Jean Luc Godard – New York, February 1961

by Bob Schwartz

Director Jean-Luc Godard has died at the age of 91.

You can read millions of words about him, about the influence he and other French, European and American directors of that generation had on the way movies are made and viewed. Godard is neart the top of many lists, because a series of films he made during the 1960s helped change everything. Not to mention that the films, once seen, whatever your response (delight, thoughtfulness, confusion), will not allow you to watch any other movies the same way.

It began in 1960 with Breathless (French: A Bout de Souffle). You can read about it elsewhere and, more, view clips or the full movie online. You should (and follow that by viewing some others by Godard).

Here I take a different approach. Breathless opened in New York on February 8, 1961. At that point New York had a dozen or more what were called “art houses” where you could see the most recent foreign films. In fact, Breathless opened at a theater called the Fine Arts.

Above is the New York Times ad of that day for Breathless. For context, here is the biggest ad in the New York Times for a very different popular movie, The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

If you watch the two movies together, not just look at the ads, you will conclude that they were made not in different countries but on different planets. Which is the point. It was possible to put together a camera, a story, a scene and some actors to create a record of a visit to another planet which happened to be right here, or in the case of Breathless, Paris. All you needed was a director with the creativity and sense of total freedom.

Not everyone agreed this was a good thing. Bosley Crowther was the iconic film critic at the New York Times when Breathless arrived.  His review revealed not only his tastes but the general sense of America at that point. John F. Kennedy had been president for about two weeks. Most of America was still culturally conservative, and sensing that something was going on, particularly with some young people on the fringes (or worse, in their own homes). Crowther reflected that in his review, excerpted below:


By Bosley Crowther

As sordid as is the French film, “Breathless” (“A Bout de Souffle”), which came to the Fine Arts yesterday—and  sordid, is really a mild word for its pile-up of gross indecencies—it is withal a fascinating communication of the savage ways and moods of some of the rootless young people of Europe (and America) today….

But in the frenetic fashion in which M. Godard pictures these few days-the nerve tattering  contacts of  the lovers, their ragged relations with the rest of the world there is subtly conveyed a vastly complex comprehension of an element of youth that is vagrant, disjointed, animalistic and doesn’t give a damn for anybody or anything, not even itself….

All of this, and its sickening implications, M. Godard has got into this film, which progresses in a style of disconnected cutting that might be described as “pictorial cacophony.” A musical score of erratic tonal qualities emphasizes the eccentric moods. And in M. Belmondo we see an actor who is the most effective cigarette-mouther and thumb-to-lip rubber since time began.

Say this, in sum, for “Breathless”: it is certainly no cliche, in any area or sense of the word. It is more a chunk of raw drama, graphically and artfully torn with appropriately ragged edges out of the tough underbelly of modern metropolitan life.

Sordid, gross indecencies, savage, animalistic, sickening. If you have seen Breathless, or will, you wonder what Crowther was watching. But it tells us about the cultural vision of much of America in February 1961, a vision that is still alive in some of America. Films can entertain us by reinforcing sweet fairy tales we tell ourselves. No blame for such entertainment. But films can also remind us that the literature of fairy tales has dark streams and unhappy endings. Godard, maybe more than any of his cohort of new guard directors, told stories in new ways that shattered the fairy tales. Some movies, thanks to him and others, are shattering them still.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz