Breathless was one of the films that kicked off the French New Wave, a movement that inspired countless directors and led to a significant change in the way popular movies are made. Its title and its director, Jean-Luc Godard, are well known among film buffs. But what is it about Breathless that leaves people so breathless? Let's put on our Humphrey Bogart hats and investigate.
The praise: Roger Ebert said that "modern movies begin here, with Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. No debut film since Citizen Kane has been as influential." Ebert calls it "revolutionary," as do Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kenneth Turan, Andrew O'Hehir, and even Armond White, forgoing his usual practice of saying the opposite of what the other critics are saying. A Google search for breathless revolutionary yields almost 500,000 results. The movie won a best director prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was named best film of 1960 by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics.
The context: Like several of his French New Wave brethren, Jean-Luc Godard started as a film critic, writing for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, when he was in his early 20s. He made a few short films later that decade, and was inspired to make a feature after seeing Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1958.
The screenplay for Breathless was written by Godard's friend François Truffaut, whose own films (including The 400 Blows) were starting to make waves at the same time. To a greater extent than the other New Wavers, Godard wanted to mess around with the basic language of film, to be rougher and more experimental with the editing and structure. Breathless makes countless references to other movies, and would itself be referenced later on, as we shall see.
One way Godard referenced the past was in casting the American-born actress Jean Seberg as the female lead. Seberg, in a highly publicized talent search, had been plucked from obscurity by Otto Preminger to play the lead in his Saint Joan (1957). Seberg and the film got terrible reviews; Preminger tried to rectify the situation by putting Seberg in his next film, Bonjour Tristesse (1958); that failed too. It was around this time that Godard asked Seberg to play Patricia in Breathless. He hoped that her name recognition -- even if it was for being in two famous flops -- would increase the film's commercial viability. But the casting choice was also indicative of Godard's central idea, which was to take the familiar elements of film -- in this case a particular actor -- and use them as construction materials for something new.
The movie: A twerpy hoodlum named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car, kills a cop, and goes on the lam. His efforts to evade the police aren't exactly frantic, though; he finds plenty of time to sleep with an American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), and to enjoy the here-and-now pleasures of being young, French, and carefree.
What it influenced: It influenced everything! The end.
Ugh, I have been informed that my job requires me to elaborate. FINE.
Breathless was released just months after François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour. Together, the three films comprise the beginning of the French New Wave (which we discussed in some detail when we talked about 1962's Jules & Jim). A few other New Wave films came out around the same time, but these three are generally considered the most successful, influential, and archetypical.
Just about all the elements of a "standard" New Wave film can be found in Breathless: handheld cameras, unknown or non-professional actors, naturalistic dialogue, natural lighting, on-location shooting. There are freeze-frames and jump cuts; characters break the fourth wall; and the main subjects are disaffected youth who live bohemian lifestyles. All of these devices were co-opted by the "New Hollywood" filmmakers in the late '60s and '70s, and as a result are commonplace today.
Breathless led specifically to Bonnie and Clyde (Godard was even asked to direct it at one point), which means it led to all the films Bonnie and Clyde inspired, too, including pretty much everything Quentin Tarantino has ever written, including his grocery lists.
Breathless and its New Wave brethren helped movies become reflexive, full of allusions to cinema's own history, structure, and conventions. This goes beyond merely making a movie that includes references to other movies; Hollywood had been doing that for years. Breathless is reflexive in that it copies, borrows, and parodies elements of various genres (especially American gangster pictures) and openly acknowledges that it's doing it. Movies had always done this, at least subconsciously, but filmmakers had usually tried to hide it, to pretend that each film was created in a vacuum, independent of what came before it. The New Wavers, and especially Godard, put their influences right out there in the open. Let's acknowledge that we're building on the work of our predecessors, they said, and use that as the starting point of a conversation. (Godard actually dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures, the American studio responsible for many of the B-movies that inspired it, lest there be any question where Godard got his materials from.)
This reflexiveness doesn't seem unusual in the 21st century, when movies frequently refer to themselves, to their stars' personal lives, or to the art of filmmaking itself. But it was movies like Breathless that made it "safe" for directors to use this approach.
