Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Jean-Luc Godard in "Breathless" (1960)

Scene from Breathless
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Jean-Luc Godard
Film: Breathless (1960)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Foreign Film category (1960):
-The Virgin Spring *Winner
-La Verite
-The Ninth Circle

As an American writer, I will be first to admit that my intake of foreign films isn't as great as it should be. Considering how many great films come out on an annual basis from other countries, I am saddened by how little recognition that I often give them. In fact, there are likely few that the average reader can recite from memory that don't automatically stem from obvious resources. Sure, many people can name Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - but few could tell you who won this year (Son of Saul) or even what country has won the most in Best Foreign Film (Thanks to Federico Fellini, it's Italy). With that said, it only feels right that The Runner-Ups also explore films from around the world in an attempt to give everyone an equal chance. While there has been a predominantly American vibe going on so far, I will venture out for the first time with Breathless: a film from director Jean-Luc Godard that in hindsight seems far more influential and important to modern cinema than even we give credit for.

To understand Breathless (or A bout de souffle as it was originally called), one must first understand what was going on in France around the late 1950's and early 60's. While filmmakers like Robert Bresson were changing cinema at the time with Pickpocket, the revolution came from the unlikeliest of sources: film analysis magazine Cahiers du Cinema. One can easily track the height of French cinema to the magazine's various collaborators, which included Jacques Demy, Francois Truffaut, and Godard. Each of them had a different vision of what cinema could be. Demy romanticized the American musical. Truffaut romanticized the wonderment of cinema. Godard romanticized nothing, choosing instead to unintentionally revolutionize the D.I.Y. movement with a film that deconstructed cinema while rebuilding it as something that wouldn't be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

With a script by Truffaut, Breathless was Godard's directorial debut and managed to mesh two of the French New Wave's most memorable talents into one picture. It had the love of American culture that Truffaut would better explore in his own career, while also having the anarchy that Godard would never abandon. Even as recently as 2014, his Goodbye to Language film explored cinema in an anti-narrative, lo-fi technique that also emphasized 3D technology in new and unconventional ways. Considering that this is a man who used stimulation through sound effects and fleeting title cards, it makes sense that he started off with the middle finger that few who genuinely love cinema would actually raise, but would all dream of doing for at least a film or two. Godard may have become hit and miss in the time to follow, but his debut felt like the triumphant start to a new style of French cinema.

Roger Ebert once claimed that this was the start of modern cinema. It's not hard to see why. Even if you're averse to subtitles, it is a film rich with style and manic energy that it almost seems ahead of its time compared to, well, anything. The language is so casual and filled with pop culture references that show how American culture has influenced French idealism. Even the editing was cutting edge thanks to its ability to cut together two shots of the same action that didn't look congruent. This is a technique that came by accident when the editor accidentally cut the film wrong. As a result, it looks jarring yet effective in ways that have gone on to influence such big talents as Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Everything about this film feels like what American independent cinema tried to do in the 90's to varying degrees, down to shooting a long take while pushing the camera around in a stroller. It's a film that at times feels made on the fly, but never feels as cheap as its budget would suggest.

To a large extent, Truffaut ended up having the more successful career thanks to films like The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. He even got three Oscar nominations during his short lifetime. It also helps that his style was more conventional and loving to its medium. While Godard's sheer presence is still seen, it does seem like his prolific and experimental material has damaged his reputation a bit. However, Breathless is an important film because of what it embodied about cinema changing from traditional to more modern. It was a film that created fantastical elements through editing while telling a straightforward and raw story that set a precedent for all of the films that followed. It may not be the greatest that foreign films has to offer, but nobody can deny that it generally packs enough punches to be on a required list for film students wishing to understand the progress of cinema and its inherent value.

It becomes difficult then to assess this in place of the Best Foreign Film category. It meets the requirement solely because it was in a foreign language. It could be that compared to Truffaut's highly successful The 400 Blows, Breathless wasn't a gigantic hit. However, it is a film that is so revered nowadays that it almost seems unfair to note that Godard's only Oscar-related impact was an Honorary Award. Yes, his work as a whole reflects what interesting art could be. However, the fact that none of the films that warranted him an Honorary Oscar actually got nominated remains its own issue. After all, Fellini and Ingmar Bergman would show up dozens of times over their decades for impacting their country's cinema. Why was Godard being greatly ignored? It could be guessed that he would deny the honor if he got it, but it still is something that is puzzling when you consider that Academy Awards are often synonymous with impact films. Breathless was one of them. 

Beyond all of this, it feels like a good film to start with for The Runner-Ups around the world because of how accessible it is. Yes, it is a French film and its pacing may be different from what you're accustomed to. However, it is fairly short and its technique is so familiar now thanks to your Scorsese or Tarantino sorts. It is a film that does what all good Oscar-nominated films should: influence the culture. It may seem silly for a film that follows pop culture fads and crime sprees with such gleeful openness, but isn't that what Tarantino got acclaim for with Pulp Fiction? It doesn't always make sense and maybe Godard's debut was ahead of its time. However, the fact that it can withstand the lack of attention is its own testament. It will constantly pop up on "Best Of" lists as long as they exist. Still, this is a column dedicated to recognizing those who weren't nominated and frankly, this is one of those films that show that Best Foreign Film is just as flawed of a category as everything else. It has a lot of good, but then you run into a few puzzles like Breathless and realize that there's room for improvement.


  1. "Sure, many people can name Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - but few could tell you who won this year (Son of Sam)."

    It's Son of Saul, actually. ^_^

    1. Thank you for the correction. I'm kicking myself over that mistake.