The arrival of the 50th anniversary restoration of Breathless at FilM Forum left me with a distinct feeling of trepidation. You see, the last time a Godard revival had come to the Film Forum—Contempt in 2008—I had cried. A lot. Sobs, snot, retreating to the ladies room—the whole nine.
Like Contempt’s heroine, Brigitte Bardot’s Camille, I had been in a relationship where in a certain moment I felt betrayed. Like her, I had made a big fucking deal out of this incident and, with the benefit of hindsight, I see I sort of refused to get over it. This did not lead, as it does in the film, to that grenade-launching statement, “I don’t love you anymore,” and eventually, indirectly, to death. But it certainly accelerated the demise of that relationship.
Now, one of two things happened here. Either Godard captured a fairly particular human truth and reflected it back, bigger and more powerful than life, or I had only acted that way because I’d seen the fucking movie ten times.
The reality probably goes something like a lot from column A, a little from column B. But I was nonetheless struck by the force with which the film had permeated my consciousness. We all learn about love from the movies before we have any life experience of it; I saw a lot of movies and the onset of experience came rather late so perhaps I had to make a slightly bigger adjustment.
But from Godard, at least, I considered myself safe. I thought I had him squarely figured out. Godard’s attitude to love had always struck me as something kind of thesis-y; he seemed bound and determined to prove that Men and Women are Different and from this chasm of difference only grief and misery can spring. I took exception to his women, beautiful but bored (and sometimes boring, although boredom is not always a bad thing in Godard’s universe), at best they’re the girls who don’t love you back and who display an almost calculated indifference to your suffering, at worst they’re downright treacherous.
I’m not quite sure if my conception of Godard’s women has changed since I’ve felt such close proximity to one of them. (Putting aside the fun factor of a ripe Brigitte Bardot playing you in the movie of your life; her Camille is not the kind of gal you want to be identifying with. The poster child of passive aggressives, she actually utters the line: “I won’t say no, but I won’t say yes either.” She seems to even drink a Coke with resentment, sulks, and insists that nothing’s wrong when something clearly is, a trait that cut uncomfortably close to the bone for me.) And if my view of them softened, wasn’t I only being soft on myself?
It was outside intervention that illuminated the need for further study. When our editor said, in the course of a discussion, that Godard believes in love, I knew I had to look deeper. After all, didn’t he make a film titled In Praise of Love? A tricky film, one that seems to belie its title, till the very end when it suddenly, unabashedly doesn’t, which may comprise the whole mystery of Godard and love.
But let’s start at the beginning—with Breathless. The tension between the English title and a literal translation—“Out of Breath” would be a more apt title—holds the ineffable link between romanticism and cynicism so central to Godard’s world. No worry about unseemly tears here—it shocked me how quickly I could distance myself from the film’s emotional core. Oh, the disdain with which we look down on unrequited love, convinced that it will never happen to us (well, never again), sure that in the same situation we would correctly read the signs. As Michel, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays into our superiority. He’s an interesting looking actor—beauty and ugliness collides on his face without reaching any satisfactory concord—and he falls quite naturally into the sad clown role we sketch for him.
But is he really the clown, and is the love really all that unrequited? If you had asked me, prior to this viewing, what Breathless is about, I would have readily answered “betrayal”. But this time around that betrayal struck me as murky and nuanced. In that famous scene in Jean Seberg’s bedroom, man and woman pass through a whole lifetime, an entire relationship: sexual excitement, flirting, boredom, disgust, and a million other things. (In a scenario that may strike a chord with male viewers, Belmondo cops a feel three times and each time gets a different response.) Perhaps Godard’s approach to love proves truly revolutionary in that he refuses to place love in a vacuum, but lets it occur as in nature, surrounded by things both trivial and necessary. Nor does he let it lie fixed and static, but has it evolve and change, sometimes, as in life, quite rapidly.
Of course, his characters still try to pin it down. One of the things I admire about Godard, however he may irritate or bore me at times, is that he is a consummate intellectual, and his characters take a cerebral approach to love, constantly concocting theories and formulae about it. In Breathless, Seberg’s Patricia takes actions in order to prove or disprove her love for Michel. In that famously racy scene at the beginning of Contempt, Bardot asks her husband if he likes all her body parts so she can conclude, “Then you love me totally.” Juliette (Marina Vlady), the titular “Her” of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, who has had some sort of transactional sex with a youth and casually contemplated leaving her husband, tells him at the end of the day that true love is when you change and false love is when you stay the same. But she has both changed and stayed the same. So which is it? she asks her husband. He just shrugs.
The chase for and mutation of love most often occurs, in Godard’s world, in scenes between a man and a woman staking out territory around a domestic interior. There’s that famous one in Patricia’s bedroom in Breathless, the obviously even more famous one in Contempt, but it also shows up in A Woman is a Woman and A Married Woman. I found the one in Married most striking. The married woman and her husband chase each other around their apartment, seeking possession of a record. The scene skirts the line between charm and menace, articulated in the husband’s line, “Give me that disc or I’ll rape you,” which so perfectly illustrates the hidden threat beneath the banality of cohabitation.
Threats and cruelty exist in Godard’s world in the smallest details. In Married, we see, in a series of close-ups full of tenderness, but (for me, at least) curiously lacking in eroticism, the married woman do things to her lover that her husband has first done to her. Subtly, without particular emphasis, Godard illustrates that awful bittersweet truth that the moments we share with a lover never really belong to us and will probably pass along to someone else one day.
But how had I ignored all the blissful exuberance, there just as surely as the grief and strife? As when Seberg impulsively runs across the street to kiss Belmondo on the cheek. There are moments so blissful, partially motivated by and tinged with love, that soar beyond love’s parameters, like doing the Madison in Band of Outsiders. One of the great joys of this experiment was the discovery of A Woman is A Woman. Called “un échec”—a failure, a total disaster—in Emmanuel Laurent’s Godard/Truffaut documentary Two in the Wave, I suspect it is too little like a musical for fans of musicals and too plain weird for almost everyone else. True, we have a woman (Anna Karina) who does a little striptease about how she can basically get away with anything because she’s beautiful, and who doesn’t seem to give a fig that a man (Belmondo again, in a performance that’s wonderfully warm and joyous) pines for her. But here we have all that is wonderful about Godard and love, crystallized and elevated. When Karina and Belmondo strike a series of poses in perfect unison, we remember that even unrequited love has its pleasures. We never really worry about Belmondo’s Alfred: no one so completely affable, so totally open, can be lonely for long. (His surname is Lubitsch, after Ernst Lubitsch, the king of the sophisticated romantic comedy.) Likewise, even when Karina and her husband (Jean-Claude Brialy) stomp around their apartment arguing, the fight feels somehow buoyant. Godard, via intertitles, tells us that because these two love each other, everything will fall apart, and, in due course, it does. But even then, we sense that things are not that serious. In true Lubitschian fashion, transgressions are fleeting and meaningless, and all can easily be forgiven. Godard embraces love in all its contradictions: while it is a fragile thing, it also endures.