"The subject will be the story of a boy who thinks about death and that of a girl who doesn't."
That's French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard in the planning stages of his 1960 debut, Breathless. The real subject of this precocious classic, re-released for its 50th anniversary in a remastered print, is film itself.
The title of Richard Brody's superb 2008 Godard study is instructive here: Everything Is Cinema. A film critic infatuated with the American crime movie (and at odds with the French "tradition of quality" that he found so constrictive), Godard set out to make a genre yarn in which form and content become one. The story of a fatalistic two-bit French hood (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and the American newspaper gal he sort of loves (Jean Seberg) becomes an exercise in on-the-lam guerrilla art that seems to make itself up as it goes along.
A car thief named Michel shoots a cop and runs to the arms of his American squeeze. Michel, who at one point stops outside a movie theater to worship at a Humphrey Bogart poster for The Harder They Fall, is an amalgamation of movie-gangster posturing. He plans his escape to Italy with Patricia. She has other ideas.
Breathless has been appreciated and deconstructed by enough film classes, critics and scholars to stop traffic on the Champs-Élysées, where we first spot Seberg's Patricia selling the New York Herald Tribune.
On the one hand, I envy first-time viewers who come in unburdened by the desire to spot every cultural referent and the compulsion to spout every detail of Godard's production methods.
At the same time, I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to see Breathless for the first time. It is a film of its time, a new era before jump-cut edits became a cliché and the Dogme 95 school of filmmaking turned no-frills aesthetics into a fetish. A self-aware marvel of on-the-spot ingenuity and great mischief, Breathless couldn't conflict more with what we've grown accustomed to in theaters every Friday.
This is one of the film's many charms, and the most important one for initiates to remember. Godard — who was just announced as the recipient of an honorary Oscar next year, and who has aroused controversy for his reported anti-Semitism — loved American crime movies, but Breathless stands in stark contrast to the kind of narrative and production continuity that defined the Hollywood studio system. Breathless jumps to its own rhythm and pokes holes in its idols even as it worships them.