Today’s classic is the first feature film from groundbreaking director Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless. Back in 1960, the low budget Breathless was an unexpected success and changed the future of cinema. An early film in the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) Breathless made a lasting impression on its audience and the established film scene.
Youthful Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car. Pursued by a policeman, Michel shoots him. Returning to Paris, Michel meets with an old love interest, American exchange student, Patricia (Jean Seberg), who he wants to run away with. This story is simple – but Breathless is all about style.
Jean-Luc Godard: Direction & Style
As Breathless opens, there is an immediate sense that this is a different kind of film. Rapid scene changes, street noise, jump cuts, a heady, jazzy soundtrack, a lead character that talks directly to the audience and uses declarative statements. There is a youthfulness to Breathless, an energy, a spark – Michel, driving past a group of hitchhikers, is tempted to pick them up, dismissing them on the grounds, ‘they’re uglies’. But when a woman asks Michel on the street, ‘do you like the young sir?,’ his abrupt, ‘no I prefer the old,’ seems to echo potential reactions to this break in cinematic tradition.
Jean-Luc Godard was one of a number of critics turned director in Paris at the time. Writing for the journal Cahiers du Cinema which challenged existing approaches and advanced Auteur theory – that a director is the author of his film, that the film represents the director’s vision and creative personality – Godard’s film work turned established cinema on its head.
Godard sought to give Breathless a documentary feel, employing cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who had considerable experience as a photojournalist, to film entirely on a handheld camera using natural light. There are a number of scenes where this approach is notably impressive including a long take where Michel runs down a street with the camera following him from behind. Filming on the streets also gives Breathless more realism while at the same time reminding us that we are watching a film – passersby stroll in front of the camera as we watch Patricia selling the New York Herald Tribune.
“There’s a youthfulness to Breathless – an energy, a spark”
Godard employed a spontaneous approach, improvising much of the dialogue. Assistant director, Pierre Rissient reportedly explained the shooting script was just three or four pages with Godard often putting scenes together the night before filming.
Breathless’ most often remembered style choice is the use of jump cuts – long pieces of film which were cut and re-joined. This gives Breathless a dynamic feel and a fast pace. As Michel’s early journey in the stolen car is edited with jump cuts, he appears to be driving more recklessly than perhaps he is, increasing the excitement. Not part of the initial approach of Breathless, Godard discovered this technique during the editing process and built it into the style of the film.
Godard’s boldness is also shown in the frankness with which the characters speak about sex. Godard chooses not to end the scene when Patricia gets into bed with Michel, but moves the camera from the sheets to the radio and back again, several times.
Breathless has a fresh look compared to the films that came before it. Yet Breathless is filled with film references that display a love for Hollywood movies. Michel admires a poster of Humphrey Bogart and Patricia escapes through a cinema. Godard also uses some traditional techniques – using the iris shot (a circle that closes to end the scene) when an informant approaches police with news of Michel’s location, emphasising that the city is closing in on him.
Character & Themes
Michel is an unpleasant character: jealous, domineering and a cad. A large hat tipped down over his eyes and a fat cigarette continually poking out of his mouth, Michel gives the impression of a young man trying to be more self-assured and coolheaded than he is. Played impeccably by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who gives him a striking mannerism of rubbing his thumb over his lips, Michel is not a character it is easy to forget.
In one of Breathless’ most potent scenes, Patricia returns to her apartment to find Michel lying in her bed. It’s a long scene in which Patricia and Michel talk about books, music and art, punctuated by his constant efforts to get her into bed. At times, this is an uncomfortable scene to watch – not least because we know he is a murderer. Michel flirtatiously insults her, calling her a ‘cruel, cowardly, contemptible creature,’ asks her about her sexual experiences and pesters her to the point that she slaps him. Seberg gives us a Patricia who appears confused about her own ‘self’, leaving us unclear whether she is keen on Michel or simply lacks the assertiveness to get him to leave. Yet despite its uncomfortable undertones, this scene also feels more open, honest and realistic than earlier, Hollywood films.
Patricia is a hugely inconsistent character. Her feelings for Michel are never clear – does she love him or not? Is she infatuated with him or not? She appears not to be moved by his dangerous past, and might even find it appealing. As Patricia interviews an author for her work on the newspaper, the questions of others revolve around women and gender issues, relationships and sexist attitudes, yet Patricia is seemingly unmoved by how these issues might affect her. Instead, she is more interested in her own question, ‘what is your greatest ambition?’. As the author replies, ‘to become immortal and then die,’ Godard lingers on Patricia’s face and she makes eye contact with the audience, asking us to contemplate this contradictory idea that represents the ultimate freedom. These existential themes and unconventional heroes would become a key feature of the New French Wave.
Breathless is an intensely stylish and engrossing film. It is fascinating to watch this dynamic shift in cinema and Jean-Luc Godard’s approach is captivating. While his characters may be unpleasant and changeable, they leave many unanswered questions that keep the audience coming back for more.
There are some great articles about Breathless online:
GUARDIAN: Breathless Continues To Shock And Surprise 50 Years On. This article also features Philip French’s top Nouvelle Classics