Thoughts On: Breakfast At Tiffany's - Commentary With Rats, Cats And Dogs


Breakfast At Tiffany's - Commentary With Rats, Cats And Dogs

Thoughts On: Breakfast At Tiffany's

A money obsessed young woman, befriends a young writer amidst a world of hidden crime, lies and pretense.

This is often cited as Audrey Hepburn's best film. I can concede that, for the most part, the writing, structure and character based conflict presented in this film are superior to the rest of her filmography. However, for me, Roman Holiday will always be number one. That doesn't mean this isn't a great film. I said this a few post ago in Pulp Fiction - Writing What You Know. In the post, however, I was discussing apparent racism due to bad writing, acting, makeup and so on - and all surrounding the infamous image of Mick Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi...


As I've covered that aspect of the film already, we'll leave as is. Instead, what we'll be looking at today is the main focus of the story and what it teaches. Before that though, let's stay with characters a moment and, um... make a quick comparison...


What this all means, I'll leave to you. All I'm saying is I smell a conspiracy. Who, what, when, why? I don't know... let's not fall into a wormhole, instead move along as if nothing happened and this is all a joke. (It's probably not).

Ok, so Breakfast At Tiffany's is quite the allusive film. The first time I watched it, I didn't care much for what it had to say. Seemingly, it was talking about being young, dumb and nothing more than at a loss - with some needless promotion injected into the mix. This is partly true, but is the mere foundation of what the film explores. Within Breakfast At Tiffany's is an exploration of humanity in terms of relationships, and so is a nice follow up to the Quick Thoughts on the 1956 Marilyn Monroe classic, Bus Stop. Bus Stop is a simpler narrative about finding yourself via realising your place in society. Breakfast At Tiffany's revels in an existential reprieve of responsibility and character. That means that Holly Golightly, otherwise known as Lula-May, never finds out just who she is - why this is will be made all the clearer with the ending. To get to that point we have to break the film down into two writers' devices - character and place. The key characters we'll need will be Holly/Lula and Paul/Fred, with peripheral additions from 2-E/The Decorator and José. The key places would simply be Holly's apartment and Tiffany's. The culmination of character and place in this film demonstrates how to intricately portray a narrative message through an idea of context, of situation. In other words, Breakfast At Tiffany's is a great example of a social commentary. To understand what makes it great, it's easiest to look at other films that also serve poignant social commentary:


All of these films manipulate characters and their settings in absurd ways that reflect aspects of society, blowing them up, holding them right in front of our faces. Zootopia would be the most obvious portrayal of human society in terms of race and culture (for more on it click here). The Lobster is probably the greatest absurdist film I've ever seen with a powerful consideration of human bonds and the individual (again, for more click here). Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has a strong sense of morale to push a political viewpoint - The Great Dictator too, but in a different style. Fight Club is probably the best social commentary that utilises character as a primary, weaving an existential, nihilistic, chaotic idea of self and of standard. On the other hand, we have Brazil which is probably the best example (along with The Matrix) of utilising setting to comment on society. Each of these films provide respective examples of how to socially commentate in a precise and explicit manner - and for this they are great. However, Breakfast At Tiffany's mutes character and setting to imply an emptier, more ambiguous commentary, ultimately left in the hands of the viewer. Whereas Chaplin screams and shouts nonsense as Hynkel, Tyler asserts 1st and 2nd rules made to be broken, McCarthy runs from the commy zombies, Holly munches on croissants, gazing into shop windows with a cat called Cat waiting to be fed at home. This is all designed in object to archetype. In other words, social commentary's use of caricatures, clear symbols, obvious manipulation of reality, usually allows writers/filmmakers to make concise points. However, how do you talk about the individual with broad strokes? This is the question Breakfast At Tiffany's faces. So, in short, this is a film about possession, it asks the common questions of where do I belong, and, who am I?

To get into things, let's look at straight to Holly. She describes herself as wild, and enforces this by acting impulsive, living by emotion - but what is revealed to be underlying fear. She courts men so often, burns through money, yet brings it in in high volumes, because she's scared. Her money issues are connected to her brother, Fred, who is away at war. She needs money to ensure financial security. However, she burns through it all because she's afraid of responsibility. we see this represented with her apartment - it's a dump, bland, as if she's not moved in yet (despite living there for a year). Why she is this way, we'll come to soon. But, suffice to say it lies in her alter ego - Lula-May. Holly escaped an early, yet apparently loving, marriage at the age of 14 in search of independence. The film's core conflict centres around this and to break into this idea we need to turn to Paul - or, as named by Holly, Fred. Paul is much like Holly in that he finds security in using others. However, the key difference between Holly and Paul is of comfort. Paul is comfortable to be 2-Es prostitute, on the other hand Holly doesn't seem to sleep with any of the men she uses. This implies that Paul is set in his ways, set deep into his compulsion to use others. Holly is not. In seeing this we can understand why Holly runs all the time, but we're still left with a question of why. To dig deeper we need to look at two things: Tiffany's and José. Holly wants two things in life, and both are represented by character and setting. José represents long-term security. He is quite possibly the means by which Holly may indulge in her compulsion to rely on others, to exploit in a certain sense. Tiffany's on the other hand is where we can see Holly as a 'real phony'. This is probably the best way to describe her. She is a very bland person who merely uses people for personal gain, with no capacity for social exchange. However, this isn't a calculated persona - which would make her a phony. Holly is, to her core, a phony - a real phony. To understand this in depth, I think it's best to look at a film like Silent Running in my post on Perspective or even 8 Mile with Find Yourself. Both films provide an idea of character and truth in being nothing but you. In other words, true character can be good or bad, but it must always have a sense of continuity, of truth, of essential basis. Without defining character people are shells. By providing true character a writer can do many things, but in real life, showcasing true character, you become a figure that you can't really hate - everyone just accepts you as you.

