Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless became one of the earliest and most influential films of the French New Wave, a new style of filmmaking used in France from 1958-1964. Godard himself liked to quote D.W Griffith’s claim that “all you need for a film is a girl and a gun”. This claim, together with Roberto Rossellini’s 1953 film Voyage to Italy, in which Godard realised he could make a film consisting of simple conversation, the inspiration for Breathless was born.
In keeping with D.W Griffith’s claim, Breathless tells the story of a young outlaw, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who returns to Paris and attempts to rekindle his relationship with his American ex Patricia (Jean Seberg) meanwhile dodging the police.
In Godard’s former profession as a film critic he was known for jumping from “topic to topic”, a style that often lead to criticism. This style was translated into his filmmaking, which is clear in Breathless his first feature-length production.
The film opens with the lead (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) in a typical Hollywood manner, cigarette in mouth with a top hat pushed low over his forehead in a stylish suit, a definite nod to the American star that was a great influence in Godard’s Breathless.
The film’s opening immediately transports the audience into its distorted narrative. The viewer is introduced to an anonymous lead, fleeing for Paris and being chased by the police for a reason that remains unexplained. French New Wave films constantly broke with the traditions of Classical Hollywood Cinema, despite the influence it had on their films. Following the opening of Breathless the lead, later revealed as Michel Poiccard, addresses the audience directly, speaking into the camera. This style was incredibly new to cinema as it broke the illusion for the viewer, who was traditionally immersed into the world and narrative of the film they were watching. Breathless, along with other French New Wave productions, continually broke with this idea.
Breathless introduced another new trend in French New Wave cinema that was to use entirely natural lighting. As a result, the shots vary from being submerged in darkness and shadow to extremely bright. This use of natural lighting is complimented by the natural sounds of the city streets of Paris, used continually in the film. This itself is beautifully combined with the film’s sleek, seductive and extremely French soundtrack.
The film’s use of jump-cuts, central to the ideas of French New Wave, is reflected in the language. Patricia flits casually from French to English, and in a similar way the camera slides casually and randomly between shots. Despite the French New Wave belief in eliminating unnecessary detail, the narrative tends to focus on the mundane, for instance Patricia’s revelation that she is pregnant is soon lost in the midst of trivial and sometimes dull dialogue that combines the long scene between the two characters inside Patricia’s apartment. However, this narrative style, while sometimes bland, adds to the charm and uniqueness that is exactly what is so captivating about Breathless.
The character of Michel has many of the elements that resemble that of the typical Hollywood hero, something that very much-inspired Godard’s work. This influence is referenced throughout Breathless; Michel admires a poster of Humphrey Bogart, the beloved American star who died several years before the film’s release. Patricia gazes at him through a rolled up newspaper as the camera slowly zooms into a close-up of Michel’s photogenic expression that resembles that of a movie poster. However, his character is very much that of the anti-hero and quite an unlikeable one at that. He steals from friends and civilians, beats and insults kindly people, makes constant, forceful advances towards Patricia, and, let’s not forget, guns down a policeman in cold blood. These traits make it difficult to sympathise with his character, and even evokes little care in his eventual death. Any sympathy for his final predicament lies more with the ambitious Patricia. Intelligent yet naïve, Patricia accompanies Michel on his flee from the police to discover her true feelings for him, and her conscience eventually leads her to hand him into the police.
Godard’s passion for literature and theatre that is constantly referenced in his film reviews is expressed through Patricia’s shared love of the art. She makes reference to Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas and directly quotes William Faulkner. While far from innocent, Patricia’s witnessing of Michel’s death evokes sympathy from the viewer as she too shares a part in his downfall.
Despite Michel’s differences between the traditional Hollywood heroes, the ending reveals him submitting himself gracefully to his fate. Having discovered Patricia’s betrayal, Michel, still in love with her, rejects his friend’s offer to help. Instead he simply states, “I’ve had enough! I’m tired. I want to sleep”.
Over the many years since Godard’s Breathless was first released, it has upheld its worthy status as one of the greatest films of the French New Wave. While viewers may tire of its long, and what seems at times futile narrative, the evocative and truly remarkable direction transforms this film into an exceptional piece of filmmaking. If this is still not enough, the devastatingly glamorous insight into 1960s Paris cannot fail to beguile any viewer.