Note: For those who think that there is an unsaid rule or obvious regard in which Breathless should be held as a film: well, that’s not my conclusion after seeing a film that is 58-years old, for the first time. No film just gets their place in a list of the Greatest Films Ever Made without having to earn it.
And so Godard-week begins, as I always thought it would. What I knew was that viewing Breathless (1960) would be a solid test of my prejudice against Godard after my University experience (of just one film, Tout van bien) which resulted in me thinking Godard was a complete wankerm, and I never watched another of his films. I did the same with Fellini after watching 8½ (1963) [although I did accidentally see Ginger and Fred (1986) which was simultaneously disappointing and quite interesting]. I treated Eisenstein and Griffith with similar disrespect. And Bergman and Antonioni. And Kurosawa after seeing Seven Samurai (1954) when I was fifteen: I thought it compared poorly with The Magnificent Seven. I was eighteen at the time and teenagers are notorious for thinking they know more than they know and for youth being wasted on them. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight aging people also come to realise that as every year passes they are more and more aware of how little they actually know – about everything. In fact, that’s the point of me trying to set all these wrongs right in just fifty-two weeks of catching up on the films of everyone I marginalised.
At the same age I didn’t judge Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Schoenberg with that same one-dimensional mind, nor Faulkner, Joyce (I loved Portrait but didn’t rush out to buy Ulysses) or Bellow (I didn’t finish Mr Sammler’s Planet but appreciated some of it whilst understanding not much) or any number of poets and playwrights. Just cinema.
What I’ve learned in the ensuing thirty-five years was that being a complete wanker wasn’t always a complete disaster and that sometimes it leads to the greatest change to conventional thinking, just like it did with literature and music, which I embraced on all levels. Just not cinema.
In fact, supporting the arts, and funding wankers, wasn’t an area where I thought I would be culpable, ever; but I did support them for many years, as a project officer with the Australia Council; as the Managing Director of my own recording label, firstly as oneMone Records P/L, then 1M1 Records, and lastly as 1M1 Digital P/L; and as a music producer.
That now gives me an insight into the life of wankers of which Godard is guilty, as am I, with numerous examples of musical experimentation in my past.
What is obvious, by the seeming rejection of films in a language other than English, was it was more about embracing of English and American films, and Australian, illustrating the grip Hollywood had on the vast majority of films which came to Australia (outside of Film Festivals). Still, I made it to the Dendy at Martin Place and the Academy Twin at Paddington frequently and saw films by Almodovar, Chabrol, Luna, Salles, Beineix, Robert, Veber, Truffaut, Tornatore, Benigni, Dassin, Visconti, Tati and many others. I also went to see films by many non-mainstream filmmakers like (in their early films) Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox, Quentin Tarantino, Coen Brothers and almost every Australian film released between 1975 and 1994. Working at Film Australia for eight years, on more than four hundred documentaries and one feature film, helped broaden my narrow little mind, to accept a lot of things that fell outside of standard filmmaking. But it never brought me back to revisit Fellini, Godard, Bergman or Kurosawa. Nor to hunt down films by Mizoguchi or Ozu which other people at Film Australia told me were filmmakers who made amazing movies.
Now I’m seeing my second Godard film, Breathless, and the disservice that knowledge brings to seeing a film for the first time, is patently clear here. Unlike all the other films, which I’ve come to without preconceived ideas, this particular film is too famous for me not to know the circumstances surrounding its making. Godard, having finally got someone to finance a feature film that he would direct, his first, decided to go ahead without a script, just an outline (by Truffaut). The actors and crew often went days without filming because Godard was making up his ideas on the run, so to speak, much like his character, Michel, who was also making up ideas on the run.
The fact that the director and the character were both on the lam, running from the law – Michel, from the police, and Godard from the laws of filmmaking: eg. having a script in place before commencing principal photography – almost resulted in the funding being withdrawn until Truffaut placated the backers.
How I see this idiosyncracy of Godard’s, in Breathless, of making things up along the way, was (I think) his downfall and his success (overall). Breathless was a surprising series of happy mistakes where something that wasn’t very well done turned out to be commercially successful and ground-breaking. I don’t think any film as ground-breaking has been as commercially successful. It set him up with a big hit on his first time at bat, and led to a general well-regard that enabled the rest of his career, with its ups and downs and controversy.
Breathless isn’t very well made – which is self-evident while watching it – but without a doubt it fits into the Top 100 Films Ever Made. It’s not one of the best films ever made but it is one of the Most Important and Influential and sits comfortably and naturally in its position amongst the Greatest Films of All-Time.
That’s my first viewing. I had difficulties with Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972) and many other film the first time around, although I don’t think any of them were as poorly made as Breathless.
I’ll come back to Breathless after I’ve watched the six or seven other Godard film I’ve been about to lay my hands on, at the end of Godard-week, and re-evaluate it. Bring on Vivre sa vie (1962).