Jean Luc Godard's Breathless is the movie dedicated to B grade gangster movies and though it derives its main plot from the movies of film noir genre ("All you need to make a gangster movie is a girl and a gun"), he treats it with an extremely individualistic style were the plot of the movie seems incidental and the characters themselves become the central focus of the movie.
To truly enjoy Breathless, someone has to coax you to watch it for the second time. In the first watch, the essence of the movie is lost as most of us try to fit it within the conventional format of a film that we have been trained to watch. Breathless defies it, and once we watch the movie with full earnestness we start tuning ourselves into the intricacies that the filmmaker has woven into it.
Departure from the convention:
Generally in a screenplay, the points that take the story forward, the key plot points are stressed upon. In Breathless, that is not the case. The moments, that are of relevance to the emotions of the character (but not necessarily relevant to the plot) are prolonged.
Godard leaves a lot for the viewer to synthesize. It is not just in his editing style of jump cuts where he chooses to not show unnecessary travel or bullet hitting Michel but it also includes things like the back story of the character. The story begins in the middle of Michel stealing a car. No explanation for his behaviour is given. It is as if we tuned into his life all of a sudden and we would be doomed to be there with him in all the moments that interest the protagonist (Michel) and not necessarily us.
Godard also doesn't care if we realize that we are watching a movie and defies the rules that are established for continuity and creating an "illusion of reality" on screen. This is clear in his editing and shot taking style which is jarring, his use handheld that sometimes attract attention because of it being unsteady, or even while doing crowd control where there are shots where the crowd is clearly looking into the camera. All this make us aware that we are watching a movie.
He makes his character talk to the camera, uses mismatched eye lines to break conventions of continuity and dissolves car reversing and going forward to tell his story.
Now almost paradoxically, the movie is shot as close to real life as possible with the choice of real locations, spontaneous, non-pointed conversations and realistic character sketches and the earlier mentioned stylistics actually complement the temperament of the movie.
The characters of the movie are rootless (we really do not get to know much about their parental upbringing) and are difficult to fathom. By keeping them sketchy and without clear motivations Godard manages to keep them unpredictable. We fail to judge whether they are good or bad. The actors themselves are devoid of any moral tone.
Michel as a character: Michel is a character whom you cannot completely hate or love. Michel is young, adventurous, frustrated, has likable traits but indulges in some extremely anti-social activities. He has boyish charm, plays with soft toys of his girlfriends but steals money from them. He shows symptoms of youth gone wrong which makes one sympathize with him. At the same time, he is guiltless of stealing and killing and it prevents the audience from falling in love with him. He is confused about his notion of good and bad, notion of love and notion of self-preservation. All along he is alone in his journey.
Patricia as a character:
Patricia again is a victim of herself and her own confusions - another example of youth caught between the mismatch of real and fairytale(Romeo and Juliet) world. She seems opportunist but also seem opportunist not out of choice but out of dictates of the world. She refuses to be with Michel but then sleeps with him. Roams around with him but turns him in and also comes and tells him about it. There is a certain vanity in her and self-consciousness of her beauty which she wants to maximize by wearing Dior dresses before going to take an interview. But then that sense of vanity is haunted with insecurities and fear of it being temporary (she checks her tummy becoming fat, talks about old age).
Infact Michel and Patricia are quite alike in the sense that they share the same sense of solitude, insecurity, indecisiveness and struggle for survival.
The dialogues of the movie are disconnected and generally do not take the story forward. They mimic the conversations of real life as close as possible. Godard allows conversation between people to flow beautifully without reducing them to pointed dialogues. The confusion of the characters is illustrated by the dialogues, sometimes mumbled and irrelevant, sometimes profoundly insightful (between Grief and nothingness I choose nothing"). Thinkers of Godard's time find their presence in the form of dialogues, posters and paintings.
Editing and shot taking:
Godard chose a form of editing that conveyed the turmoil of the character. The stylistics of the movie was consistent with the behaviour of the character. The jump cuts actually acted as a total disregard for the cinematic techniques of space-time continuum. Godard used jump cuts but most of the times retained continuity of audio across those cuts.
Godard also introduced lots of quick cuts and cuts with various magnification (ECS of gun, LS of policeman being killed). He also showed disregard for scene directionality propelling viewers to look to and fro on the screen thereby adding to the sense of nervousness of the characters themselves (e.g. quick cuts when Patricia is turning in Michel).
Godard in Breathless laid the foundation of quick cuts, angle and magnification shifts used so much by the MTV for song picturisation.
The cinematography of the movie is brilliant - right from the first car driving scene where there is an array of symmetrically arranged trees lined on both sides of the road to the death scene of Michel.
