Released: 1960
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut
Jean-Paul Belmondo: Michel Poiccard
Jean Seberg: Patricia Franchini

      Poster for the 1960 French film Breathless.

Review by Jana Kraus,

Revolutionary & Dynamic, Breathless Still Electrifies

François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer were film connoisseurs, who all worked as movie critics for the same magazine. Between the years 1958 to 1964, this group transitioned into filmmaking, and, along with other directors such as Agnés Varda, Jean-Pierre Melville and Louis Malle, ushered in the French New Wave Movement (Nouvelle Vague). Their background in film theory and criticism was a major factor in motivating these artists to create a bold new cinema.

Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature, Breathless, was released in 1960, introducing the New Wave and changing cinema forever. Godard used jump cuts, handheld cameras, zoom lenses and a new editing style to take the viewer places never ventured before. No artificial, glossy stage sets in this movie. Along with the protagonists, we travel up and down small side streets, into local bars and sidewalk cafés, across boulevards and, for inconsequential moments, brush the lives of passers-by, who have nothing to do with the screenplay, but always play a role in our daily comings and goings. The fragmented rhythm of modern life is translated here. Godard used sound in the same way, adding street noises, bits of conversations and music to add to the movie’s authenticity and pace. This was indeed innovative at the time, and it still holds up. Watching Breathless forty-five years after its debut, 21st century technology does not detract from its dynamism or relevance in the slightest. In fact, with each viewing, I find the film every bit as exciting and poignant as I did the first time.

Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the feckless, foul-mouthed car thief, anti-hero and Humphrey Bogart fan, Michel Poiccard. Just a few minutes after the opening credits conclude, Michel’s status changes from small-time hood to cop killer. His life’s plans alter drastically as he becomes a hunted fugitive. Michel remains cool enough, however, to visit an old girlfriend and steal some money. Bogart would have been proud—not of the theft, but of the style. Michel spots gamine-like American, Patricia Franchini, (the lovely Jean Seberg), selling copies of the Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysees, and pursues her, with roguish smiles and moody pouts. He curses her and moves off fast, though, when she gives him a hard time. He likes his women more enthusiastic. Instead of getting out of town fast, Michel hangs with fellow thugs and steals more cars.

Patricia is an enigmatic character, who occasionally startles with her observations and revelations. Twenty years old, with the naive face of an angel, she seems to have no direction or goals in life. She studies at the Sorbonne and says she wants to write, but is oddly detached. She shuns commitment. She does occasional odd jobs for the newspaper, but appears to live in a dream world. Of course Patricia winds up with Michel and together they gallivant around the gorgeous streets of Paris, as if they haven’t a care in the world. Patricia does have at least one problem, however—she might be pregnant. Together the couple attempts to collect on a debt to raise enough cash to escape to Italy.

Godard captures incredibly intimate moments between the two lovers, particularly in one lengthy, extremely realistic bedroom episode, filled with small talk, tenderness, petty cruelties, eroticism, mind games, childhood memories shared and loneliness. At the scene’s end we have a better understanding of the self-destructive individuals who make up this twosome. A sense of burgeoning doom, which has hovered in the background all along, begins to increase here. Michel’s bravado also escalates with the level of danger and, to his credit, he remains true to his idol, Bogart, to the end. The conclusion boggles the mind, at least it has always impacted me emotionally in a major way.

Belmondo is brilliant as the restless thief, in this, his first film role. He reminds me of a French James Dean. Seberg is convincing and fresh. This is a dynamic film, witty, fast-paced, romantic and disturbing. It has long been a favorite of mine.