Monday, March 8, 2010
Godard Marathon Day 1: Breathless (1960); A Woman Is a Woman (1961)
Naturally the only way for me to have kicked off my Godard marathon was with his legendary 1960 feature debut, Breathless. Appropriately enough, it was also the very first Godard film I was ever exposed to, watching it one Christmas Eve a few years ago. It's no secret the impact Breathless has had on all of cinema; with its innovative jump cuts, handheld technique and star-making performances, Godard's tale of the doomed, Bogart-obsessed cop killer Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), and his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) was the watershed movie of the French New Wave movement and showed Godard as a bold, new voice in the world of film whose influence carries on even today.
It happens to be a movie that I've found more and more enjoyable upon each successive viewing. I remember watching it that first time, and having a sense that I was seeing something important, but still feeling a kind of disconnect with the material that ultimately left me out in the cold. Having just watched it for the third time (as noted above), and being somewhat more familiar with Godard's style and process, I find I am able to engage with it much easier these days. The thing that sticks out to me now as being really quite remarkable is how fresh and energetic the picture feels, even 50 years later. Despite dealing with such dire situations as murder and robbery, there is a spontaneous, almost giddy vibe ingrained in the fabric of the film. One gets the sense of Godard being like a kid in a candy store, running around Paris finding all of these new ways to capture images. And aside from the notable stylistic achievements of the film, the acting is equally as impressive and important. There's a reason Breathless turned Belmondo into an overnight icon; he plays Michel as a cool, narcissistic force of nature, and his screen presence can't be denied. Seberg's Patricia is lively and engaging on the surface, but her face is the picture of internal conflict, and indeed Seberg relies solely on the power of her expressions in her most effective scenes.
Viewing Breathless again was a pleasant, instant reminder of why I am embarking on this Godard marathon. I still have some reservations about the movie - the pacing occasionally falls victim to the loose structure, and frankly some of Godard's touches just don't make sense. But this is challenging, fascinating cinema, and if Breathless isn't a film I love, then it's certainly one that I deeply admire. It's the bang that started out Godard's career, and it should be quite interesting to see the progression from here.
A Woman Is A Woman (1961); viewing: first
As I picked up and read the back of the quite eye catching Criterion DVD of Godard's 1961 A Woman Is A Woman, one phrase in particular caught my eye: that this was apparently a "neorealist musical - that is, a contradiction in terms." Hmmmmmmm. What does this mean exactly? I actually knew nothing about this film whatsoever before throwing together this marathon. Godard made a musical, huh? Well of course, as my minimal exposure to Godard has taught me, it's never that simple. It becomes quite apparent early in the film that one of its more obvious goals was to explore Godard's fascination with sound and visuals, letting Michel Legrand's rich score swoop down into any given scene and just as easily stopping it abruptly, with no concern for its relation to the action taking place. This objectifies the action on the screen in a sense and is I believe a method referred to as "Brechtian", which will come to define a healthy part of Godard's style; it's certainly interesting to see this early display of it.
The movie itself is a light, playful affair, concerning couple Karina and Brialy who have a falling out after Karina begs Brialy to give her a child, and he denies her with no explanation at all. She seeks out Belmondo, Brialy's friend, and begins looking at him as a possible substitute. There is great screen chemistry between all three, but it's Karina who steals the show; her petulant but determined character has a willful charm and obvious beauty that lights up the screen whenever she is on. My favorite sequence is when the couple have an argument at night in their bed, however instead of verbalizing their points like normal people would, they rush over to the book shelf to retrieve titles that will say everything for them. There are all kinds of neat details and self-reflexive moments throughout the movie; at one point Belmondo even takes it upon himself to remind everyone that Breathless is coming on tv tonight. Another of my favorite touches is a couple who is perpetually making out on the periphery of the screen beside Brialy/Karina's apartment, all throughout the movie. It's a humorous, small detail, but it also seems to work as a constant reminder to the conflicted characters that there is love effortlessly on display all around their unfulfilled lives, which seems to underline the question that the movie keeps (literally) asking: Is this a comedy or a tragedy?
Godard's sentiment seems to be that it doesn't matter which, as long as it's a masterpiece. Which begs the question, is the film in fact a masterpiece? I wouldn't go that far, but it was certainly a highly enjoyable and original early offering from Godard, and if Breathless worked as a reminder to why I'm doing this marathon, then A Woman Is A Woman was affirmation; it's just not everyday that you see movies brimming with this much creativity. Of course in the early-mid sixties, this would often be the case with Godard's films (at least the ones I've seen), and I am anxious to get to the 70's- 80's period, where I am much less familiar with his work, but for right now it is simply a pleasure for me to go back and view these early, intriguing films.