The mise-en-scene during the death scene when the policeman shoots and Michel is shown running (Godard cleverly skips the shot of the bullet actually hitting Michel) is one of the best as it is both film noirish (with Michel running and puffing his cigarette) and also carries a flavor of unrequited love(with Michel repeating some of the gestures he shares with Patricia). The scene is set in a foggy morning and Michel falls just before he hits the busy road where the city life is going on unmindful of his trauma.
The beauty of the movie is also in lots of beautiful well choreographed long takes.
There are multiple long takes - for example the single take in bank which is however handheld and jittery. It seems to reflect the feelings of Michel.
Another brilliant long take is at the end when Patricia confesses that she has turned Michel in. She goes round the room in anti-clockwise giving her point of view. In the same shot when Michel refutes her point of view, he goes round the room in clockwise direction. It illustrates two opposite point of views existing in the same space.
The movie is replete with certain interesting, unconventional choice of shots too for example shots of them in car when Michel is talking about Patricia , the camera stays only on Patricia across jump cuts though Michel is saying most of the dialogues. There is a similar shots with the taxi driver where the driver is shown during most of the conversations happening between Michel and Patricia. When Michel steps out of the taxi, the shot is taken from the taxi and is retained when Michel walks away and comes back in.
Godard returns to film noir style when he shows the detective and the informant (played by Godard). They are almost spoofish by the way they peep out of the paper and follow Patricia.
Character on motion:
Michel is almost always on the move. Right from the first car stealing scene till the end when he is shot he is running. Except one long scene which happens in Patricia's room, lots of time is spent in showing the characters going from one place to another or walking to and fro. The sense of motion, common also in Truffaut's movies imparts a certain fluidity to the movie. Also it keeps the audience constantly engaged and the sense of movement adds to the sense of being on the run, both physically and mentally.
The bedroom sequence:
The point in time when the cop is shot (the first plot point) happens in a split second while this bedroom sequence which has no resultant effect on the main plot is prolonged to form one-third of the movie.
And because of its length and treatment, this sequence imparts critical mass to the movie. The sequence with jump cuts, pans, tilts, love making inside the white bedsheet, honest conversations between Patricia and Michel act as central scene giving an illusion of a love story happening in realtime in single location without any interference from outside. This is the only time when the characters are not fidgety or on the run and this relationship provides a certain anchor to the characters (the same way the scene provides anchor to the entire movie).
Breathless is a classic example of the stylistics being congruent to the mood of the characters.
Most of the movie is shot on the streets of Paris. Even if the movie is indoors, the city seems to be coming in through the windows either visually or through sound. There are some beautiful shots of an array of street lamps being turned on at night and some interesting shots of the billboards displaying "Police starts closing in on Michel" where the city participates in storytelling.
The movie also moves from daytime Paris to night time Paris towards the end when the police starts closing in on Michel.
The another key Production design element is the various beautiful cars that Michel steals from the street. He talks about his grandfather owning a Rolls Royce and steals the best cars from the street and not settles for any car mediocre or lowkey. His choice of cars makes him look like a flamboyant thief - which is true to his character.
The key thing about the production design is that it brings across the cultural context within which the film is based.The movie is replete with citations of artists and posters("To Live Dangerously Until the End" ) of film noir on one hand and various elite thinkers of his generation on the other hand. At various places Godard has given tribute to artists who courageously departed from the norm.
Casting and Acting:
The part of Michel who is essentially existential in his way of living was played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. He plays the part of a young good looking guy- who is enchanted by Bogart, repeats his gestures, is flamboyant, honest to himself in his conversations and indulges in self-mockery with brilliance. Belmondo shows good restraint and prevents the character from being a caricature.
Jean Seberg looked beautiful and played the part of a pensive girl, confused and torn with insecurities beautifully. Her constumes and her hairstyle gives her a child like look that makes her character interesting. We don't like the fact that she turned Michel in - but we do not hate her. We actually feel a mixture of pity, hatred and remorse. Jean Seberg manages to pull that off well.
Music and leitmotifs:
There is a theme music attached to Patricia which plays when Patricia is introduced and also at various places. He mixes it with the use of jazz music of crime thrillers liberally across the movie. He also uses Mozart (which Michel believes is the last composition o Mozart before he died and plays before he himself dies).
Gestures as leitmotif
Godard uses two facial gestures of Michel across the movie. Those gestures made by Patricia and Michel in their long bedroom scene when repeated at the end, imparts a certain charm of unrequited love to the characters. They serve as a good recall of the erratic yet honest moments they shared.
One of the first movies that made me notice the poetic beauty of a film was Before Sunset. Before joining a film course I made a 20 minute movie clearly on the same lines ("The Last Stop" - available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UziAHjFlGMs). Watching the long walk sequences of Breathless made me realise that I found the idea of shooting conversations between two people (present in Before Sunset)- some relevant and mostly irrelevant the most appealing and most alluring as I feel that relationships dwell in this seemingly irrelevant conversations. Little did I know that I was influenced by Breathless before even watching it!