Next, we come to Tiffany's, which is a very interesting setting that I could probably spend hours writing about, but in the interest of keeping things succinct, let's not do that. The core concept of Tiffany's in relation to Holly is of facade. Jewelry makes you feel good in other words. What this does is allow Holly to make fantasy a tangible concept - make dreams realities. This is why the film is called Breakfast At Tiffany's. Holly wakes up from dreams, but surrounds herself with hopes and fantasy to stretch the dreams of sleep into waking hours. This is what imbues her character with pretense - all she wants is to look good. This isn't a through and through bad thing though. Looking good for others is easily perceived as vanity, but in some circumstances is utterly understandable. Others make us feel good, looking good makes others pay more attention, even like us more - making us feel all the better. This is what Holly is addicted to, what she craves. She wants the facade other facades interact with in favourable ways, that, to an extent, make her feel all the better internally. However, this isn't a sound way to live your life. We'll get to why though after wrapping up just what Tiffany's represents. To see this, we need to look at the scene with the library, Tiffany's and then the shop Holly and Paul rob. The library is a public space that is not willing to massage Paul's or Holly's ego. This idea is captured by the book signing. The librarian doesn't care if Paul's an author, merely wants him to shhh as other people are reading. When we compare this to Tiffany's, where, despite only having $10, the two get good service, it's easy to say that the library is the worst of the places - that, that which represents facades and pretense is better than a communal space. This, as any 6 year old could tell you, isn't entirely right though. To see why, we firstly need to consider Pretty Woman (not a great thing to follow up 6 year old logic, but what can you do?). If Holly went into Tiffany's dressed like this...

... which, by the way... wow... well, she may have been turned away. But, ideas in this we'll save for a later talk, or soon, maybe even on Pretty Woman (???). Anyways, what's important is to understand that the teller at Tiffany's is a real phony - just like Holly. This is why she gets good service. This is a man that is most probably unconditionally polite. This is exactly what Holly wants from life. Unconditional, irrational care, attention, love - the world at no cost. This juxtaposed with a library where you have to consider others before yourself, well, it's not so great (as the 6 year old was telling us). But, it's not too bad either (more on that in a second). The last setting we have to look at is the store that Paul and Holly rob. They do this for a thrill - and rather pointlessly. They steal cheap toys, begging the question: why? Would it not have made more sense to rob Tiffany's? Well, no, they would have been caught. And it's here that we have the core of the film exposed. Both characters do what they want as long as they can get away with it. The two must always have a safety net beneath them.

It's now that we can dive into why Holly is the way she is. She firstly needs security, but is scared of responsibility. This is not a financial issue. This has nothing to do with tangible loss. This is all to do with personal rejection. She keeps distance between herself and the people she uses because she doesn't want to be used her self. The crux of the film is thus an idea of possession. Holly is impulsive, and has a compulsion toward collecting, yet losing things so she can cage herself. This is an idea given to us perfectly by Fred near the end. But, the real question here pertains to how he knows this. Well, it's simple, he cages himself too. To pull this all apart, we need three symbols - we need to split people into three main groups. There's rats, dogs and cats. Paul is a dog. He needs others (like 2-E) but is comfortable in serving them - just like a do will happily eat the food you give him, but also protect your house or play fetch. Holly is a cat. Again, she's very much like Paul in that she's a pet, but she's stuck up, she has an air of pretense, of higher authority, like she doesn't need others. Everyone else is thus a rat. Rats are communal hordes that are absolutely everywhere, that take all they can. Holly feeds on these 'rodents', Paul is more or less indifferent. But, in the end, 'rats' has nothing to do with people (with all of us). What's important is that Holly and Paul see themselves as pets. It's now that it becomes very obvious as to why Holly doesn't name her cat. She doesn't want to own anything - including herself. Her internal conflict stems from everything discussed. She knows she's fake, she knows she can't trust people, that she uses them, that she's afraid, but she doesn't know how to solve the problem. And so, she locks it away. she refuses to accept an idea that she knows herself, that she is anything, that anyone can label, can own her. This is why she tries to get rid of the cat in the end of the film. She wants to be numb, to completely let go of the idea of marrying someone, of loving. She decides to float in a pessimistic, nihilist vacuum for the rest of her life. But, it's here that Paul steps in and reassures her that possession, and idea symbolised by Tiffany's, an idea that being owned by someone (on an emotional level) isn't that traumatic. Sure, it sounds scary, but to love is to be owned and to own, without one or the other you remain a shell and a relationships can't function. This is the same for all human bonds. If you find yourself giving without receiving, or receiving without giving, it's clear that there's something wrong - that you are precariously pony, on the cusp of destruction.

And so, it's with this ending that we are left with possibility. Does Holly ever discover herself?  Do Holly and Paul live happily ever after? Who's to know, but, I think that's quite clearly not the point. This is why its so important to see this film as a social commentary, but with muted devices. The ideas given by the symbols and characters are hard to directly see in ourselves. But when you stare long, peer past the surface, something universal emerges. This is why the end is ambiguous, it's not just a question of our own pessimism or optimism, but a question of our own emotional balance. It's a question to us of possession. Do we have control over who exactly we are? Is love ownership? Are relationships about exchange? Is this a bad thing? Does it scare you? Do you want any part of it?

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