Something else that Breathless helped popularize was the use of jump cuts. A jump cut is when you take a continuous shot of something, clip out some frames from the middle, and splice the two pieces back together. The result is that the action jumps ahead a little, like a record skipping. One second your character is just sitting down; the next second he's seated, with a cup of coffee in his hand. It looks like a mistake, the sort of thing editors try NOT to do. But Godard realized it could be used as a way of moving the action forward a little faster. The viewer doesn't actually need to see the man finish sitting down, pour himself a cup of coffee, stir in sugar, then start sipping it. You can jump right from sitting to sipping, and the viewer's brain will fill the rest in.
Or that's how we react now, anyway -- now that we've seen a thousand jump cuts in a thousand movies and TV shows. In 1960, jump cuts had been used only occasionally, and not as heavily as Godard used them here. And in fact he didn't do it for aesthetic reasons at first. The movie was too long, but Godard didn't want to remove any whole scenes. Instead, he edited within the scenes, trimming the extraneous action.
But it fit with his ideas about moviemaking anyway. Godard and the New Wavers wanted to remind audiences that they were, in fact, watching a movie. The smooth, continuous editing that was standard in filmmaking was designed to create the illusion of reality, to make you believe (at least momentarily) that this is a real thing that you are really witnessing. With jump cuts, that illusion is shattered, and Godard found another way to go against traditional filmmaking practices.
Here's an example of how jump cuts are used in Breathless. Notice, for example, how Patricia suddenly has a mirror in her hand, then suddenly doesn't have it anymore.
(By the way, the 1983 Richard Gere film called Breathless is a remake of this one. If you're only going to see one of them, see the original, obviously.)
What to look for: Since Godard was working on a shoestring budget and consciously rebelling against the Hollywood norm anyway (funny how those two often go hand in hand), Breathless was shot not on sound stages but in actual Parisian streets, apartments, and cafes. As a result, the film is something of a time capsule, a document of what France looked like in 1959.
You'll be on the lookout for the jump cuts, which are hard to miss even if you're not looking for them. But notice that it's not the entire film that's edited that way. There are also many long, unbroken takes that follow Michel and Patricia walking and talking, for example. A jump cut suggests hurriedness, jitters, or tension. In contrast, scenes that unfold in one continuous shot tend to feel more calm and relaxed.
Another film reference: The pretentious author that Patricia interviews is played by Jean-Pierre Melville, a director whose crime films partially inspired the New Wave. One of them, Bob le flambeur (1956), pops up when its title character, Bob the Gambler, is mentioned as being an acquaintance of Michel's who's now in jail.
A film reference that isn't the kind of film reference you might have thought: Michel uses the name "Laszlo Kovacs" as an alias. Movie buffs might assume this is an example of Michel showing his obsession with film, naming himself after the legendary cinematographer who later worked on the New Wave-inspired Easy Rider (1969), as well as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Paper Moon (1973), and Ghostbusters (1984). Ah, but no. In 1960, the cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs was still unknown in the film world. Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, calls himself Laszlo Kovacs because that's the name of a character that Belmondo played in an earlier film called A double tour (1959).
Patricia is an interesting figure. Ebert sums it up when he says that Michel -- the main character -- is pretty easy to figure out, while Patricia is more ambiguous. She's an American student working for the New York Herald Tribune's Paris office. She speaks French well enough, but she often has to ask Michel for clarification on this word or that, usually slang. (Side note: How often does this happen in movies? Seems like foreigners always either speak the local language perfectly, or they don't know a word of it.) There's the sense that she grasps most but not all of what's happening.
What's the big deal: In many ways, most of them intentional, Breathless feels raw, unfinished, and rudimentary. That was part of the idea of the New Wave, though: to push back against the usual rules of filmmaking. Here characters who are on the run from police don't need to be frantic; they can be relaxed and casual, taking time to have existential conversations while smoking cigarettes, as if evading capture is the least of their concerns. And maybe it is the least of your concerns, if you're young and invincible and interested only in the present, not the future. That mentality of recklessness, frequent in movies now, was rather unusual when Breathless did it. The French! They are innovators.
Further reading: In conjunction with the film's 50th anniversary, a newly restored print of it is playing in theaters for the next few months. If you can, you should try to see it that way, rather than on DVD. To fully re-create the original theatrical experience, smoke some cigarettes in the theater.
Ella Taylor wrote a fine 50th-birthday appreciation of the film for the Village Voice.
Here is Roger Ebert's 2002 "Great Movies" essay.
John Powers' item at Criterion is a little flowery, but it sums up much of what Breathless is respected for.
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Eric D. Snider (website) wonders if the constant smoking and the breathlessness are related.