Dir: Jean-Luc Godard, 1960. Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg. French.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Jean-Luc Godard’s noiry, crime-romance Breathless(À bout de souffle) may be one of the most important films of a very important film era—a game changer. For the film critic turned filmmaker, Breathless Godard’s first feature and it helped to define an exciting new cinema movement that was brewing among young cinephiles in France now known as The French New Wave. With its hand-held photography, jump cutting, improvised script, and natural lighting, it carefully broke many rules of formal cinema. Inspired by American crime films, mostly the B-movies that that generation of the French critics came to appreciate long before their American counterparts, it romanticized the underworld, without the moral lessons of so many similar American movies. The film also gives a shout-out to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, another film inspired by American Noirs. Playing the film’s lead, a small-time crook with a death wish, Breathless put actor Jean-Paul Belmondo on the map. His gripping and charismatic performance reeks of his influences, most notably Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando. Like so many filmmakers to come, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino (who both cite Breathless as a major influence), Godard’s work, and Breathless in particular, was a tribute to the movies that came before that the director admired.

After Michael (Belmondo) steals a car and then shoots a cop, he finds himself on the run. Still always playing it cool, he hides out in Paris with an American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), a New York Herald Tribune street vendor. Like the best of French couples they smoke a lot of cigarettes, have sex, and talk philosophically about themselves. She is in love with him, but he is selfish and utterly self-obsessed, as he makes Bogart-like faces in a mirror always trying to perfect his gangster persona. She knows he’s bad news but maybe that’s what makes her even more devoted. She may be a naive waif, but she’s also college bound; she’s not a simpleton like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, she just wants a classic bad-boy lover. Her love and her own need to survive eventually lead her to rat him out to the cops. In a long famous death scene he is shot and killed before falling breathless.

Breathless had an all-star team from the Nouvelle Vague attached to the film. Francois Truffaut, whose 400 Blows a year earlier sounded the bell of a new era, is credited with the script’s story, though most scholars say there was no story and Truffaut’s name was added to give the film more street-cred. The same goes for Claude Chabrol who was listed as the technical advisor; his Les Cousins also helped to define this new generation (and he would spend the next fifty years doing Hitchcock tributes). But most important to the success of Breathless was cinematographer Raoul Coutard. His innovative work would change the look of film forever. He would be both Godard and Truffaut’s DP for most of their best work throughout the decade while also working with Jacques Demy. His apex would come in 1969 with the great political thriller Z by director Costa-Gavras.

The plot of Breathless wasn’t original; there had been cold-blooded killers and couples on the run before, most notably Gun Crazy in 1950. What Breathless brought to the recipe was a playful nihilism. Their self destruction is meant to be charming, even romantic. Played under a French imitation-American jazz score, the film not only gave the young Paris café set chills, but also made a generation of Americans’ eyes open to the possibilities of violence mixing with the ultra-hip. When screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton hooked-up with director Arthur Penn and producer/pretty-boy actor Warren Beatty, all four were giddy about what was happening with the French New Wave. Their Bonnie and Clyde is a direct descendent of Breathless, and like Godard’s film, it would usher in a new era in America bringing the French auteur theory and personal filmmaking style to the states (as well as more casual violence in the name of love). Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde would create decades of love children, from Terrence Malick’s Badlands to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart to Tarantino’s screenplays for Natural Born Killers and True Romance (he would even name his company A Band Apart referencing Godard’s Band of Outsiders). Jim McBride even did a Breathless remake in ‘83, though the only thing memorable about it was Richard Gere’s groovy plaid trousers.

Godard would have a number of more important films in the '60s; he's a giant of cinema. For the last couple decades he’s remained admired and even beloved by the deep art-house and Cannes crowd, but he seems to have overreached intellectually, with work ranging from the experimental to Marxist propaganda. Belmondo has also had a major career, starring in a number of great films in the ‘60s; his Robert Mitchum swagger has made him a legend on and off the screen. After Otto Preminger plucked Seberg from obscurity, making her the lead in his Saint Joan, her stiff performance got her laughed out of Hollywood, but Breathless made her relevant again. She never made another important film (though Airport and Paint Your Wagon are guilty pleasures) but her personal life proved more fascinating. Her association with left-wing causes, including the Black Panthers, put her at the center of a Nixon-led FBI attempt to smear her; the political pressure contributed to her suicide in 1979. 

In 1960 Breathless foresaw the youth rebellion of the ‘60s, though its French hero was a rebel without a cause, not a young man fighting for political beliefs. Belmondo’s Michael was only fighting to live fast and die young; maybe we’ve seen that fight a hundred times since but never as cool as it was in Breathless.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 2, 2011 5:02pm
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