Long held up as the benchmark for coolness on film, Jean Luc Godard’s 1960 film À Bout de Souffle (or simply Breathless to give it its English title) was something I had heard much talk of, but had never seen. Godard is one of the founding members of the nouvelle vague (French New Wave) style which was pioneered in France in the 1950s and ’60s and, along with François Truffaut and a handful of other directors, helped define a form which starkly opposed the cinéma vérité (literally ‘true cinema’), documentarian narratives which had proved so popular during the first half of the 20th century in Hollywood and Europe.
Godard helped to usher in the New Wave, his films eschewing normal editing techniques and de-regulating narrative structure to enable a more sprawling, artistic form of filmmaking. Breathless is held up not just as a yardstick for the nouvelle vague movement, but for all arthouse movies and is often named among the very best films ever made. It’s an up-close portrayal of a few hectic days in the life of Jean Paul Belmondo’s criminal-on-the-run Michel Poiccard; after shooting a policeman in the opening five minutes, his infamy gradually grows and he tries to recoup a debt that will raise the funds for a move to Italy and away from trouble. During his odyssey around Paris, Michel tries to woo American journalist Patricia Franchini (a coy Jean Seberg) into running away with him, dodging the attentions of Inspector Vital (Daniel Boulanger) but also indulging in his other loves: car theft, American cinema, and heavy smoking….
The first thing that strikes you about Breathless is the accuracy of its title: Godard plunges you straight into Michel’s life in the opening scene, the camera accompanying him on a drive in a stolen car in the countryside and witnessing his murder of a policeman. There is no time given to backstory in the first third, and the director allows his actors to flesh out the characters rather than force-feeding you their life stories.
This ethos works fabulously for Belmondo’s Poiccard, a man so effortlessly cool he suavely glides around Paris evading police attention, casually lifting money off passers-by to finance his indulgences. Poiccard lights his latest cigarette off the one he’s just finished, and seems to have more connections than the Gard du Nord: constantly hooking up with fellow criminals, ex-lovers and friends in all walks of life. Poiccard is a lot like the cigarettes he smokes: cool, tempting but hazardous to your health.
His irrepressible charisma is what carries the movie, and Belmondo here is tremendous, a kind of French Robert Redford: just like Redford in The Sting, he’s a young, handsome, loveable criminal who charms his way into and out of seemingly inescapable situations. However, he has no Paul Newman figure to guide him, and his hubristic lifestyle begins to catch up with him come the final reel.
The film is Belmondo’s for sure (he’s in practically every scene), with Seberg cribbing a lot of screentime as the uncertain Patricia, an American with not only a terrible French accent – intentional, one would hope – but an optimistic outlook which at points nearly negates Michel’s uniquely humourous pessimism (which offers a wit drier than a Saudi Arabian bar). Seberg impresses not only with her distinctive good looks, but the ability to draw the viewer’s gaze from the magnetic Belmondo, even if only momentarily.
If we were to give top billing to Belmondo, right below him on the list of great performances isn’t Seberg, but Paris. Godard’s camera pans around the city smoothly, drinking in the architecture and passion of the city with a deftness and clarity reminiscent of Woody Allen’s great love letter to New York, Manhattan. The director not only manages to showcase a beautiful city with care and precision, but does it without detriment to plot or character development: the panning shots we see of Paris always follow Michel or Patricia’s movements and serve the plot just as well as the director’s impulses.
Belmondo gives a career-defining performance, and the film’s pace sweeps us into these people’s lives, not returning us to our feet until ‘FIN’ appears on our screens. However, the film does suffer a touch from an over-reliance on its lead, and people drift in and out of the camera as frequently as they do in Michel’s restless life, hardly any of them explored beyond their first names. Without Michel the film lags somewhat, forcing Belmondo and Godard to once more pull it along by sheer force of skill: for every minute’s slowdown there are two minutes of rapid-fire camera movement and witty dialogue exchange.
Yet despite its problems it’s hard not to love Breathless. As an exploration of an amoral but inexplicably cool criminal it’s nearly flawless, from Michel’s idolisation of Humphrey Bogart to his consistent damnation of the world outside his head. Godard’s picture is doubtlessly one of the flat-out coolest films out there, with a terrific central performance and a lead character you can’t help but admire, for all his narcissism and (sometimes misplaced) bravado. If you can watch this film without wanting a pack of Gauloises and a trilby, you’re a better man than I.
9/10: For all the excitement and enjoyment Breathless offers, it doesn’t quite fulfill the hype surrounding it. If you can go in with zero expectation, however, you’re likely to be utterly blown away. Speeding along at a pace befitting its title, Breathless, like its star, refuses to compromise and triumphantly blows off anyone who disagrees. How very French.