CLASSICS: Breathless (1960)
written by: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut (treatment) and Claude Chabrol (uncredited)
produced by: Georges de Beauregard
directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
runtime: 87 min.
release date: March 17, 1960
When film historians bring up “French New Wave”, there’s an automatic mental picture of two films, Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” from 1959 and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless”, released a year later. Neither one is better than the other, but regardless, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” is an impressive directorial debut. It’s a cool film that is as much a time capsule as it is utterly timeless. Okay, maybe you knew that already, but I didn’t. That’s right, I finally caught up with one of the most influential films of all time and at first, I felt it was a bit overrated – but the more I thought about it, the more I became obsessed and perplexed by it.
Godard wrote the screenplay, from an initial by Truffaut here (as well as a fake credit from their cohort Claude Chabrol as “technical advisor”) and although it’s based on actual events that nowadays seems like it could be ripped from the headlines, the film feels like a surreal daydream, depicting the chic and coolness of both the pop culture and Parisian vibe of the time. The two main characters come across as archetypes of cool and beauty, yet are driven by self-serving complexities.
As much as “Breathless” (or “À bout de soufflé”, which means “out of breath”) is highly innovative with its groundbreaking use of stylistic jump cuts (which came about when the director was told the film was too long, resulting in him snipping out certain moments from scenes), it’s a pretty straightforward story about a criminal and the girl he wants to sleep with. It’s what Godard does with the basic storyline that sets his work apart from any other formula, primarily because he creates his own formula. After paving his own unique path in film criticism (along with Truffaut and writers and eventual filmmakers such as Jacques Rivett and Claude Chabrol) working for French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard was apparently ready to walk the talk and make his own film (something many filmmakers would love film critics to try) and I bet many were surprised that the outcome delivered such a new and modern voice in cinema.
For his first feature, Godard opted to produce a picture revolving around a criminal, a genre he was already inspired by. The story follows chain-smoking Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) a petty criminal on the run after purposely killing a traffic cop, after stealing a car. The Bogart-worshiping, lying thief (he claims he’s been in the army – yeah, right – and also says he was a flight attendant) makes his way to Paris to escape police and hit up people who owe him money for one reason or another. Michel tries to hook up one of his girlfriends, Liliane (Liliane David), who wants to be in the movies, but he loses interest. He’d rather study his reflection in store windows or practice making suave faces in the mirror, in order to maintain his cool aura, clearly inspired by big-screen bad boys.
Michel then reunites with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an adorably quirky American girl with a pixie haircut (could she be the original manic pixie dream girl?) and aspiring reporter who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the Parisian streets. Why does he show up at her place unannounced, shirtless and in bed? His intentions are clear, but does she love him? Michel is transparent – he continuously asks her to sleep with him – and also asks her to lie and steal for him and go to Rome with him, now that his mug is all over newspapers and a detective (Daniel Boulanger) is hot on his trail. Patricia expresses that she may or may not be in love with Michel – she’s just not sure nor does she seem to care about making any definitive declarations either way. Michel stalks her walking the streets, as she connects with other male suitors or potential business contacts, which only frustrates him as he tried to maintain his cool in sunglasses, fedora, tweed coat and silk socks.
Belmondo’s character and his portrayal is purposefully an archetype of a recurring antihero from American film noir films. He always has a smoke hanging from his lips, wears the same suit throughout the film and often mumbles his lines. Although he wants to sleep with Patricia, he calls her names left and right, discards her and reconnects with her as he sees fit – yet none of it really fazes her.
Seberg’s Patricia is something of an enigma. What lies underneath her flawless bone structure, her perfect lips and alluring eyes? We learn quite a bit about the two of them during Godard’s extended claustrophobic sequence on her bed, in which the two flirt, fidget and fight, but one thing is clear: she is playing him. But Seberg and Godard are really good at subverting audience expectations of this cute American Girl in Paris. We think she’ll be enamored by this smooth French criminal, but they both slowly reveal that she’s just not that in to Michel and would rather call the police on him than have him circling around her.
In many ways, Michel is as much a poor sap as Robert Mitchum’s Jeff from 1947’s “Out of the Past”, only Michel doesn’t have a promising new life he can turn to like Jeff did. He’s fine stealing and murdering his way through life and sleeping with whoever he pleases. But like Jeff, he’ll getting himself tripped up over a cute girl won’t turn out well at all for him. Like Mitchum, Belmondo’s presence exudes machismo. He looks like a young Tom Berenger, rubs his lips to maintain some kind of appearance that only he has in his head and swaggers about like a jungle panther chasing a spry feline who is out of reach. Both Michel and Patricia are obsessed with how they look – no wonder they’re out of breath.
What stands out the most in “Breathless” is the look and feel of the film. Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard give Paris center stage, making the city a prominent character in and of itself. The beautiful use of the stark blacks and whites and grey tones is perhaps what most resonated for me. It felt like I was watching photography come to life and that’s because Coutard spent years as a war photographer and his hand-held method and use of natural light lent itself to the documentary feel Godard would be known for during his Nouvelle Vague era (1959 – 1967). “Breathless” is briskly shot on the street, where we see sidewalk gawkers in the background as we briskly follow our two leads and then they’re suddenly edited out with in a blink of an eye. In doing so, it literally conveys how we see the world through our own eyes.
Much of “Breathless” feels like it was shot on the fly and in truth much of the dialogue was written by Godard that day. The director keeps both his environments and his characters loose and spontaneous, like a film school student shooting his final film. The film, now over fifty years old, benefits from that approach. There is nothing stiff or overstuffed about it. It is about freedom during a time in Godard’s career when he was probably at his most free – when he had nothing to lose on his first feature.