I didn’t see Breathless when it first hit theaters, for the very good reason that I was nineteen years from this world at the time. Luckily, I was alive to see a new print shown in theaters today, in honor of its 50th anniversary.
Of course, that does mean that I cannot accurately measure the impact this film had when it first came out. Roger Ebert writes, “Modern movies begin here,” and indeed, seeing it today, it still seems modern.
Ebert also wrote that it’s not so important what a movie is about as how it’s about (see the hardcover version of Awake in the Dark: Introduction, p.xxviii), and Breathless proves this truth in almost every shot. The composition of scenes, the quit cuts from a stationary point of view, the quick cuts to other points of view, the way the cigarette smoke billows around the two main characters, the way that the sound of an ambulance drowns out, at times, what one of them is saying to the other–all of these stylistic devices make the movie seem fresh and alive.
So does the dialogue. The characters talk at right angles to each other, and only a tiny bit of the dialogue actually forwards the plot. The characters are goofy, witty, serious (though hardly ever profound), always living in the moment. The plot is there only to push the story along to a conclusion, but it often refuses to intrude on the words being spoken on the screen.
It’s sad, in a way, that modern filmmaking would only last into the 70s, before the rise of the blockbuster made style, composition, and dialogue secondary to special effects and action sequences. Not that there aren’t talented filmmakers making uncompromising films out there today, but they are the exception, rather than the rule. And the fact that Breathless looks so fresh and new to my eyes, fifty years after its release, is proof, I think, that cinema today never fulfilled the promise contained in the French New Wave.
And yet, that also speaks to its uniqueness. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a film like it, and indeed, neither had anyone else before it opened, all those years ago.
Roger Ebert’s Great Movies Review: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20030720/REVIEWS08/307200301/1023