Next week, the Museum of Modern Art in New York will be screening Jean-Luc Godard’s "Breathless," as part of their ongoing years-long series “An Auteurist History of Film”. The historical sweep of this program is broadly canonical, beginning with the Lumieres, Melies, and Edwin S. Porter and continuing on, in keeping with tradition, from Griffith to von Stroheim to Chaplin and beyond. When we narrativize film history as a linear progression of movements and advances, Godard’s debut film (which recently topped Film.com's list of the 50 greatest first films), takes its rightful place as another in a long line of these vaunted steps forward, its arrival in 1960 as significant to the development of the medium as any film before or since. For better or worse, “Breathless” is a classic, forever resigned to be a fixture of film schools the world over.
And yet there is perhaps no film in the canon as resistant to the designation. The very qualities which distinguish “Breathless” from the history it was founded on—its looseness, its roughness, and its overall jazz-like feel—make it fundamentally unsuited to a legacy of exaltation, which instead demands a mastery of style and form. Godard never set out to make a film whose greatness could endure the ages; his was not a classically honed craft, aspiring to perfection. Rather, he sought to make a film whose form reflected his personal sensibility, a film more freely expressive than rigorous or precise. He was, in essence, riffing: as he pushed Raoul Coutard and a camera around downtown Paris in a wheelchair, shooting in a manner thought basically unacceptable, he was reinventing the filmmaking practice as if by mistake. “Breathless” stumbled into a revolution of style, but it was precisely that stumbling which gave the film its impression of inventiveness and joy. Had this break been more consciously planned, the results would have lacked the essential creative spark.
This isn’t to suggest, of course, that Godard didn’t know what he was doing. As an enthusiastic devourer of films at the Cinematheque under the informal tutelage of Henri Langlois, he had consumed and understood more than enough cinema history to thoughtfully synthesize its constituent parts. But Godard himself acknowledged, as quickly as 1962, that he had happened to produce a very different film from the one that he had imagined himself making, closer in spirit to “Alice in Wonderland” than to “Scarface”, as was the plan. The disconnect between desire and reality, between an imagined ideal and a harsh truth, would prove to be at the heart of the film.
One of the defining features of “Breathless” is the degree to which its characters self-identity through the lens of the cinema, seeing in its images idealized reflections of themselves and modeling their attitudes and mannerisms to better cohere with that vision. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s one of the film’s most enduring characteristics: as we find ourselves increasingly subsumed in pop culture, our personalities cultivated to best reflect our tastes and interests, the quintessential film about living out a life inspired by the movies is bound to resonate.
Still, it’s difficult to reconcile the film’s reputation as a certified classic, now more than a half-century old, with its urgency and vitality as a work of art, which continues undiminished. Though the range and permanence of its influence makes its rule-breaking style less immediately confounding that it would have been in 1960—when even such minor gestures as the jump cut would have seemed a sudden revelation—the energy that drives “Breathless”, the peerless exuberance which animates its intermingling cliches, remains as compelling as ever, its vigor an antidote to the antipathy of any period. That’s the central contradiction of “Breathless” and its legacy: it’s a classic that always feels hyper-modern, a revolutionary film whose impact makes it necessarily dated but which nevertheless seems brand new.