Breathless (À bout de souffle)
France (1960) Dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Popping my Godard cherry with his directorial debut and arguably most famous work, Breathless brings with it a personal trepidation spoken of before on this site, incurred by the mighty reputation of the film. Hailed as a “masterpiece” (a word I’ve come to loathe), there is the double anxiety as many classic New Wave films have rarely impressed me as they have others. Thus I felt I was throwing myself to the lions when I popped this 50th Anniversary edition into my DVD player.
The story concerns a Bogart obsessed criminal named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who also poses under the alias Laszlo Kovacs and his arrogant and seemingly amoral lifestyle. Having stolen a car and hitting the country roads a bit too fast for the police’s liking, Michel shoots and kills the motorbike cop pursuing him. Running scared, he then returns to Paris and begs his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) to leave for Italy with him.
Breathless has earned its lofty reputation not because it boasts compelling storytelling or masterclass acting but for its unique and groundbreaking presentation, which is as audacious as it is bewildering. Shot entirely on hand held cameras we have an early example of the intrusive cinema vérité style (evident from the guerrilla style shots in the street where the public can’t help but stare into the camera) yet it is the quick cut edits that stand out the most.
We are not talking the Michael Bay “blink and you miss it” fifty shots a second quick edits but literal jump cuts in the same scene. For example, if a character is walking across a room the shot will jump cut to him at the other side of the room; similarly when out driving Michel talks with Patricia and even line he speaks is marked by a new shot of Patricia, exposed by the change in the background scenery.
Audiences with little tolerance towards French and arthouse cinema will see this as textbook pretentiousness but once one gets used to it, there is a sense that Godard is keeping us on our toes while avoiding marking time with the mundane. In key scenes where Michel is being pursued by the police or up to one of his usual scams, these cuts up the pacing of the action and drama while saving time.
It takes a while to get used to and quite often we are left wondering what happened in between the cuts with only our imaginations to fill the gaps, but it gives us an unusually complete film inside a short run time of 86 minutes – in fact the main story and characters are all established and underway inside the first 9 minutes while other films are still fresh off the opening credits!
Yet this frantic time skipping bookends a beguiling middle section set in Patricia’s small flat (Michel had let himself in) and the pair discuss love, sex, literature, cultural differences between Americans and French and other intriguing subjects. This again may be the blueprint for the stereotypical idea of French cinema but it gives us a chance to get to know the couple and their personalities without endless exposition or needless contrivance to set it up.
It is these characters that make this film as much as the brisk presentation. Michel is not a particularly likeable chap yet he is hugely charismatic, blessed with a quick wit and the gift of the gab. Taking chain smoking to a new level of ubiquity, Michel thinks nothing of openly stealing cars or money from friends, often from under their noses. The shooting of the policeman was a panicked accident hence his sudden need to flee Paris, where his list of enemies vastly out numbers his friends.
Patricia may be an American student and foolishly smitten by Michel but she is no idiot either. She can break him down intellectually and is aware that Michel’s lust for her is a weapon Patricia can use against him. Whether she is actually aware that Michel’s boasts of wealth and connections are lies and the flash cars he drives are stolen is never expressed, since she would no doubt disapprove but again she is caught in his web.
What is perhaps quite remarkable about this film is how advanced aesthetically it is. Made in 1959 and released in 1960 one is forgiven for thinking this was made in 1968, from Patricia’s short cropped hair style which didn’t become popular for another few years, her progressive thinking as a woman and the general edginess of the fast style editing, along with the grey area criminal on the run premise.
Godard was giving a helping hand from some famous faces in making this film, notably Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut who wrote the original treatment from an idea Godard got from a newspaper story of a real life incident almost identical to the finished script.
One has to wonder if the real life inspiration for Michel was half as charismatic as his fast talking screen counterpart, brought to life through a remarkably energetic and ballsy performance from Jean-Paul Belmondo, a jobbing acting who shot to stardom after this film. Belmondo is both rough looking and oddly handsome which works well for this seminal role, displaying a great comedic side and a darker desperate one.
The tragic Jean Seberg should have been a 60’s fashion icon based off this wistful performance with her then distinctive look. As Patricia, she is an enigmatic feather caught in a wild storm that refuses to blown in the direction the wind blows unless it is on her terms, and the only person who could tame Michel.
Finally, I have found a French New Wave film that doesn’t disappoint. Breathless is a spiky, uncompromising and often obnoxious outing without being disagreeable. It is bold, challenging but very immersive, still able to catch out new viewers and filmmakers alike with its innovative style to this day.