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On Movies: 'Breathless' is an important movie, not a great one

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 9, 2010 - "Breathless," the iconic French New Wave movie from 1960, is being re-released in an impeccable new print, and it opens Friday, Sept. 10, at the Tivoli. In part homage to the low-budget American crime movies that flooded Europe after World War II, in part a brilliant exercise in stylistic innovation, the movie remains a landmark of 20th century cinema.

Half a century ago, when "Breathless" was first released, I wasn't writing movie reviews, and I'm lucky I wasn't. I remember loving the movie, entranced by Jean-Paul Belmondo as a petty hoodlum archly channeling Humphrey Bogart and by Jean Seberg as an expatriate American girl in Paris with a mind of her own. The film was full of youthful energy and sass. But I also remember telling whoever would listen that the young director, Jean-Luc Godard, didn't know how to cut film. With a semester or two of college film courses behind me, I knew just enough to note that Godard, time and again, violated what is known as "the 30-degree rule."

The 30-degree rule in classic Hollywood cinematography says that you can't cut forward in time within a scene without changing the camera angle by at least 30 degrees. Otherwise the scene seems to jerk through time, as if parts of the film had been lost. The now-familiar term "jump cut," which describes the process of intentionally cutting forward without changing the camera angle, was not part of my vocabulary.

Jump cuts are particularly noticeable in "Breathless" when Seberg and Belmondo are going somewhere in a car, with the camera shooting from within the vehicle and the actors seeming to lurch from one bit of dialogue to another as they speed through Paris. Godard didn't invent jump cuts, but his extensive use of them in "Breathless" - apparently at the recommendation of his mentor, filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville -- made them hip for the generation of filmmakers that emerged in the 1960s in Europe and America. The jarring, discontinuous cuts reflect a frenetic, rootless, non-linear view of life, a life in which you might well be able to get from A to Z without passing through the intervening letters of the alphabet.

Jump cuts are now so common they are used in television news shows to reduce a 30-minute political speech to 30 seconds of screen time, with the camera locked on the face of the speaker and the picture leaping forward from sound bite to sound bite with perceivable jolts. Of course, complex ideas are lost on the cutting room floor.

But back to "Breathless," the movie, as opposed to "Breathless," the harbinger of contemporary psychic chaos. Jump cuts were part of the package of visual freedom Godard opened up in "Breathless." His camera is constantly moving, circling, closing in on people, looking down at them from on high, even, at times, pointedly ignoring them. Early in the film, Godard even used a stylistic device that would now be considered post-modern by having Belmondo speak directly to the camera, cockily explaining himself.

Before he began shooting, Godard had a story - by his friend Francois Truffaut - but not a script, at least not a script he could show to his actors ahead of time. Basically, he has said, the story was "a girl and a gun." He figured out what he wanted to shoot on a particular day the night before, and fed the cast lines on the spot, or let them improvise, increasing the feeling of breathless recklessness that is at the center of the film.

Michel (Belmondo) steals a car in Marseilles - an American car - and, when he is pursued, kills a policeman. He hitchhikes to Paris, where he keeps trying to find a mysterious Italian man who owes him money. The cops are chasing Michel, and he survives by petty thievery, skipping out on bar tabs and taxi fares and stealing cash from women who find him raffishly charming. His favorite is an American girl named Patricia (Jean Seberg) who sells - and wants to write for - the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. Patricia thinks she may be in love with Michel, but she doesn't really trust him. He, however, comes to trust her, and that's the point upon which the plot comes to pivot.

The story is a fairly simple one of murder, love and betrayal, although motivations can be murky. Visually, the film is never less than arresting, and it's full of surprises.

"Breathless" moves briskly, paced by a jazz score, pausing in the middle for a long session of flirtatious, sexy banter between Belmondo and Seberg in her room. For a time, the real dialogue is a visual one between the horizontal stripes on Seberg's blouse and the vertical and diagonal ones on the bathrobe Belmondo has appropriated from her closet.

In that long scene, Seberg quotes William Faulkner's line "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief," and seems to agree with Faulkner. Belmondo shakes his head and says he would choose nothing. But the fact that Belmondo's character is a nihilist is implicit in his every act, and the words merely confirm that notion. Although he has a charm about him that makes it hard not to watch him on screen, he is, as he says in the beginning, "a jerk." She can be one, too.

Looking at "Breathless" again from a distance of decades, I still find it stylistically a wonder, and there's a certain delight in seeing Belmondo and Seberg so young and vital. "Breathless" is not a great movie, but it is an important one. At times, it is too talky, as if Godard was in search of a theme and couldn't quite find it in the images. The talkiness, often on philosophical or political subjects, has come to truly infect his later work, like "In Praise of Love" from 2001. "Breathless" has hints of that, but it so gorgeously and inventively captures a time and place and attitude that it remains hard to resist.

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.