In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of its release, I just watched Breathless again, in the fine DVD version by Criterion.
I first saw it in the mid-Sixties, when I was teenager. I don’t remember thinking of it as revolutionary, just fun. In retrospect, this seems odd, because the film was revolutionary in its transgression of the technical norms of telling a story on film. I was delighted when Belmondo’s character addressed the camera at the beginning and said, “If you don’t like the French countryside, then fuck you,” but somehow it didn’t take me out of the story, which worked as a drama and as a critique of the medium simultaneously.
What this must mean is that film lovers of my generation were already so steeped in cinematic conventions that we were becoming self-conscious about them, at least on some level — Godard’s self-consciousness as a filmmaker resonated with our own perception of those conventions, as a collection of clichés. We didn’t have to move towards Godard’s radical vision — he was moving towards ours.
The film seems much more revolutionary today than it did when it first came out — because cinema has still not caught up with it. Visionary filmmakers like Charlie Kauffman and Quentin Tarrantino are still trying to wrench us out of our enchantment with studio-era conventions, without losing sight of their virtues, but they’re using a sledgehammer to do it — screaming about it.
Godard just did it, as though it was no big deal. Filmmakers appropriated his techniques, like the jump cut within scenes, but only as elements of a style, missing the depth and grace of Breathless as it pointed the way towards a future that we’re still waiting for.