Upon its release in 1960, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (À bout de soufflé) was like an explosion of cinematic ideas. Having set fire to the standards of film criticism in the fabled journal Cahiers du cinema, Godard and his cohorts were ready to walk it like they talked it. Working from an idea by Francois Truffaut, and featuring Claude Chabrol as "technical advisor" (pretty much a fake credit), the film was ground zero for what would be called the French New Wave (or Nouvelle Vague), a movement that would renounce uptight, stale conventions in search of a new, modern voice.
As with many great auteurs of modern movies, Godard began his career by working in the genres that inspired him. Breathless is a gangster picture with the crusts sawed off. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel Poiccard, a low-level tough guy with delusions of Bogart. He makes claims of having been in the army, and we're told that he once was a flight attendant, but now he's a thug, making faces at himself in the mirror to get his expressions just right. Michel and one of his girlfriends, Liliane (Liliane David), want to be in the movies, but it's so much work. Better to just pretend you are the thing you imagine you are.
Michel's decisive transformative moment comes at the start of the picture. On a joyride in a big American car, he gets chased by a pair of motorcycle cops and ends up shooting one of them. Now a murderer, he heads back into Paris to try to score cash that is owed to him and one more roll in the hay with Patricia (Jean Seberg), a cute American with a pixie haircut. She's got a surprise of her own for Michel, one that could complicate things if he ever stopped trying to get in her pants long enough to think about it. Michel wants her to be a typical gangster moll who lies to the cops and acts as his accessory in whatever crime he's got going, but Patricia isn't sure she's going to be able to postpone growing up long enough to keep playing Michel's bad boy games. Is it perhaps a none-too-subtle nod to Godard's journalistic roots that Patricia aspires to be a reporter, and it's she who will see the dead-end in Michel's overdone ideas?
Then again, his action beats her words in the end. The Godard with the camera beats the Godard with the typewriter.
Though the plot mechanics of Breathless are as old as Scarface--one of the many touchstone films mentioned in Godard's irreverent trailer for the movie, and George Raft's quarter-flipping is likely the inspiration for Belmondo's tic-like ritual of rubbing his lips--but the upstart director busts all of the boundaries off the genre and flaunts the rules of moviemaking to boot. His freeform, freewheeling plot doesn't settle for point A to point B conflict-resolution simplicity. At times, he steps away from the plot altogether, with one of the longest sequences being an extended conversation in Patricia's room with no mention of the bounty on Michel's head being made at all. Then again, most noir antiheroes get themselves screwed up through jealousy and not being able to let go of that one particular girl. In that sense, Michel is no different than the sappy Burt Lancaster of Criss Cross or the sadistic Lawrence Tierney of Born to Kill. If it's not the money, it's the dames.
That leaves attitude as the biggest difference between Breathless and the American gangster pictures Godard emulates. Attitude, and size. Like American cars, American movies are bigger. They are also heavier. Burt Lancaster, be it in Criss Cross or The Killers, was never able to shake off the inevitability of fate. His doom weighed on him. Jean-Paul Belmondo never seems to suffer at all. If he breaks a sweat, it's only in the rarest of scrapes. Belmondo is a manly presence, reeking of musk and lumbering forward with a jungle cat's swagger. He's also kind of ridiculous, completely obsessed with getting laid and with how he looks. No wonder he declares he's tired in the end, it's a lot of work keeping up such appearances.
Still, Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard give Belmondo a big playground to show off in--all of Paris itself! Breathless is shot on the street, seemingly on the fly with the sidewalk gawkers left in for posterity, and then edited with a persistent wink, jumping between takes and comically juxtaposing image and sound. A lot of Breathless feels like it was made up as it goes along (once again putting aside the noirish air of inescapable destruction), like a couple of guys grabbed some cameras and some toy guns and went running around shooting stuff until they had a movie. True or no, it's kept Breathless feeling healthy and alive for nearly fifty years, crystallizing a spirit of freedom that many are still trying to crack open and use.
Yet, there will never be another like Breathless. Though many of the Godard films in the coming years are even looser and more playful, the first time always has something special. There would be no repeating the Belmondo and Seberg chemistry, no better illustration of the oft-repeated "a girl and a gun" formula, and no putting the lid back on after the seal was broken.
Originally written October 23, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.