Breathless in the face of Godard's Sharp and Fragmented Vision of Filmed Sexuality all these things, at first sight...are obstacles to conventional smoothness and logic. Yet they are perfectly efficient in the sense that they crate an impression of confusion, flight, fear, restrained violence, imminent danger, etc., while staying within the bounds of possibility...The editor [Godard] is saying, in fact, "the habitual idea of screen continuity is merely an illusion which is in any case subsidiary to the communication of the scene's meaning. I am going to take advantage of your admission that it is unreal by rejecting it and substituting this cruder but more direct description of the action" -- Riesz and Millar
The thesis of the article by Riesz and Millar quoted above, on the 1960 film directed by Jean Luc Godard's entitled "Breathless," may seem quite complex on its surface. However, the authors' thesis in its most basic form simply that this director's decision to fragment the conventional logic of his film's narration communicates more emotional truth to the viewer than a linear narrative might of the same 'cops and robbers' plot. Through sharp juxtapositions of fragmented images, a more intense emotion in the viewer is created. Paradoxically, the less realistic the means of telling a story, the more 'real' the impact and emotion upon the viewer. In this sense, when discussing "realism" one means not a sense of how lived reality is experienced, but of truth, namely the emotional texture created. The entire film becomes 'in quotes,' for the viewer, the viewer is constantly forced to question his or her assumptions because he or she is not permitted to enter an alternate, apparently real fantasy world. The unreality of filmed life is stressed, and thus the viewer is forced to confront the constructed nature of his or her own reality after "Breathless" comes to an end.
The actual story of "Breathless" outlines the fate of a car thief who has stolen an automobile in Marseilles and is driving it to Paris. The man, named Michel, is stopped for speeding and shoots a policeman. In Paris, Michel needs to collect some money from a friend while searching for his friend he meets an American girl, named Patricia. This chance encounter leads to the longest dialogue sequence of the film. The two characters go to Patricia's Paris hotel room. Michel tries to convince Patricia to sleep with him and to run away with him to Italy.
Michel manages to bed the girl, but she turns him into the police. He does not flee, rather he waits for the police and in the final conflict, after a friend of Michel's throws him a gun, the police shoot Michel. The End.
As outlined above, the film's plot is melodramatic. However, because of the director's unconventional filmmaking techniques, the viewer's focus centers around the relationship between the Frenchman and the American woman. The two of them connect physically and intellectually, but not emotionally, as is evidenced by Patricia finally deciding to turn Michel in. The two of them, rather than directly discussing their situation in the hotel room where they interact for the most extended period of time, engage in a series of quotations rather than real communication.
For instance, in the sequence before the two of them sleep together in the hotel room Patricia quotes "Wild Palms" by William Faulkner. She states that "between grief and nothing I will take grief." Michel answers, "I'd choose nothingness. Grief is a compromise. You've got to have all or nothing." Patricia advocates her supposed life philosophy by quoting an American. Michel's response echoes that of the French Existential philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus.
As the two characters debate, the camera cuts briefly to posters by Paul Klee, Renoir, and Picasso around the hotel room. These fragmentary images undercut the fragmentary lives of the characters. The fragmentary nature of the depicted sexual interplay in the hotel room leading up to the individual's eventual sexual relationship underlines how little the two characters really know about one another. All they really know about is superficial quotes from 'great' authors. The relatively brief and transitory sides of themselves they are sharing with one another, despite their apparent artistic pretensions, really communicate nothing.
After the dialogue in which Patricia quotes Faulkner, Michel and Patricia make love underneath a white sheet. The lovemaking is suggested more through jump cuts of the room, the bed, and their bodies, like heaving breaths, not through extended images of their bodies. The fact that they are making love in an hotel room, itself a transitory place, further underlines the superficial and brief nature of the characters' relationship. The camera focuses on the most ugly, fragmented art in the hotel room during the sequence where the two of them make love, particularly the art of Paul Magritte and Salvador Dali. The piano score, rather than romantic, seems dirge-like and dire.
Even the nature of the jump cuts used by the director during the sequence suggests the ugliness of the sexual act between these two rather unsavory individuals. At one point, Michel is seen lying on the bed. Suddenly, he is entering the bathroom. The cut jars the viewer's attention away from any possible romantic associations that might spring up in his or her mind. Most directors would use such a cut to leave the sexuality that has transpired between the two characters up to the viewer's imagination. However, rather than encouraging the viewer to imagine something beautiful, the presence of the bathroom indicates the sordid nature of the affair. The image is that of cleansing, rather than of enjoying what has happened.
The image of the man entering the bathroom and the image of the bathroom itself so soon after the Patricia and Michel have come to 'enjoy' one another also suggests that voiding and washing and cleaning one's person after the sexual act is somehow more important to these individuals than the sexual act itself. For both the Frenchman and the American, everything is meaningless and nothing has consequences, not only according to their quoted philosophy but more importantly in the way they make love. When later in the film, Patricia turns her lover in to the police, she says it is because she does not want to be in love. She wishes to void herself of the evidence of the affair that might cause her to feel, just as Michel immediately washes himself after sex, rather than lying for any prolonged length of time next to Patricia.
Godard's unconventional technique of film editing is that the pace of the film is literally quite "Breathless." For instance, when Michel goes to the bathroom after lying on the bed, the camera does not wait for him to stand up, to walk across the room, and to enter the bathroom, allowing the viewer to wonder why the man is getting up, where he might be going, and why he is so anxious to cleanse himself. The bed and the bathroom are shown right after another. In a primary sense, one might say this is not realistic, as the pace of the sequence misses out on some basic steps of real life.
However, in a less primary and fundamental sense, images and associations are called up within the viewer's mind because of this juxtaposition that are more potent and thus, more realistic, than simply showing an unreconstructed version of the simple act as it might occur, as if it were filmed by a more conventional filmmaker. The disgust, the sense of waste, the emotions that drive an individual to washing up in a bathroom seem sharper because the suddenness of the image on the viewer's eye does not allow the viewer's rational thought to take over. Instead, unconscious and irrational associations are called forth…