Yet even when Godard gives off a whiff of leaden moralization, I can always make out the joy of filmmaking under the cloud. If I had to describe what’s good about Breathless, his first feature, in a single sentence, it’s that its joy of filmmaking — I wonder if I’m looking for a phrase like joie de cinema or maybe joie du cinéma — is so clear and present. Nothing about the bourgeoisie or philistinism or colonialism or capitalism or Israel gets in the way; there’s just a thug, a girl, a gun, several cars, and a slew of jump cuts.
The film (along with its many and delightful associated materials on the Criterion disc) makes an ideal case study in limitation-imposed creativity. Godard and company had, essentially, a handheld camera, props, and a hotel room. They didn’t have color, synchronized sound, lights, a complete script, visual effects of any kind, or permission to shoot on the streets of Paris. I’d nonetheless put this study of a half-bit — nay, quarter-bit — French hood and the flighty American girl he can’t seem to resist up against any $100 million movie ever made. In the face of that, no young filmmaker, myself included, has any excuse not to make films.
As for why such limited means produced a picture so enduringly exciting, I don’t have a direct answer, but I do have a story I suspect is relevant. The unknown Godard, unable to inspire enough investor confidence alone to secure even Breathless’ budget, called up his director buddies François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, both of whom had already attained a certain degree of cinematic credibility. He gave both of them credits to do with script development or technical advisory — on a film with no real script and no real technology — and was then able to assure financiers that both of their recognizable names would be emblazoned on the poster. Naturally, when it came time for production, neither Truffaut nor Chabrol did anything at all.
You’ve got to admire the pluck. Or maybe it’s better called a spirit of transgression — of thievery, almost — not a million miles away from the one that drives Michel Poiccard, Breathless’ car-swiping, cop-killing, more-car-swiping antihero. I wonder how many movies manage to resonate as loud and long as this one has without breaking the rules; was anything interesting ever made entirely on the up-and-up? As T.S. Eliot might have put it, the French New Wave didn’t intend to break conventions, traditions, and petty laws; in the mission of breathing new life into cinema, the conventions, traditions, and petty laws just didn’t interest them. Or maybe they did just want to break conventions, traditions, and petty laws. Never can tell with them French.
When I watch a midcentury French film like this one, I always come back to the same question: exactly when, and exactly why, did the gas run out? Alongside Italy, France used to loom so large over the world of adventurous film; now they both seem to be footnotes. Perhaps bright flames burn quicker, etc., but I have a hard time believing that the spirit can be entirely extinguished. I suspect the downhill slide has something to do with the ever-increasing separation between filmmaking and film criticism. Godard has time and again argued the point that the two activities are inextricable from one another. That filmmaking is criticism and criticism filmmaking sounds like an impulsive pronouncement, a form not alien to Godard, but he and much of the rest of the New Wave crew — Truffaut, Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette — walked the walk, shaving started out writing for Cahiers du cinéma. I suspect the filmmaker-critic wall needs to come down. Why’d we put the damn thing up in the first place?