Monday, September 6, 2010
Breathless (1960) On Further Review
Today we're continuing on with the Belabored Day Marathon. For those who didn't read over the weekend the idea is that we're going to take a second look at some films which we feel are wildly over rated. Some because time has just moved past them and their greatness lies in the past, and others because they were not the advertised classic to start with. The point is not to dismantle the film but to put them back on the correct shelf. In some cases you may agree and in others you may not. As always feel free to comment and feel free to suggest other titles.
The idea of the On Further Review, and the Belabored Day Marathon films came from the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of today's film Breathless. Film Comment as well as other magazines and papers of a respected nature took the opportunity to hail the film as one of the greatest films of all time. Having seen the film for the first time in many, many years just a short time before, I was wondering whether everyone was hailing the memory of the film, or perhaps its historical significance, because I was kind of shocked that the film was being celebrated as actually still being a great film.
In the interest of full disclosure I have to say that going back to when I first saw the film in the early 1980’s in a film class, I was never impressed with it. I could understand and see how the film influenced the films that followed it, but as a film that was actually good, I was kind of at a loss. I mean it is a silly film.
The plot of the film is the misadventures of Jean-Paul Belmondo (as a small time car thief) as he hooks up with Jean Seberg (as an American girl). He kills a cop, and as the dragnet closes in he pursues Seberg and his love of American movies.
It's hip, it's happening, it's been stolen from by tons of films since it was first released...and as I said it's very silly.
For me a huge part of the problem is the film is way too knowing. It's the granddaddy of all of the knowing nudge and wink film send-ups that we get nowadays. Think of all of the times Bruce Willis turns and looks at the camera; it comes from this film. Before you say anything, I know that breaking the fourth wall is as old as movies, nay as old as entertainment; but the way it's incorporated into films other than comedies, was what really started to happen here.
We have Belmondo consciously aping Bogart with the rub of the lip, and the forced references to movies all throughout the film. I'm sure the fact that the film is borrowing riffs from other films was a big deal in 1960, but now Hollywood is all rip-off to the extent that people like Quentin Tarantino get Oscars for his thievery. Hell, it's such a big to-do that artist Dave McKean recently Tweeted about Christopher Nolan's Inception that even though he has a few minor reservations about the film people should go because it's "ambitious, brilliantly made, and best of all, not a remake or sequel." What have we come to?
Actually Breathless' lifts from earlier films are minor compared to the fact that IT has been raided in the past half century, either intentionally or unintentionally. The hand held you-are-there style the film incorporates has been used by thousands of films since then, partly because the look of the film puts you in the place, but also because it's really easy to shoot that way. If you've never seen the film before odds are you'll be hard pressed to place it, because it looks like so many other movies. Actually for me the giveaway that a scene is from Breathless is Jean Seaberg; if I see her I know what film it is.
To me the film's place in film history (and it does belong in the pantheon of influential films), is the style. That's the film's strength. What the film did stylistically was the important part, not the plot, which is basically a retread of the film noir's that Godard and Truffaut loved. Taking the film as an actual film is really where it falls apart. The story is cliche and the characters, especially Belmondo, are idiots. Watching the film again I just didn't care, although I think the fact that Belmondo reminds me of one of my cousins plays into my dislike of the film.
I'm kind of amazed that people still do like it. Hell, I met a guy in Barnes & Noble who was buying multiple copies of the film (it was a Criterion half-off sale) to give away to friends.
I asked him "What do you like about the film?"
He couldn't tell me, there was just something that clicked with him. He said "it was a summing up of everything that went before".
I kind of can't argue with that.
I don't like it...no, I don't LOVE it. It's not a bad film, it's just I'm at a loss to explain why this is still considered a classic on any level other than a historical one.
Then again, that's what makes horse races.