Credit: James Benning
by Alex Fields Featured Film

Breathless — James Benning [Cinéma du Réel ’24 Review]

April 3, 2024

James Benning’s 2021 film The United States of America works through 50 landscapes, one from each state in alphabetical order, only to end its credits with a list of the locations where these were shot — all in California. That film’s punchline is the loudest example of a challenge to the fiction-nonfiction distinction that Benning has mounted throughout his career. His latest film, Breathless, continues this explicit focus on metatextual games. Named after Godard’s seminal New Wave film and matching its runtime exactly, Breathless comes with an intriguing description about the artist going to film a tree when “stuff happened,” and he was “attacked from the air.”

These lines are typical of Benning’s understated humor, but they’re also important to reading the work. It consists of a single fixed camera shot, showing a utility crew trimming some trees along a road and then moving out of frame where we can hear but not see them. This distinction between what’s on or off screen — what’s in the film vs. what the audience brings to it — is the structuring concept of the film. The utility crew grabs attention initially, but with time and distance, other aspects of this compositional strategy become clear. Power lines point across, up, and out of the square frame. The sky is never shown directly, but its effects are constantly seen and heard. Light and shadows drift slowly down the road as time passes, and later, the unseen space above announces itself in the form of passing airplanes.

Those wondering what any of this has to do with Godard’s film are asking the right question. Arguably, nothing; except that by naming and describing his film as he does, Benning manipulates the audience’s attention and relationship to what we see and hear. Like The United States of America, Breathless ends with something of a joke, as an exaggeratedly noirish piano piece plays for the last half minute or so. The subject of the work is as much the impressionable path charted through it as anything that’s projected on screen. 

The problem is that this has always been true of Benning’s films, and by stripping away most of the other elements of interest, he arguably gains little beyond clarifying what was already there. Breathless largely misses both the meditative beauty and the political sophistication of better recent works like ALLENSWORTH (2022) and From Bakersfield to Mojave (2021), and ultimately feels like a minor instance of a game Benning has been playing for half a century.

Published as part of Cinéma du Réel 2024.