Every cinephile knows to at least pretend to like Breathless. Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature—a witty mashup of American noir and French chic—is as much an art-house staple today as it was in 1960, which is precisely why it’s getting the 50th-anniversary reissue treatment this month. Think of Belmondo aping Bogart with his cigarette, Seberg flacking the New York Herald Tribune, or the director’s game-changing jump-cuts, and you realize that various elements of the film have never gone out of style. This may get me booted from the cinéaste club, but I’ll come right out and say it: Breathless isn’t one of Godard’s most interesting creations. (My Life to Live, Contempt, and the septuagenarian’s recent films all rank higher for me.)
Naturally, the charms of Breathless still endure. (The cool fashions! The cutting sense of irony!) But what if Godard’s true purpose is not to charm—so many others do this well, after all—but to poke? Film Socialism, the director’s newest provocation, landed at Cannes last month, and did what every Godard work has done since his 1967 film Weekend: provide an easy target to bash an auteur who makes no bones about his elitism, his (knee-)jerky critiques of America’s role in the world, and, of late, his disdain for telling comprehensible stories. The man who, circa Breathless, once admitted that a film should have a beginning, middle, and end—though not necessarily in that order—has dispensed with every part of that maxim aside from the bit about disunity. Thus, the reactions to Socialism were largely focused on its oddities: young children on a boat who speak in abstract aphorisms, other shots narrated by zoo animals—all of which would be easier to comprehend if they were subtitled in full, instead of “approximated” in what Godard calls the fragmented “Navajo English” of old Westerns.
And yet Godard risks being lampooned not because he’s unaware that he can come off as stilted, or that his leftist politics may seem several decades out of date. He’s simply a true believer in the cinema as argument, the cinema as essay—trends that cut against the movie as spectacle. Every critic under the sun may cry out in pain over the consumerism that infects Sex and the City 2, but few will recognize Godard’s bitter pill as the proper antidote. Since Breathless is more style than polemic, it’s no accident that it keeps getting remastered, rereleased, and reloved—though all this veneration is something of an insult to a filmmaker who is still working at a high level. Notre Musique, Godard’s most recent picture to receive U.S. distribution, is structured after Dante’s Divine Comedy, with sections for hell, purgatory, and paradise. “Hell” turns out to be a montage of war footage, both real and staged. “Purgatory” is Godard himself, along with other panelists, droning on about the nature of conflict in Sarajevo (for about an hour). “Paradise” is a sun-kissed lakefront, where men and women trot about unmolested—though under the protection of American MPs. The joke works two ways—it is, at once, a familiar jab in the ribs from Godard about military power, as well as an admission that this power serves some purpose. It’s not Godard who has become stale, but those who’ve stopped giving his films a chance to wow them.