September 13, 2001

Cornell Cinema: Breathless

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Breathless is the kind of masterpiece whose brilliance is not easy to explain or define. Do we like it because of its cinematic breakthroughs and those of the French New Wave films? Because of the casual plot and dialogue? The intriguing, quirky performances? Every person who answers will have a different answer and a different reason. But certainly, Breathless has become a classic because it is a crowd pleaser. All its parts work in beautiful coordination with each other and result in one of France’s most beloved films.

To better explain the importance of the film, Lynda Bogel of Cornell’s English Department will present the film at Cornell Cinema’s Monday night show. As part of the Cinema’s program, “Faculty and Film.” Bogel will provide the audience with the background of and some insights into the film (perhaps she can explain the thing with Poicard rubbing his lips). Beside Breathless, three other films — Fellini’s 8 1/2, Fritz Lang’s M, and Godard’s Week End — will be featured this month as part of this program. Each professor who presents these films will convince the viewers why they belong in the cinematic canon. Intended to ignite a passion for film amongst the Cornell community, the “Faculty and Film” program will surely introduce some people to a deeper understanding of film.

Upon viewing Breathless for the first time, it may be difficult to appreciate the casual cinematography and the plot which is seemingly devoid of motivation. The film opens to the sound of jazz, and we soon realize that the sounds of the film — whether they come from the cloying New Yorker, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) calling “New York Herald Tribune” or Michel Poicard’s (Jean-Paul Belmundo) seductive monologues — seem pregnant with importance. But the soundtrack soon takes the back seat to the images. The opening scenes feature jump cuts which, before the characters develop, seem unrelated until explained by the sparse dialogue.

It is the intriguing, cotidian conversations that make the actors and actresses in this film so beguiling. Poicard speaks with women in such a simple and yet so emotionally direct manner. He emulates Humphrey Bogart (his alias, Laszlo Kovacs, even mimics Bogart’s character from Casablanca) and, like that film icon, his presence is so charming that a student, Franchini, is thinking about abandoning her academic life to run away with him as a fugitive.

The breezy, spontaneous relationship between Poicard and Franchini reflect the exact way Jean-Luc Godard directed the film. His decision to keep the actors from learning their lines more than a day in advance results in performances by actors who seem less like they’re acting, but like they are living these parts. However, one must take Godard’s work seriously; like many other New Wave directors, Godard wrote extensively about film, and one must assume that all aspects of his film were as intentionally designed as those of Hitchcock.

Breathless is a perfect introduction to the French New Wave. Seen as an experiment, an exploration of Godard’s filmic philosophy, or as an analysis of modern relationships, it is a timeless film because of all it has to offer.

Archived article by Diana Lind