Analysis #2 – Breathless (1960)

The first five minutes of the French New Wave film Breathless (1960) uses several techniques that signal the viewer of its awareness as a film. The film’s main character, Michel, directly addresses the camera. There are jump cuts between scenes and shots. The camerawork is often handheld. The lighting is uneven and mainly natural.

The beginning of the film starts with alternating shots of a close-up of Michel and a close-up of a woman signaling Michel, nodding at him. This use of close-up between these two characters causes the viewer to believe these characters are close to each other. However, when we get wider shots of them and their surrounding area, we see that they are not. The use of close-up confuses the viewer, especially those who are accustomed to the continuity style editing of Classic Hollywood.

Getting the signal from the woman, Michel promptly steals a car. We are then shown a lengthy sequence of Michel driving, talking to himself as well as addressing the camera (“If you don’t like the shore…if you don’t like the mountains…if you don’t like the city…Then get stuffed!”). The sequence is mostly stream-of-consciousness from Michel, talking about his surroundings while the camera, inside the vehicle and mostly handheld, looks at him and his surroundings. This sequence once again breaks the rules of continuity editing. By showing us this sequence, Godard does away with elliptical editing, which would have skipped this driving part almost entirely, and presents to us the candid nature of Michel.

We are then brought to the main action of the scene: Michel’s run-in with the law. While driving, Michel gets chased by the police. In an effort to evade them, Michel drives off-road and loses all the cops but one, who finds Michel and is then promptly shot by him. The shooting of the cop takes advantage of jump cuts and close-ups to disorient the viewer of what’s going on. When the cop stops and asks Michel to “Freeze,” we see a close-up of Michel and a close-up of a gun, presumably being pointed at Michel. We then hear the gun fired and we see the cop fall into a bush.

Jump cut to: a panning long shot of Michel fleeing the scene on foot through a wide open meadow. The scene is dimly lit, and with the exception of Michel’s white shirt, is almost washed out in its grayness. And that is how the first five minutes of the movie unfolds.

From a Hollywood filmmaker’s perspective, this can be seen as very amateur or daring. And it would be both as it was Godard’s first film. And indeed, if judging by the cinematic guidelines set up by the Classic Hollywood era’s continuity style of editing, it is breaking the rules in many ways. The purpose of Hollywood’s continuity editing style was to bring the story to the forefront, setting up a cinematic language that made its editing invisible and seamless to the viewer, and mainly as a mode of bringing its focus on the plot and characters.

But by breaking the rules of this style of editing, what effect does this achieve? By consciously breaking these rules, Godard and many of the participants of this French nouvelle vague were acknowledging the fact that, yes, this is a film and you are the viewer. They are not trying to hide the nature of the medium they are using to tell us a story. The editing, and many other techniques made hidden by the continuity style of editing, were now a part of the way the story is told. By acknowledging its nature as a film, the director has more options in how to convey his story stylistically. Godard takes advantage of the medium, using jump cuts, extremely long takes, close-ups, and handheld and portable cameras, to make the viewer actively participate in deciphering what they are seeing, as opposed to the passive nature of the audience watching a classically edited Hollywood film.

The stylistic choices made by the director and editors to use long takes and handheld cameras hark back to the primitive stages of film, when film was used to film actualities (e.g. people leaving work at a factory, a woman walking on 23rd Street in New York). It can even be argued that Dziga Vertov’s  Man With a Camera (1929) directly influenced Godard and the French New Wave. And, continuing this succession of influences, Godard and the French New Wave has influenced subsequent filmmakers and will continue to do so so long as their films remain as visible as their editing.

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5 Responses to Analysis #2 – Breathless (1960)

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  4. Amy Herzog says:

    Xavier, your work all semester has been absolutely stellar. This essay is the crowning achievement. I literally could not have said this better myself. It has been an absolute pleasure reading your work– thanks for setting the bar so high!!!!!

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