Half-a-century old this year, Jean-Luc Godard’s first film, “Breathless,” has long held a place in the highest of cinematic pantheons. This is the echelon reserved for movies that start revolutions, that come to stand for things larger than themselves, that are — in other words — much more than just movies. (“The Birth of a Nation,” “Citizen Kane,” “Metropolis” — only a handful of films in the history of the medium fit this bill.) The towering stature of “Breathless” is by now such an entrenched cultural truth that it is a bit of a shock to go back to the moment of its arrival and find some dissenting voices.
Bosely Crowther’s review in The New York Times, which ran under the headline “Sordid View of French Life,” complained about the film’s “pile-up of gross indecencies” and credited it as a window into the “savage ways and moods of some of the rootless young people of Europe (and America) today.” Pauline Kael’s take was more sympathetic, but her description of its insouciant characters was likewise tinged with disapproval and alarm: “You’re left with the horrible suspicion that this is a new race, bred in chaos, accepting chaos as natural, and not caring one way or another about it or anything else.”
What some saw as nihilism, many more understood as freedom. Freedom is, after all, the film’s defining quality. It’s evident in how its central couple, a French petty hoodlum (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American exchange student (Jean Seberg), behave and interact with each other and exist in the world. It’s built into the very conception of the movie, shot with handheld cameras, in natural light, on the streets of Paris. And it comes across in the very movement of the film, in its headlong velocity and in those mythologized jump cuts.
Godard himself said he set out to make “the sort of film where anything goes.” Breaking the rules, of course, often means creating new ones. The language of “Breathless” has long been absorbed into the cinematic lexicon. But the film itself — currently playing in a crisply restored version in New York and Los Angeles — has lost none of its freshness, its euphoric buzz. “Breathless” is often called timeless, but it is more precise to say that, with its offhandedly cool gestures and quotations, its anarchic streak, its startling sense of possibility and delight, the film is eternally youthful.
The ultimate expression of a life so steeped in movies that the two were indistinguishable, “Breathless” marks the birth of modern cinephilia, perhaps even the start of the modern media age. A work of art that looms so large over the culture invariably has a distorting effect on how we perceive its maker’s career. “Breathless” is Godard’s best-known film but it is hardly his most typical. It kicked off an astonishing run, a series of films — including “Pierrot le Fou” (1965) and “2 or 3 Things I Know about Her” (1967) and right up to the apocalyptic “Weekend” (1967) — that adds up to a generational document. The films that followed share the brashness of “Breathless” but they grew more formally radical and more overtly political.
After “Weekend,” which concludes with the words “End of Cinema, End of World,” and the near-revolution of May ’68, Godard devoted himself to Marxist polemics, as part of the Dziga Vertov group, before making a tentative move back toward narrative features in the ’80s, only to turn once more to experimental and non-narrative forms in the ’90s. His new film, “Film Socialism,” which premiered at Cannes last month, is emblematic late-Godard, a meditative essay film, often shockingly beautiful but so dense in its montage of sound and image as to be confrontational.
Godard’s is a restless, altogether remarkable career, but for many it has never escaped the shadow of the ‘60s work and especially of “Breathless.” In a 1962 interview he admitted that at first he was “ashamed” of his first film. But a more generous self-assessment can be found in one of his most viscerally powerful late works, “The Origin of the 21st Century,” a short film from 2000 that distills the horrors of the previous century into 15 minutes worth of film clips and newsreels. It unfolds in reverse chronological order, leaping back in 15-year intervals. For most of these markers on the timeline — 1990, 1975, 1945 — Godard provides a montage of violent images: war, torture, degradation. But 1960 is represented simply by a shot of Seberg looking into the camera at the end of “Breathless” — a playful acknowledgment that this most iconic of movies is a chapter of history unto itself.