Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless (1959).

This year marks the 40th birthday of Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s revolutionary debut film that changed the way people made, watched, thought, and wrote about movies. It ushered in the French New Wave, it influenced the great American directors of the ’70s, and it re-organized our expectations of movie watching. When we saw Breathless, we all became insiders. The film thought our thoughts; it invited us in. While we watched, we could believe we were involved in its making. Breathless made the act of watching a kinetic experience.

I was only two years old when Breathless was released. I probably first saw it in a cinema studies class. I may have seen it again at a revival house. I’ve rented it a few times. But still, even though all of the movie’s revolutionary elements—its narrative inventions and seat-of-the-pants mise en scéne—are now on view in hundreds of other movies, Breathless excites like no film since, and should be required viewing for anyone thinking of making a movie. In fact, it should be required viewing for anyone thinking of even "thinking" about movies. Everything you could possibly come up with, every fresh idea, is right there in 89 minutes. Godard beat you to it.

Watch Breathless and you’ll see the birth of guerrilla cinema: jump cuts, handheld shots, long unbroken takes, tracking moves accomplished with a wheelchair; scenes filmed in natural light; street sequences shot without permits or lights or craft services; gunshots and off-screen crashes.

Godard can be credited (or blamed) for the movies’ current obsession with self-ironic hipness, that knowing wink to the camera. His characters were the first to turn and speak directly to the lens, implicating us in the fictional ruse that we all know moviemaking is. The way they dress and smoke and talk is for our pleasure. They are cool and they know it. Godard’s lovers and gangsters are paeans to the B-movies he and his fellow critics at Cahiers du Cinema sensed were disappearing. They want to act and talk like characters they’ve seen in the movies.

Godard also embraced clichés and re-contextualized them. The gun, the cigarette, the sports car: these became the props of unrequited love and political commentary, not the ingredients of plot. He once said that "all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." When the gun showed up in a Godard film, usually in the last reel, it was taken no more seriously than Belmondo’s cocked hat.

And there are the popular songs, the cultural references, the brand names. This is Godard at his most referential, risking obsolescence by making his films for and about the "Pepsi Generation," yet his generation is just as obsessed as Generation X with love, movies, and product.

Godard also broke ground with his use of intertitles, dividing a film’s structure into segments. There are the random bursts of narrative anarchy, the endless sequences of talk. And there are the silences—the moments when all sound vanishes... It is here that the sadness of Godard’s legacy emerges, because so much in his movies has disappeared from contemporary cinema.

Consider that silence for a moment. It leaves us anchorless, groping for clues. What was the last film you saw that let the screen go aurally blank? How can a movie today even consider silence, since what films do now is tell us exactly how to think. Godard used silence as an interstice in his thoughts to allow our thoughts to enter. Thinking was what his movies were supposed to make us do. Within the genre confines of the gangster and heist films, his characters brooded about love and the state of the culture, not about how many rounds they had in their clip. Within the familiar bedrooms and cafes of the love story, lovers broke apart because their philosophies of love were opposed, not because they were mopey and narcissistic. The full frontal nudity of Maruschka Detmars in First Name: Carmen and of Myriem Roussel in Hail Mary! was used to eroticize situations. The anticipation of sex was more arousing than the act. When we see a naked woman on screen today we can be sure that intercourse will follow. Female characters today wear costumes that invite leers, but their appeal is a banal sexiness, a prurient guise in a puritanical society. Godard filmed women naked because, like Velazquez or Weston, he appreciated the line and curve of the body. Their beauty and power transfix us because we are simply asked to gaze upon it, as in the opening scene of Contempt, when the camera lingers on Brigitte Bardot’s naked body and she invites Michel Piccoli to review her assets: "What about my ankles? Do you like them? And my thighs, too?"

Today’s filmmakers use Godard’s language, but too often they garble it. Jump-cuts, irony, clichés, non-linear plots. They are the means and the ends. There is very little attempt to comment on art, politics, culture, or love. The movies themselves are the comments, self-contained and precious. Contemporary movies are Godardian in their cosmetics, but not in their polemics. Controversy and argument, dialogue and disagreements—all gone. Moviemakers have co-opted Godard’s cool, but want nothing to do with his iconoclasm or his reverence. In order to pay homage to the old movies he loved, Godard overthrew the old ideas of making movies.

