By coincidence, I watched Godard’s original Breathless on the following night. It’s surprisingly similar to Her in a couple of ways. If you watch Breathless expecting a gangster movie or a fast-paced thriller like The French Connection, then you will surely be disappointed. The real genre is the same as Her’s: It’s yet another chick flick.
If you haven’t seen Breathless recently, it’s about a gangster named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who is on the lam after shooting a cop. He’s holed up in Patricia’s (Jean Seburg’s) apartment waiting for the heat to die down. The heart of the story is a single scene that occupies nearly a third of the movie. For nearly 25 minutes, you watch Michel and Patricia in her tiny bedroom—talking, flirting, arguing, seducing and resisting seduction, then finally screwing, followed by more banter, arguing and flirting.
Her is basically the same, except the talking, flirting, arguing, and seducing goes on for more than two hours.
What’s really different is the two films’ views of the relationship between the sexes, and specifically, their take on masculinity. From Breathless—filmed in 1959—to Her—just over a half-century later—it’s possible to trace the germination of a fresh new idea and follow it through to its morbid conclusion: If Her’s author and director, Spike Jonze, is right, then a different kind of singularity is looming. And boy will it be boring and creepy.
A Less Perfect Union
The world that Jonze creates in Her is devoid of masculinity. There are still men and they still continue to be sexually attracted to women. (It’s not a gay movie.) But in every other way, Jonze’s men think, speak, and act like women.
The main character is named Theodore (Joachim Phoenix)—and every time someone says it, I think of Alvin the Chipmunk’s sidekick, Theodore. He’s the slow one.
Theodore wears peculiar high-waisted pants, cardigan sweaters, and always carries a man-bag. When you see him from behind, he looks like a woman.
His job is ghostwriting other people’s love letters, and he excels in empathy. His co-worker calls him “evolved” and “part man, part woman.” Out on a blind date, the commitment-obsessed woman played by Olivia Wilde tells him he’s a “puppy dog.” And she’s right.
There’s no doubt this is what Jonze intends. Every trace of traditional masculinity has been scrupulously excised from the story—like a cancer. Other than a single facetious reference to a 4×4, there’s nothing manly, or even concrete or dirty. A date with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the OS with the hot voice, involves walking around a shopping mall, talking about feelings. That gets Theodore so worked up, he spins in circles and laughs like a four-year-old. A special occasion is a double date to Catalina Island where three people and one OS go on a picnic and talk about their feelings.
Finally, Sam engages a surrogate so she can experience something like physical sex with Theodore. It’s a disaster, ostensibly because Theodore has qualms about doing it with a total stranger. But as the scene plays out, Sam is trying to orchestrate every word and action: “Say this. Do that. Now do this…” It’s total control, total submission to She Who Must Be Obeyed. No wonder Theodore is unable to perform.
I’m ironically calling this state “the singularity” because in Jonze’s world, there’s only one sex. But, if your memory is intact, you might recall a much older model where the two sexes remain opposite and distinct. When properly tuned, the two come together in a rich physical and spiritual union. Even when things don’t go perfectly, other interesting things happen when strong characters of the opposite sex collide. That’s in the appeal of Breathless, where Michel and Patricia are prime examples of opposites that attract.
Where the Boys Are
In Patricia Franchini, Godard depicted the woman of the future: A 20-year-old New Yorker on her own in Paris. Her parents think she’s attending the Sorbonne, but she’s actually writing a novel and stringing for the NY Herald Tribune. She doesn’t wear a bra, and sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she feels like it. When Michel asks her why she wants to be a journalist, she says, “To make money and not rely on men.”
This notion shocked the world in 1960. Michel’s character—the anti-hero—was more familiar. He opens the movie saying, “After all, I’m an asshole.” As a sharply dressed criminal with a devil-may-care attitude, he proves it in scene after scene. For example, driving on a two-lane country highway, he waxes eloquent on the beauties of the French countryside. He gets so carried away, he grabs a revolver from the glove compartment and fires a couple of random shots out the window.
In romancing Patricia, Michel displays his hyper-masculine charm: He’s direct in complimenting her looks and asking if she will sleep with him that night. He’s thoughtful about the subjects that interest him: It’s a myth that Swedish girls have sex with everyone, and the best-looking women are not in Paris, London, or Rio, but in Geneva and Lausanne. He’s never heard of Faulkner or Dylan Thomas and doesn’t care for Renoir. But he’s sensitive to modern buildings spoiling Paris and loves Place de la Concorde at night.
Michel can always make Patricia laugh, and he brings grittiness into her life—and apartment—that she doesn’t seem to mind. They both chain smoke and Michel just flicks his butts anywhere, after he uses them to light the next smoke. And, here’s the critical bit of dialogue that’s the climax of the 25-minute bedroom scene:
Michel: Mind if I piss in the sink?
Patricia: Guess what I’m going to say: I’m pregnant.
Michel: You should have been more careful.
In the end, Patricia betrays Michel to the police. Sounding almost like Theodore, he asserts that it must have been a communication problem: “I just talked about myself, and you, yourself. You should’ve talked about me, and me about you.”
But it’s more than that. Patricia has begun to realize the truth. Michel is not just an ass-grabbing liar, thief, and murderer; he’s a sociopathic career criminal who is trying to take over her life. With the police on their way, Michel becomes fatalistic and accepts that he will go to jail. Instead, the cops shoot him and we watch from above as a puff of smoke—and an insult—pass his lips for the last time.
Vive la différence
Godard was ahead of the curve in foreshadowing the rise of feminism. The arc from Breathless to Her passes through the liberated women of the ’60s and ’70s and the pants-wearing professionals of the ’80s and ’90s, to today’s brides of the state—women who demand government-subsidized birth control devices and signed consent forms from guys before they’ll have sex. (You’d think both quality and quantity would suffer, but note Samantha’s one-upsmanship: When pressed by Michel, Patricia confesses to seven lovers; Samantha blows her and Theodore away with her Don Juan-worthy number of 641.)
On the masculine side of the ledger, things are even more confusing. Theodore is clearly a dead end. So you go back to Michel and wonder if you could order him up with the masculinity of the bedroom scene, but hold the criminal behavior he displays everywhere else in the movie?
That happens to be the approach that drives the success of the most popular category of fiction: romance. In Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, Jayne Ann Krentz explains that the men who appeal to romance readers are wild and dangerous fellows who have learned to control their masculine energy in their relationships with women. Krentz alone has sold 23 million books, so romance writers are certainly on to something here.
The point is that academic feminism doesn’t accurately represent the preferences of women or the views of the general public: Women don’t really want men to act like their girlfriends; men are not dimwits and we have plenty of other outlets for our masculinity other than violence and infidelity. Breathless was a welcome antidote to Her. Now I want to see a truly hot and action-packed film starring some form of human intelligence.