I have been leading a monthly film group for the past several years. My intention is to show as many canonical films and shorts as possible. This month it was Breathless. Canonical for sure, but a film that I vigorously dislike. I diligently read up on the film and watched every last extra on the Criterion edition figuring that if I didn’t come to like it, at least I could give good background beforehand and lead an interesting discussion afterwards. It is a landmark, after all, and just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I won’t watch and discuss it.
While watching and reading, I tried to understand why I disliked it so much. Often, you can’t understand why you love something, but it should be fairly easy to figure out why you dislike something.
The first clue came when I read some excerpts of criticism Godard wrote before directing Breathless. Most of it came off as a manifesto or, even better, a war cry. Godard and his fellow critics were out to annihilate the established French directors of the previous era. They took affront at what they perceived as bad art. They had the right to excoriate because they were the true lovers of cinema and this establishment were talentless, flabby hacks who had no idea what cinema even was, let alone how to make good picture. Godard and the other boys of the Cahier du Cinema would show the world how it should be done, first through criticism extolling the virtues of the great American auteurs like Hitchcock and their Great God Howard Hawks, and then through their own films which came to be know as the Nouvelle Vague.
My next clue came from the dedication to the film to Monogram Pictures, a minor Hollywood studio specializing budget Westerns and things like Bowery Boys comedies. As the film unreeled, with its inside jokes about friends of Godard from his Geneva days and its obscure references to Sam Fuller films, it became clear what my problem was: Breathless is a very adolescent film. The whole aesthetic of giving the finger to the preceding generation, the praising of obscure films and directors to show that you have the gnostic insight to the true nature of film, all of this adds up, for me, to the feeling that I am spending time with a very petulant 18 year old.
Kathleen Rooney quite aptly points to a parallel between the punk ethos and what the Cahier guys were doing. In both cases what was perceived as a moribund art was given a jolt back into life by people who loved the art form more that life itself. The problem for me is that adolescent art doesn’t age well and stops speaking to people who eventually grow up. I guess this is not a general feeling since Breathless is beloved by millions who watch it repeatedly.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for iconoclasm. I think Un Chien Andalou is one of the most subversive things ever created and I would watch it any time. Nor I am not totally down on Nouvelle Vague. The greatest cinematic experience of my life was when I first saw Celine and Julie Go Boating back in 1978. I have dragged more than one unsuspecting friends to sit through that three and a half hours of unalloyed bliss.
But Breathless seems to me like it just wants to sit in the corner and sulk. Yes, Belmondo and Seberg are pretty and sexy. Yes, the jump cuts are fun for the first half hour. But then it always seems to me that it is time for the grown-ups to leave the room and let the kids have their dyspeptic fun.