MoviesA Newcomer’s Godard Retrospective

Kielan EllisJuly 22, 2019

After journaling watching the Toy Story Trilogy for the first time, why not start doing the same for other films – so today, rather than chasing a series to review, let’s take a closer look at the first 3 films from the legendary king of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard.

Breathless (1960)

Breathless is an excellent film – spanning a million different genres simultaneously. Primarily it’s a crime drama, following two wonderfully performed characters named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a Humphrey Bogart send-up/cop shooting criminal with attitude, and Patricia (Jean Seberg), a journalist who’s never quite taken seriously, until she takes matters into her own hands.

Breathless follows their escapades through Europe, Michel on the run from the police, and Patricia seemingly just kind of there with him for the hell of it. It’s a strange premise for a film, but the raw, seemly improvisational angry the film possesses makes it’s absolutely captivating, even if Michel spends most of the movie telling Patricia to take her clothes off. It’s a film with a lot of character – especially in it’s direction.

Breathless was shot without permits in the hearts of various European cities, it’s rough and tumble, cinema verité at times, and always incredibly ignoring with its perfectly imperfect, intentionally polished unpolished look. It’s a great movie and is well worth your time. In addition to being aesthetically meaningful, the film also does a great job at subtly parodying the American film market that Godard and his ilk were so fed up with.

The very premise of Breathless is predicated around Michel wanting to be like the Hollywood action and style heroes of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s – like Humphrey Bogart, as shown by Godard’s implement of Bogart’s famous thumb to lip move – often seen mimicked by Michele. It parodies these films in their use of violence but their subversion of the usual action genre in American Film with a heady, philosophical, political and improvisational attitude.

In addition, Breathless was the film that first introduced jump cuts as an editing technique for dialogue scenes. Jump cuts have been around as long as film – being used as a special effect as early as George Melies’ A Trip To The Moon in 1902 – but never before had it been used to cut through time within dialogue scenes. Now days it’s common to find the jump cut used in this way, usually for comedy.

Breathless is historically, aesthetically and theoretically incredibly important in the history of film, and in addition to all that, it’s just a fun time! It’s a great movie – and you should really check it out!

Band of Outsiders (1964)

It was quite an experience to sit down in an actual movie theatre with my dad (who had never seen a Godard film, but loved classic film) to watch this. I really didn’t know what to expect. Quentin Tarantino had been an outspoken fan of Band of Outsiders, to such an extent that he named his production company: “A Band Apart” after the film. Other than to expect violence, it was hard to know what to expect.

It was very surprising to be greeted with what basically amounts to a situational crime comedy with a great deal of philosophical and political subtext. From the very beginning of Band of Outsiders it has all the hallmarks of a Godard picture – soft spoken narration about something bad happening in French politics, men smoking, men being chauvinistic, and the girl strangely seeming to find it endearing, a lot more smoking, and then a crime of some kind.

Band of Outsiders hits all the beats, but somehow, despite how influential and important Breathless is, this was the more enjoyable one. The characters here are far more likable, especially Franz, who was very charming. The film has a very warm energy to it, despite the cold foggy look Godard goes for. It’s scenes (like Breathless) vary wildly in tone, from grippingly serious, to hilarious, the scene in a cafe involving rotating seats (briefly turning the film into a bit of a slap-stick comedy) followed by the now famous dance sequence, who’s influence can still be seen in films, such as in the twist sequence in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, are absolute stand-outs.

The ending of Band of Outsiders is so well done as well. Without giving anything away, the last few lines of the film are both hilarious and a wonderful commentary on the American film business (yet again sent up throughout this film with wonderfully sardonic references and an influence on the very plot itself).

Overall, Band of Outsiders is a beautifully made movie with wonderful characters and a great script to propel and elevate it’s strange dark comedy. It’s great!

Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)

Riding the high off of the last two Godard experiences, I walked happily back into TIFF to watch another, Two Or Three Things I Know About Hera film described in the program as “one of Godard’s best”. This was exciting. I got my friend to come with me, I got snacks, I was all settled in, and then…I was very disappointed. It’s strange, because the film, yet again, hits all the usual Godard beats (minus the action this time). It follows an older bourgeoisie woman, who (in order to keep up her and her family’s lifestyles) decides to partake in casual prostitution on weekends.

If that plot sounds rather odd, that’s okay, because it has no barring on Two Or Three Things I Know About Her. The real plot falls in between the cracks of this “story” in soft spoken narration (Godard deciding to really double down on it this time and have it completely whispered), accompanied by b-roll of French construction sites in motion, complete with the loudest noises you’ve ever heard.

The narration discusses the French economy, and Godard’s (or whoever is meant to be narrating, though it’s assumed that the narrator is representational of the film’s author) dislike of their swift movement towards American capitalism. The film also tackles the Vietnam War, but not very deftly. This sounds like a lot on paper, but in a 90 minute film, it’s truly far too much.

Two Or Three Things I Know About Her reads like Godard had a concept for a film, a concept for a philosophy paper, and a concept for an economy paper, so rather than doing any of them well, he decided to have a narrator read out his econ paper, have his character turn, break the fourth wall and read his philosophy paper, and then just fill in the rest of it with whatever story he could. The result was astonishingly messy, under-developed, and over-conceptualized, which is a real shame, because Godard obviously had a lot to say – it all just get’s lost in the shuffle.

If there’s one that can be said about Two Or Three Things I Know About Her, it would be that it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. Raoul Coutard’s colorful and softly lit cinematography in the film is perfect, and keeps the movie engaging even when the characters, narrators and abstract images can’t.

Overall, Two Or Three Things I Know About Her isn’t worth recommending. It has a lot to say, but you’d likely get as much out of it by reading an article on it, rather than spending an hour and a half of your time watching it (or 10 bucks like me).

Godard is a very odd director, but he sure has a lot to say. There’s still plenty more work out there to see that he has done or collaborated on, and frankly I’m very excited. I know I’ll probably like his early work more than his later contributions to the French new Wave, but no matter the work – this guy will always be curious to see what he brought this time. Onwards and upwards. I believe Weekend is next up.

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