines they'll be given to speak. After Godard
recites the dialogue he's written for them that same day, they take
it from there. How much artifice either actor brings to the
existential, quasi-documentary moment is impossible to know, of
course, though there's an obvious contrast between their affect
during the offscreen interviews included with the Criterion DVD and
how they behave when saying and doing things according to the
director's instructions and in response to the chemistry of the
situation. So you have two boxed-in actors moving about in a space
where the bed has to be crossed over like a bridge if they want to
get to the window on the other side of the room they're sharing with
Raoul Cotard, who is seated in a wheelchair with a handheld camera
while being pushed along for dolly shots by Godard like a patient by
a nurse. There's no room for anyone or anything else. The script girl
has to stand outside the door.
When she's being interviewed, Jean Seberg's French is noticeably
smoother than it is onscreen and her manner is more natural. In the
film, particularly in the hotel room scene, her awkward,
American-accented French creates an uneasy, if diverting,
counterpoint with Belmondo's crusty, fluent, easygoing Gallic
expressiveness. And while she has reason to be ill at ease with the
female interviewer, whose questions touch on personal issues, her
smiles are more natural, in contrast to the superficial facade she
sustains at all but a few, rare, even then ambiguous, moments of
intimacy with Belmondo. To appreciate how chilly her smiles are, how
indicative of her behavior at the end, compare Seberg's
pampered-looking cool to the sweet, open face of Chantal Goya as
Madeleine in Godard's Masculin Feminin (1966). When Madeleine smiles,
she smiles all the way, and you can't help smiling watching her.
Seberg's smiles are most of them like her French, stiff, second-hand,
For all his Bogart moves, Belmondo looks comparatively loose and
natural, and there are times in the hotel room scene when he seems
close to comprehending what he's up against. If he weren't so
self-absorbed, he might see that the cute Herald-Tribune news girl he
wants to run away with to Rome is an abyss. If anyone is in the role
of Alice in Godard's Wonderland, it's not Seberg, it's Belmondo.
It would take another column to do justice to the still fresh
adrenaline-rush energy of Breathless, the sense of on-the-spot,
street-smart, newspaper-deadline immediacy created by Godard and
Raoul Cotard, not to mention Parisian nightscapes that Brassai
himself might envy, and all along the way the musical eruptions
engineered by jazz pianist Martial Solal, who provides themes for
each of the two main players.
If Bosley Crowther thought Belmondo's "impudent, arrogant … cruel
young punk" was scary, imagine his response to Dennis Hopper as the
stoned out hippie biker in his low-budget, hugely successful
counterculture classic, Easy Rider, or, better yet, the
amyl-nitrate-snorting psychopath in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986).
When Life Magazine featured Hopper on the cover a year after Easy
Rider, an outraged reader echoed Crowther's "Not for the kids" when
she asked "Is it any wonder that we're in the shape we are in, when
our children look upon such sludge as heroes?"
As a personality and an actor, Hopper had more of the volatile
sixties energy in him than did either Godard or Belmondo. Though Jack
Nicholson steals Easy Rider with the help of Hopper's dialogue, it
was Hopper's performance as Billy that captured the druggy, sixties
ambience, and it was Hopper's direction that gave the film its
movement, thanks to what Manohla Dargis called the (shades of
Breathless) "propulsive, eye-thwacking edits" in her April 7 New York
Times piece on the installation of a star with Hopper's name on it in
Hollywood's "Walk of Fame."
Criterion editions of Godard are available at the Princeton Public
Library, which also has DVDs of Hopper in action in, among others,"
Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, An American Friend," and "True Romance"
(1993), where he stares death in the face while masterfully
delivering a Quentin Tarantino tour de force.