Breathless (1960)    3 Stars

Breathless (1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger

Synopsis: A young car thief kills a policeman and tries to persuade a girl to hide in Italy with him.




For his film debut in 1959, Jean-Luc Godard took one of the oldest Hollywood B-movie scenarios — a man, a woman and a gun — and, while constantly referencing the classic Hollywood movies that influenced him, managed to turn all the genre conventions of those movies on their head and establish himself firmly in the vanguard of the French Nouvelle Vague. Presenting this merger of American and French culture in the forms of the loose-limbed Belmondo and the gamin Seberg, Godard went out of his way to ensure his audience never forgot they were watching a piece of fiction and, in doing so, created a style of movie-making that is still much in evidence today.

The story of Breathless is a simple one. Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a small-time hood who steals a car in Marseille so that he can drive to Paris and find American beauty Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), the woman with whom he has had a brief affair and whom he loves. On the journey, however, he kills a policeman. Arriving in Paris a hunted man, Poiccard quickly finds Patricia, and attempts to persuade her to leave with him for Rome. Uncertain of whether she loves him, Patricia procrastinates while the net tightens…

With Breathless, Godard injects US pop culture into the heart of Paris; gleaming Thunderbirds glide through the shadows of L’Arc de Triumphe, and pass walls adorned with posters for American movies. Poiccard models himself on Humphrey Bogart — literally in one famous scene — and even adopts the mannerism of drawing his thumb across his lip as Bogie did in his last film, The Harder They Fall. Throughout the movie, we never know how much of the real Poiccard we are seeing, and how much of the image; reality is blurred, the character of Poiccard is based on a myth, and therefore impenetrable. It makes him a remote and uninvolving character — no doubt as intended — and makes all the more puzzling the fact that Patricia sees anything in him.

Patricia is, like Poiccard, an aimless character — although emotionally, rather than morally. She is unsure of her love for Poiccard, as if she too is confused by her feelings for him and suspects she hasn’t even really glimpsed his true persona. And so there is a reservation in her interaction with him that leaves the viewer with the impression that, were their relationship to end, she would move on without regret. For all Poiccard’s absurd posturing he is the weaker partner in the relationship, and so the one that will suffer most when it collapses. Again, considering the way he ultimately accepts his fate, one suspects that he is aware of this fact as much as the viewer.

Of course, this is all conjecture, a personal interpretation of the emotional forces at work in what is ostensibly a simple tale. It is what makes Breathless such an intriguing — and frustrating — film to watch. While there might not be a lot happening on the screen — as in the twenty-five minute scene in Patricia’s apartment — it is what is going on behind the scenes — in the character’s heads — that is so fascinating.

In addition to crafting a deceptively complex tale, Godard brought a whole host of innovative techniques to the screen. Many were brought about by financial and/or time constraints, which perhaps just goes to prove that necessity really can be the mother of invention. And, as is the case with Citizen Kane, the innovative techniques have been copied so many times that, viewed today, much of the freshness of the movie is lost on younger generations. Technically, however, it is still a joy to watch. The scene in the travel agent’s, in which Poiccard tries to collect some money owed to him and unwittingly avoids capture by the police through sheer luck, is riveting. Filmed in one long take — a hallmark of the New Wave — the hand-held camera restlessly follows Poiccard like a nervous accomplice; the long scene in Patricia’s apartment; Belmondo talking directly to the camera, and using street slang; and, of course, the infamous jump-cuts — which largely came about because the film was nearly an hour longer than Godard wanted — still disconcert, and remind the viewer once again that s/he is watching fiction being played out on a screen. This jump cutting is beyond compare as a technique for heightening the perception of the viewer. Too many directors use it simply for effect today, thus rendering it almost meaningless, and one regrets not having the opportunity to experience the impact of Godard’s innovations before they were diminished by too many second-rate wannabes.

Like most groundbreaking films, Breathless tends to polarise its audience: you either love it or you hate it. Most, I think, love it; its characters possess a brash exuberance that is not only timeless — and, for all its imitators, this film still looks remarkably fresh — but an appropriate reflection of the exciting new breed of film-making that it heralded.

(Reviewed 25th November 2006)