Analysis Project #2: Formal Analysis

The Materiality of Film

The scene, which I will be analyzing, comes from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.” In this scene, Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, arrives at the entrance of a movie theater where he will be seeing “The Harder They Fall.” The 1956 film noir features Humphrey Bogart, Michel’s favorite actor. The scene contains only one word, “Bogey,” which sums it up perfectly, and says a good deal about Michel. Michel walks up to the theater entrance and before entering, pauses and stares at the film’s poster. He utters the word “Bogey” and takes off his sunglasses. Michel takes a drag of his cigarette and the viewers see a close-up of Bogart’s face, now shrouded in Michel’s cigarette smoke. Michel then rubs his thumb across his lips, puts his shades back on, and enters the theater. Instead of seeing Michel walk through the theater doors, the camera lets Michel walk off-screen and presumably through the doors on the right side. We then see the reflection of the two policemen searching for him in the glass doors on the left side. It appears that they are across the street in front of the theater. There is an iris-in on a pair of glass doors that shows the audience the two bumbling policemen, the iris closes, and the scene ends.

“Breathless” is a movie that is very conscious that it is indeed a film. Throughout its brief 87 minutes, we are hardly given a chance to suspend our disbelief, and Godard makes sure we are unable to. This Humphrey Bogart reference poses as a subliminal reminder that while Michel is a character in a movie that is about to watch a movie, we too must remember that we are also people who happen to be watching a movie. Many times as viewers, we associate the worlds in movies as separate worlds, separate realities but we forget this due to their not being references to our own world, the real world. In “Breathless” however, a shot of Humphrey Bogart, who we all know is a real person, is a reminder of “our” own world, and we realize that Michel MUST live in it as well.

In the film, Michel is seen as a cynical petty thief and thug and once we see his blatant admiration for Bogart, we can safely assume that he idolizes the characters he plays in his films and tries to emulate them in real life. We can also assume that Godard himself admires noirs and that the film isn’t really about a petty thief who tries to act like a Humphrey Bogart character, but about deconstructing the genre conventions of noirs as well as the deconstruction of the chain-smoking cynical characters that Bogart usually played. In that sense, the entire film can be seen as one huge reference. The film has all the hallmarks of a noir, and maintains the tradition to an extent, but it does it in a very different and round-abut way, changing the setting to contemporary Paris and also being very thin plot-wise. In the end of the scene, we also see an iris-in, which is another reminder that we’re watching a film. In theater for example, we can become so engrossed in what we are watching that we can forget that we’re looking at a stage and props. If the same thing happens here, Godard reminds us that in real-life there are no irises.

Filmmakers of the French New Wave rejected the classical forms of story-telling and found the films in that mold to be tired, old, boring, and too reminiscent of the theater as many were  screen adaptations of plays and literature. Godard, and several other founders of the French New Wave were at one point critics, so it is understandable that they would be quite knowledgeable on film, its conventions, and traditions and also critical of them as well. Godard spent much of the 1960s trying to re-invent the film medium and defy just about every convention the medium adhered to, to potentially realize the medium’s full potential, which he thought many French filmmakers prior to the New Wave weren’t attempting to do. He criticized French cinema’s “Tradition of Quality” and was more concerned with films being experimental and innovative. Breathless can be seen as a work striving for both poetic and political significance, and the film’s impact cannot be understated. Besides the structure of the film only barely resembling that of a noir, it is political in the sense that Godard is clearly concerned with or desires changes to an already established system. He poses the film as a “stylistic” call to action. The film can be seen as a critique of French cinema up to that point as well as both a critique and love-letter to the Hollywood noir.

The film is a landmark in the history of cinema, similar to Citizen Kane, in that they serve as wake-up calls to other filmmakers and the film industry to be new and daring. For first-time viewers of the film, watching “Breathless” can be a frustrating experience. The film so blatantly dis-regards movie conventions that many viewers pre-conceived notions of what a film is supposed to look like will be confronted head-on. This is exactly what Godard was aiming for and it can safely be concluded that he succeeded. The influence of his films can be seen in many other directors’ work from Fassbinder to Scorsese to Jarmusch and several of his innovations have become commonplace in films of today. To many, “Breathless” is thought of as the “real” launching point for the French New Wave and arguably the period’s most famous work. It seems clear to me that Godard achieved what he wanted to achieve with this film, considering the reputation it has garnered, as well as it’s position in the canon of great films.

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4 Responses to “Analysis Project #2: Formal Analysis”

  1. kgarvey2 Says:

    I agree with your analysis of the movie theater scene. It is interesting to see how Godard uses an actual scene in a movie theater to show the materiality of the film, which inevitably reminds the viewers that they are watching a film. It was simple genius to use something so basic to draw the audience’s attention to the filmmaking process.

  2. Jeen Kim Says:

    Very interesting point about Humphrey Bogart. The filmmakers, in a way, killed two birds with one stone referencing him to point towards both materiality and characterization. I also did Breathless but forgot about this good scene

  3. Amy Herzog Says:

    What a wonderful choice of scenes for this assignment. Your description of Godard’s “poetic and political” project is absolutely spot on. And your writing here is clear, accessible, and filled with complex ideas. I couldn’t ask for a better capstone for an amazing semester, and an amazing blog.

  4. lyoung101 Says:

    Thanks professor, it’s been a pleasure 🙂

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