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"Breathless" through luck, lust,wit and...Aditi Singh reaches out to Godard's debut feature

Breathless (À bout de souffle)

1960, France

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Story: François Truffaut

Cinematography: Raoul Coutard

Editing: Cécile Decugis

Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg

Breathless follows conman Michel(Belmondo) as he traverses through luck, lust, wit, foolishness, profit and loss.

Michel tries very hard to embody the American gangster film stars he idolises, Humphrey Bogart in particular, adorning a fedora that adds a veil of mystery to his personality, the cigarette hanging nonchalantly from his lips, a sign of suave.

Michel’s real troubles begin when he shoots a policeman that tries to nab him. On the run from the police he convinces his lover Patricia (Seberg), an aspiring journalist of American descent, to hide him in her house. He proposes an escape to Italy with Patricia, in the hopes of building a safer future for them.

Even though it may seem that Michel is an enigma, an unreadable and capricious man that one may speculate about for years on end, there are times when one can predict his reactions after discovering that there is not much else, other than ego, that fuels the man- even if this same sense of ego has kept him afloat and ashore in the game of life.

It is Patricia, with her detached gaze and the whirring gears in her head, that proves to be more of a mystery.

Pregnant with what could be Michel’s child, fending for him even without complete knowledge of the reasons behind his situation, and simultaneously trying to pave the path of her career and life, she is questioned by the police. Only then does she learn of Michel’s crime that has him seeking asylum in her home.

So, who is Patricia in the scheme of the movie? Is she the lover that selflessly supports Michel through any and every hardship he faces; the soon-to-be mother who will loyally fulfil her duties of raising his child; or, is she just herself?

The police become aware of Michel’s whereabouts. It is Patricia who tells them, and it is also Patricia who tells Michel of her collusion with the police.

Caught in the middle of the street, a dejected Michel expecting the inevitable, is shot by the police. Running, pace slowing and gait faltering with every stride, Michel collapses.

Once seemingly invincible and all-knowing, always a step ahead than his enemies even if it didn’t appear to be so, Michel meets his end- panting, breathless.

Jean-Luc Godard's debut feature "Breathless" would come to be known as the most important example of French New Wave Cinema or the nouvelle vague, with its revolutionary use of jump cuts, unconventional editing and experiments with the passage of time and chronology of events- a freedom which the medium greatly allows for, but which was never truly explored in the mainstream.

The editing (by Cécile Decugis), in particular, often leaves the viewer in a lurch- staccatos in the midst of an expected symphony. That is the point. The viewer is forced to feel Michel's impulses, the snap decisions he makes. His constant diabolical swinging between scheming and arousal, greed and compassion, control and sheer helplessness.

The classic cause and effect pattern is broken.

One sees what a character feels, and that is intercut with the same character's emotional dilemma a split-second later. The viewer lives with Michel, a ghost-like spectator as they commend his wit and condemn his impatience.

Breathless has always been a film of the present. There is always something new to discover, be it a movie buff's first time watch or a filmmaker's thorough analysis.

Cinematographer Raoul Coutard makes avid use of close-ups that further push the viewer into each character's personal space. Agreeing and disagreeing to a character's motives is made easier this way, only for the scene to cut to a wildly different, disillusioning scenario half a breath later.

Raoul Coutard also delves into pure, unscathed black- a rarity in many black and white movies. Certain scenes exhibit such absolute darkness with sparse yet focused use of light, that one wonders what the source of the illumination may be- how does it feel so real and yet so unreal, so magical, supernatural.

At times, Breathless does get frustrating. One wants to hold the morally watery characters by the shoulders, shake them up and yell, “Who are you? Do one thing! Pick one you, and be it!”, in the hopes of understanding their thought processes and resulting actions. The pace and editing have the tendency to leave one disoriented, and the characters make no attempt to help the grappling viewer hang onto the thread of the narrative. However, one has to admit that the cinematography, the editing, the technique and craft behind the making of the movie match the plot to a T.

Don't expect closure from Breathless, it strives to make you uncomfortable- dubious characters with dubious intentions, sudden breaks in scenes and a startlingly (at first glance, lacklustre) confusing ending.

Challenging plot, structure, technique and of course, the perception of 'norm'al cinema, the essence of Breathless is best summed by director Bernardo Bertolucci-

"Movies have only one tense- the present. The action takes place at the very moment that the camera films it, at the very moment that the audience sees it."

Aditi Singh is pursuing her Bachelor's degree in Human CenteredDesign from Srishti Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Bangalore. She is learning Mandarin, plays the violin and uses pen and brush technique to sketch her favorite stills from noteworthy films. Aditi is a self-proclaimed film enthusiast.

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