Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
For its second “Return of the Double-Feature” pairing, the Film Forum staff has perceptively joined two of Godard’s outwardly very different French New Wave classics. In Breathless, based on a story by François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Belmondo breaks out in full amoral, chain-smoking swagger as Michel, a small-time hood who kills a policeman while stealing a car and attempts to enlist Jean Seberg’s pliant but ambitious Patricia in his slam-bang lifestyle. Godard’s then-novel use of jump-cuts and Belmondo’s signature restlessness convey Michel’s defiantly unreflective, kinetic, and Darwinian approach to existence. Patricia’s demurral—she is not ready to die, and is too independent merely to follow—is his downfall. Each character drains the romance from the other’s point of view, making Breathless a singularly penetrating film noir that still jars after more than 50 years.
In counterpoint, Contempt embraces domestic life, but it is scarcely less fraught and Godard is as merciless as ever. A prescient exercise in meta, this brilliant movie traces the deterioration of a screenwriter’s marriage, which parallels the film based on The Odyssey (directed by Fritz Lang, suavely playing himself) that the writer is hired to rewrite. Here love brings out the worst machinations in people, as Georges Delerue’s elegiac score strikes a moving and unsettling juxtaposition of the exaltation and meanness of human life. In a seminal real-time sequence chronicling the marriage’s unwinding in microcosm as the couple meanders through their apartment, Godard literally depicts the confining architecture of marital regimentation. Eventually it will crumble under the strain of suppressed emotion and the weight of myth. Abandon on the order of Breathless is no antidote. If there is some happy medium between each film’s plight, Godard is more interested in the painful and unending struggle to find it. Jonathan Stevenson (August 20 at Film Forum’s “Return of the Double Feature,” with 2-for-1 admission throughout the day’s showtimes)