I admit it, right up front here, that I am an uneducated philistine sometimes; I don’t always “get” the more experimental or unconventional stuff, and that sometimes keeps me from recognizing some of the more groundbreaking cinematic techniques as I see them. Like with Breathless, for instance – this film is regarded a founding film in the French New Wave, a pioneering example of Jean-Luc Goddard playing with conventions of filmmaking. But for me, all I could think as I watched was “oh my god can something please happen.”
In my defense, I only caught myself thinking that during a lengthy scene in the middle, where our two leads are holed up in an apartment and having a meandering conversation. Those two leads are Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a French car thief who accidentally shoots a cop early on and goes on the run, and Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American expat working in the New York Herald-Tribune’s Paris office as she saves up for tuition for the Sorbonne. Michel over-identifies with American gangster movie culture a little – in one scene, when he sees a photo of Humphrey Bogart, he spends several seconds trying to mimic Bogart’s pose and facial expression. Having a nubile femme américaine as his main squeeze is mostly part of the image – the fact that she’s also unfussy about things like fidelity and sexual purity is a bonus. As for Patricia, part of the appeal is no doubt because Michel is a bit of a “bad boy” – but he knows how to talk pretty, and gets her nice stuff on occasion, so it’s okay. She might be pregnant with him – but it’s not a big deal. Rather, the big deal is that Michel wants the two of them to run off to Italy together to escape the police – and she’s torn between loyalty to Michel and staying put in Paris.
My biggest challenge was that one scene in the middle – Michel comes to Patricia about 20 minutes into the film, seeking first a place to hide. Patricia’s willing to cover for him; and since they’re now both stuck there, Michel starts gunning for Patricia to either come to Italy with him, or just loan him the money to go by himself. Plus, while he’s there in her apartment, maybe they could hook up. But he doesn’t just jump in with his list of demands – he’s playing it cool, starting a lengthy conversation with Patricia about this and that. And Patricia plays things just as cool – asking him how to say different things in French, trying to discuss William Faulkner’s writing, basically anything that comes into her head.
As a slice-of-life depiction it’s spot-on – this kind of roundabout conversation is the kind of conversation you have with a significant other when you’re both feeling flirty, but one’s feeling a little more libidinous than the other. You draw out the suspense and tease and flirt, but you’re also still into each other so you are curious about what the other person might think about things you’re interested in. But those kinds of conversations are only interesting to the people having them, I fear; for an outsider, they aren’t necessarily as interesting. Especially when they go on for a long time. And this scene does indeed go on for a long time – even Goddard, when the studio demanded he cut the film down by 30 minutes, made most of his cuts in this scene by “cutting out anything he thought boring”. Even with what was left in, I found myself glancing at the clock now and then during that bit, and it was a little bit of a challenge to find my way back into the film when that scene finally ended.
When I was discussing the film with Roommate Russ later, he said that Goddard and all the other French New Wave directors were really trying to monkey with film’s conventions – how things were shot, how the script was paced, how things ended. Which is intellectually interesting – but sometimes some of those conventions are there for a reason, like “this is how you can avoid boring your audience to the point that they don’t care what happens any more”. My interest did pick back up a bit towards the end, but that lengthy scene came very, very close to losing me.