Godard offered his take on the state of things in a 1997 interview with the LA Times, saying, "Pictures no longer bring anything new to the audience, because they have it 100 times a day on TV ... the only thing left is to show more truth about people’s lives, but they don’t want truth about that." The directors who were willing to forge their own paths on the ground Godard broke are few in number: Cassavetes, certainly, although he was working his own turf with Shadows before Breathless became an international sensation; (Both men shared an obsession with the camera as fact-finder. They were both willing to let scenes play in order to shake out the truth.) Scorsese, definitely, with his hand-held camera, his use of pop songs, and the naturalistic dialogue in Mean Streets. You can see Godard’s influence in Altman’s early work, especially in the meandering dialogues of Nashville, and the post-modernist twist on the cowboy and the gumshoe in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye. Wenders loved American movies as much as Godard. Both men put Sam Fuller in their films (Pierrot le Fou; The State of Things), both were fans of the road movie, and where Godard playfully exploited classic genres, Wenders found in them a sense of alienation. The synthesis of detachment and alacrity in Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Dead Man represent a distillation of both Wenders and Godard. Hartley’s fondness for oddball dialogue in Trust and The Unbelievable Truth, and Soderbergh’s recent structural experiments in Schizopolis and The Limey recall Godard. Tarantino’s films are loaded with Godardian touches. My favorite is in Reservoir Dogs, when Harvey Kietel attempts to ignite his lighter by snapping his fingers across it, which recalls Jean-Pierre Leaud’s trick of tossing a cigarette into his mouth in Masculine-Feminine. But Tarantino’s quoting of Godard is nothing like Godard’s quoting of Fuller, Hawks, Boetticher, and Penn. Where Godard referenced film history as a springboard to themes of cultural dislocation and revolution, Tarantino references Godard for his, and our, amusement. Nothing wrong with that, except we end up stuck in a room full of guys with skinny ties. There’s nowhere to go.

Godard, at least in his early films, could be funny, literate, artful, and substantive all at once. He proved that movies could be intellectually challenging and watchable at the same time. The closest movies come to that ideal these days is to adapt Jane Austen or Patricia Highsmith. God forbid a character should quote Jack London (Band of Outsiders), be caught reading a biography of Velazquez (Pierrot le Fou), or go see Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (My Life to Live). Any mention of art, poetry, novels, or politics leads to a charge of esotericism or, even worse, pretension. A filmmaker is okay with quoting Obi Wan Kenobi, but not Homer. Would a line like the following, from First Name: Carmen, make it into a mainstream movie today: "When shit’s worth money, the poor won’t have assholes."? Would a writer dare to write such a thing, which is smart, funny, vulgar, and editorial all at once?

Moviemakers today, in their quest for originality, often ignore what the past can teach them, and instead opt for busting taboos or, in efforts to outdo each other, shoot on digital and transfer to 16mm black-and-white and dub to Betacam and digitize to an Avid and output to Hi-8 and blow-up to Super 35mm. Godard simply embraced the past. He shot his first color film, A Woman is a Woman (1961), in Cinemascope set to a lush score that recalled MGM musicals from the ’40s. He shot it on a studio set, with breakaway walls and key lights dangling from the ceiling. Godard’s genius was to manipulate the tried-and-true tools of moviemaking into a fresh syntax. He didn’t need to invent a new film stock, or shock us with violence or pornography, or affect a downbeat, cynical pose by turning off all of his lights and letting his characters speak in monotones. While watching Contempt or Pierrot Le Fou or Band of Outsiders, you get the sense that Godard honored the very medium of film, that he was thankful for the gifts film could bring to him and to moviegoers. Even within the romantic nihilism of Pierrot Le Fou and the doomed atmosphere of Contempt, there is consistent joy and enthusiasm. It’s unlikely a Godard film will ever lead you to heartbreak or tears, but it will invigorate your love of movies.

Myriem Roussel and Thierry Lacoste in Hail Mary (1985).

Godard could also be infuriating. If we honor him as the father of modern cinema, we must also hold him responsible for all the charges leveled against the art film in general, and French art films in particular. His work could be maddeningly obtuse, incomprehensible, tedious, or just plain slow and silly. His riffs on capitalism could often veer into meaninglessness. His jarring use of neon-like intertitles could sometimes be mannered and unnecessary. His insertion of snippets of classical music to break the flow of a sequence or dialogue became a wearisome habit.

In the mid-’60s, with Made in the USA and Weekend, he grew bored with his tenuous interest in narrative conventions. Weekend is the type of bewildering work that would get parodied on early Saturday Night Live episodes. A woman copulates with a fish; another watches her car burn and screams, "My Hermés handbag!" A man wanders the countryside in the outfit of a Musketeer. A vision of the apocalypse this absurd can only end in cannibalism, which it does. Weekend offered up a severe view of life as a cynical riot of mayhem and amorality. After it, Godard dropped all pretensions to narrative structure and began a phase of his career which resulted in didactic, political tracts. His revolutionary goals became overt. His love of films—both his own and the American films he drew upon—now embarrassed him. He made films in collectives under the name of Dziga Vertov, the Russian director who experimented with cinema verité. His activism lost him his fans and his influence. He re-emerged in the ’70s with works like Detective, First Name: Carmen, and Hail Mary!, structurally difficult movies in which his politics had mellowed and his joy of filmmaking returned. The Book of Mary, the short that precedes Hail Mary!, is perhaps Godard’s most straightforward, sweet-natured film. First Name: Carmen contains languid shots of the sky and sea that resemble the contemplative passages in Ozu. Godard was now both reflective and challenging.

