The history of film contains the work of a number of directors that have caused audiences to look at movies in a new way, but perhaps none has done so more consistently than Jean-Luc Godard, whose dense cultural references in nearly 90 films are to French cinema what T.S. Eliot's verse is to English literature. Now 75, Godard abruptly altered the face of Gallic movie-making with Breathless, his first full-length feature in 1960. (It featured a then unknown Jean Paul Belmondo and American ingénue Jean Seberg, fresh from her starring role in Otto Preminger's St. Joan, an overwrought depiction of Joan of Arc's life.) Full of references to American gangster movies and permeated with Godard's cinematic take on existentialism, Breathless made its director an icon of serious European movie-goers in the nearly half-century since its highly successful commercial release. So its little wonder that, in homage to that groundbreaking example of what was to become known as the French "New Wave", someone would revisit the vehicle through which Godard first reached a mass audience. Someone has, with results as visually interesting and intellectually frustrating as the original.
Lili, (Isild Le Bresco) is a 19 year old art student cocooned in the upper middle class lifestyle provided by her divorced father, a businessman who has little time for or connection with Lili and her glumly studious older sister. Living in a spacious 3rd floor Parisian apartment with all the staff support of an expensive hotel--but with far less intimacy--Lila spends most of her time locked in her bedroom with girlfriends. One day, following the strident rejection of an insistent suitor, Lili and a schoolmate wander into a café and allow themselves to get picked up by a slickly dressed young man who invites them to a nightclub that same evening. There, Lili meets Bada, a darkly handsome Moroccan whose expensive tastes provide no clue as to the source by which he pays for them. Lili invites Bada home with her, sleeps with him and grows enchanted with his quietly passive persona, which contains none of the upwardly mobile striving that permeates her bourgeois family's approach to life.
But it soon develops that Bada is into crime, bank robbing to be more specific; one day Lili gets a call from him after one of his jobs goes fatally wrong. Now the subject of a massive manhunt, Bada and his partner "go on the lam" with Lili eagerly along for the ride. Accompanied by the unnamed girlfriend of Baba's violent partner, the quartet first hides out in a friend's home in the south of France, then acquires forged passports which they use for aimless travel to Morocco and Greece where Baba abandons Lili during an airport immigration check. Penniless and without any contacts in Athens, Lili finds work as a salesgirl, drifts from one manipulative relationship to another and finally calls her parents. Returning home to a two year suspended sentence for aiding and abetting the escape of her lover and disconsolate at his subsequent death in a shootout with the police, Lili finally seeks some kind of personal redemption as an employee of a Club Med-type island resort where she seeks, (with unintended irony) to "lose herself in the service of others". Lili's experiences have produced resignation, but precious little personal insight.
A tout de suite may be a paean to its famous predecessor, but it isn't merely repetitive; the fresh script and direction by Benoit Jacquot provide a gritty feast for the eye and ear as authentic as the original it so intently reflects. Shot in grainy black and white with a style as visually offhand as its protagonist's impulsive decisions, this film accurately replicates the restless intensity of Breathless along with a rejection of those middle class values fundamental to French society at the time the original was filmed. The student protests and the counter-cultural movement of the 60's in the U.S. are mirrored in American films like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, but Godard's cinematic call to arms helped send French youth into the streets in protest of conventional morality, helping to fuel a cultural revolution whose subsequent rejection has formed such an important part of the fundamentalist revival that currently grips both American and French politics.
Idolizing the radically isolated individual, (especially the "outlaw" who rejects the norms of society to forge his own rules) Godard used Breathless to popularize the ideas of writers like novelist Albert Camus, whose death in an auto accident occurred in the year of the film's release. Insisting that the post-modern world contained no clear philosophical answer to the fundamental "why" of our existence, Camus concluded that life was essentially absurd and that the only authentic way to live it required recognition of that bleak starting point. What follows, in his view, is the obligation each of us has to specifically design a personal response to that void in meaning. (Anyone who doubts the power of philosophical ideas to shape society through artistic expression need look no farther than the novels of Camus or Jean Paul Sartre and to Godard's subsequent visualization of their worldview.) In the aftermath of two world wars, (not to mention the barbarism which accompanied them) and the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, a generation of young people proved to be especially susceptible to the lure of this radically individualized point of view.
But the "do your own thing" mantra of the 60's hasn’t aged well; the student barricades in Paris have long been cleared, the flower children of Haight-Ashbury have finally drifted into myth and the world now faces the resurgence of rigidly dogmatic religious rivalries which seek compliance, not personal expression, in nearly every nook and cranny on the globe. (Through painful experimentation in the west, we've discovered that communal moral standards are indeed crucial even as many grow ever more dismayed at how difficult it is to resurrect them.) Despite the fact that it's set in the same decade as Breathless, this film comes off as nostalgic rather than galvanizing. In the end, the fine acting and wonderful cinematography that animate this 95 minute examination of inarticulate adolescent rebellion doesn't conjure up Seberg's character as much as that of the real-life Carol Fugate, the placid teen age companion of Charlie Starkweather, whose murderous rampage across Nebraska in late 1957 sent him to the gallows and her to prison for 20 years. Their saga spawned movies like Bad Lands, Natural Born Killers and Wild at Heart; so much for the enduring truths of youthful protest…
As a trip down memory lane, tout reminds audiences once again that classic films can be successfully replicated. But this time, the message just doesn't have the clout of the original. The New York Times calls this one "a small, nearly perfect film". In its masterful style perhaps, but not in its misplaced nostalgia for the kind of life described 350 years ago by Thomas Hobbs as "nasty, brutish and short".
The verdict? A reverent homage to a film aesthetic well past its sell-by date.Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus