Fifty years in, Jean-Luc Godard's jump-start to the French New Wave, Breathless, remains as polarizing as it was in 1960, perhaps the most important year in world cinema.
This was, after all, the same year Hitchcock massacred Janet Leigh in the shower, Kubrick's Spartacus re-examined gladiators as homoerotic noble savages, Alain Resnais mated loss and love in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Michael Powell made us casual accessories with Peeping Tom, and John Sturges brought Kurosawa into the Old West with The Magnificent Seven. But it's Breathless that has remained a hot-button topic between casual cinephiles and the art-house set. After all, Breathless enabled everybody from Dennis Hopper to Gus Van Sant to pick up cameras and capture people's inanities and imperfections like documentarians of a new era.
Godard's tale of a sketchy cop-killer looking for love and adventure in France—shot with hand-held cameras—preceded every step of the independent movement, from Midnight Cowboy to mumblecore. On a newly restored print, the images pop off the screen in a way 3-D technology can never replicate. It's bloody beautiful. And it can be bloody frustrating.
Breathless is an ultra-meta examination of cinematic mimicry, from the way antihero Jean-Paul Belmondo pantomimes Humphrey Bogart's nervous tics to the noir aesthetics of its cops and crooks. At one point, Belmondo and his American squeeze, Jean Seberg, even seek refuge in a cinema showing a Western, winking wildly at the audience about the parallels between its chain-smoking, philosophical-waxing protagonist and American cowboys.
Ironically, a film that speaks to the dangers of mimicking false idols has, in the ensuing five decades, itself been milked and replicated to painful, pretentious death. With Breathless, Godard opened worlds of opportunity to every kid who ever picked up a Super 8. But he also opened the floodgates to every dipshit who ever thought his longing for adventure and companionship was interesting. Its endless monologues became the template from which whiny male-crisis melodramas have sprung.
Were it not for Breathless, it's arguable that cinema could have remained grounded in the puritanical studio system for another decade. But the ensuing half-century of copycatting has served to make Godard's opus into a vérité relic, chock-full of unlikable and self-involved people being generally miserable. For those of us with a deep-seated love of film history, its importance is endless. To the rest, time has made Breathless into a dusty piece of carbon paper.
opens Friday at Cinema 21.