August 03, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: The First Modern Movie

“Why did you show us this movie?” one of my students complained politely as I started my lecture. I was not surprised. It had taken me a lot of reading, two re-watches, and several years between them to figure out myself – what is so great about ‘Breathless’ (1960).

I have a parameter for identifying a great movie. If you enjoy a movie more while watching it for a second time, and even more during the third, it has to be a great movie. ‘Breathless’ sure is. However, it is important not to take it too seriously in order to enjoy it. I have not seen any movie made before 1960 that is as ‘modern’ as ‘Breathless’. In fact, if we make a shot-by-shot remake in Hindi today, it would still be too modern for Indian audience, more than half a century later! It also is one of the most influential movies in history. And the much talked about ‘jump cut’ is just one of the ‘influences’. What makes this movie important is its inherently rebellious nature, its voice against authority, a tendency that defined the decade of the 60s in the West. What makes this movie special is the philosophy that drives it, the philosophy of its maker and its characters.

Jean-Luc Godard was a vehement critic of the French cinema of the 50s. He believed in cinema as cinema, an art in its own right with its own language and aesthetics, without any narrative obligations. He also believed that the director should use his film as a medium for personal communication. So when he made this movie, his first, he selected a story that suited his philosophy. Like him, his characters are narcissistic rebels, revolting against all norms of the society, not caring much about life, and not giving too much of importance to death. Michel fancies himself as a gangster from American movies, with apparently only one real ambition – to stay fearless, and to live and die like a hero. Patricia roams around the streets without wearing a bra, makes not big deal about being pregnant as a result of her promiscuity, and is not sure whether she loves Michel. In fact, the director’s view of impossibility of love is evident through the (mis)communication between the lead pair. They indulge in meaningless conversations and confused actions, and the director makes sure we follow them closely, thus building a narrative that is extremely opposed to the classical form of storytelling. But the content and the philosophy of the movie remain in perfect sync.

As does the style. Godard’s innovations with the camera and editing and the actors’ improvisations add a youthful fearlessness to the movie. The biggest achievement for ‘Breathless’ is the way its philosophy, content, and style are interwoven to create one organic whole – a film that is proudly aware of its medium and makes sure the audience never forget that. It never pretends to be imitating life, the‘filmy’ background score surely helps. By keeping the audience at a distance the film celebrates itself, and communicates with them with surprising effectiveness. A huge commercial and critical success on its release, it was one of the first celebrated movies of the French New Wave. And its impact on cinema went on to be enormous. The same student, who complained in the beginning of the lecture, remarked rather profoundly – “this film is exactly like its protagonist.” And also like its maker, I would say. With ‘Breathless’ cinema finally establishes itself as the medium of the director, independent of studio-system, moral censoring, and most importantly all pre-conceived expectations.

P.S. It would be interesting to ask Godard how he feels about this movie today. How does he, who always defied authority, feel about his first rebellion’s rise to become an iconic authority? Is it really possible to achieve what one character in the movie considers to be his greatest ambition in life – “to be immortal, and then die”?

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