Nearly all of Godard’s films leading up to Weekend are essential viewing. The political essays of the late ’60s and most of the ’70s are difficult to find on video; his later pictures are alternately fascinating and boring. While worth studying as another stage in the evolution of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, they’re also difficult, talky, and lacking the ebullience of his early years.

Breathless (1959)

The title actually means "an attack of suffocation" and it refers to the cultural post-war claustrophobia of the French, still reeling from the humiliations of war and the temptations of American pop commercialism. But it also means, of course, "breath-taking," and it is. The movie challenges us to rearrange our ideas of how to listen and watch a film. The references are dizzying, the technique stunning. The movie’s pioneering use of jump cuts was a happy accident, when Godard pared down his original three-hour cut by simply editing out extraneous action rather than excising the whole sequence. The movie made Jean-Paul Belmondo, a boxer turned bit actor, into an international star, and ratified a new type of screen character: the playboy crook, both sexy and amoral, horny and indifferent, in love with himself.

The Little Soldier (1960)

Godard’s indictment of the Algerian conflict, in which a secret agent is manipulated by both sides but feels allegiance to neither. This is the movie that gave us Godard’s immortal dictum: "Film is truth 24 times a second." Like so many of his male protagonists, the "little soldier" of the title is in love with Anna Karina, and more concerned with earnest philosophical and aesthetic questions than bravery and commitment.

My Life To Live [A Film in 12 scenes] (1962)

Anna Karina stars as a woman who tells her boyfriend, "Loving you is exhausting. I’m always having to beg." So she turns to prostitution, preferring the cold transactions of sex for money. Her behavior is in sharp contrast to Godard’s approach in photographing her, allowing the camera to linger rapturously on her face. In one exquisite scene, Karina watches Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Godard cuts between Falconetti and Karina as if the women existed on the same exalted plane. Karina’s character claims we must all take responsibility for ourselves. She’s cut down by bullets in the film’s final scene.

Brigitte Bardot in Contempt (1964).

Contempt (1964)

A screenwriter sells his self-respect to please his wife in this searing, sad tale of marriage and betrayal and the corruptible influence of Hollywood. It’s an appreciation of filmmaking, of Fritz Lang (who plays a director), of the emotional complexities of color, and of Bardot’s luminous flesh.

Band of Outsiders (1964)

"It is time to open another parenthesis and describe our characters’ feelings," says Godard himself, playing the omniscient narrator in this joyous ode to youthful anarchy and the dime store novel. Karina again stars as the ingenue seduced, corrupted, and dumped by a couple of would-be toughs. "Arthur said they’d wait for night to do the job, out of respect for second-rate thrillers," says the narrator seriously. A carefree buoyancy carries this movie through its many marvelous scenes, which include a visit to the Louvre and a long, single-take dance that must have been a helluva lot of fun to shoot.

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

One of Godard’s masterpieces, in which Marianne Renoir (Karina, who was divorcing the director at the time), accompanies Belmondo’s Pierrot, who has abandoned his wife and children in Paris, on a doomed escape to the Mediterranean. The movie is important for its themes of alienation and brooding narcissism, especially revealed in a party where mannequin-like capitalists spout American TV ad copy instead of conversation. Sam Fuller makes an appearance, proclaiming that film is like a battleground because it contains "love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotions." The girl, the gun, the sports car, they’re all there. But now they’re emblematic of insurmountable ennui, the knowledge that everything must end. In the final scene, Belmondo wraps dynamite around his head, lights the fuse, then changes his mind. But he can’t stamp out the inevitable.

Masculine-Feminine (1966)

Godard’s catalogue of 15 observations on "The Pepsi Generation." Although the politics are unfocused and the film’s structure is more rambling than inventive, there is an undeniable charm and naivete about the Parisian youth depicted here. Jean-Pierre Leaud is smitten with Chantal Goya, but finds himself in competition with American ad propaganda, Bob Dylan, and soda pop. Thirty years later, in the LA Times interview, Godard decried the end results he first chronicled. "Little by little, America has taken over world culture. Blue jeans, cigarettes…"

Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966)

A film about human and cultural prostitution, with another tremendous performance from one of Godard’s women. Marina Vlady plays the housewife/mother/hooker who reveals her interior musings on sex and self-esteem directly to the camera. This was one of the first of Godard’s "essay" films, and it touches on consumerism, urban sprawl, and the sense that life is smothering under the weight of desire.

Hail Mary! (1984)

The scandalous, the profane, the irritable. Godard’s parable about the immaculate conception is funny, scatterbrained, brilliant, and even coherent at times. It should be seen to appreciate all the fuss made upon its release. MM