FRC’s Looking Back Friday – Breathless (1960)
This week’s looking back is being taken over by Sam Fragoso, here he looks at Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless
Jean-Luc Godard’s trendsetting French New Wave film, Breathless, is about a million strokes of genius. It’s a sexy, hypnotic, and electrifying crime caper, entangled into an idealistic romance.
The story picks up with Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a small-time criminal, who after stealing a car and killing a policeman, travels back to Paris to perhaps pick up some money at one point and time, and most of all persuade Patricia (Jean Seberg) to hide away with him in Rome.
The plot, originally storyboarded by fellow New Wave director Francois Truffaut, isn’t all that relevant. We don’t know where Michel is from or why he’s back in Paris, nor do we need to. The film is more about the engrossing dialogue and astute confrontations these characters have between each other, rather than the stories progression.
As the film does transpire, naturally and excitingly, Michel gets himself in more and more trouble. With the city on watch for the evading criminal, Michel, composed and haphazardly content, heads straight to Patricia’s apartment where the two explore esoteric topics, sexual pleasures, and every other conceivable subject under the sun.
During the duration of the film Michel contains similar character traits to the leads in 40’s and 50’s film noirs. In one scene in particular, we see the protagonist staring into a window with a poster of Humphrey Bogart. Michel, an admirer of the actor, attempts to personify that slickness throughout the picture: hat tilted, cigarette always at the side, and consistently maintaining a sort of detachment from everything and everyone
The film spends a lot of time relying on Seberg and Belmondo to be engaging in these intimate scenes. Luckily, with a graceful script and energetic hand-held camerawork that gives nuance to the city of lights, the two performers cease to spark life.
That is of course except for Patricia – a jaunty journalist for the New York Harold Tribune who’s based in Paris. She’s a marvel of a female, simplistic yet so immensely complex in tone and structure. It’s no wonder why Michel (for perhaps the first time in his life) has fallen head over heels for her.
Within Godard’s script is a plethora of pop culture references, to classical actors and Western pictures from another era. But, what’s interesting is that unlike a majority of film noirs, the sexes archetypes are reversed. The woman is not the seducer in these sexual interactions, the man is.
Michel constantly begs and pleads for Patricia to sleep with him. She rejects, as she must – merely to show the audience (and him) that she has some authority in the relationship.
Another groundbreaking feature in Breathless is Godard’s employment of jump cuts, beginning a scene in the middle, or even chopping off the ending. This technique, so unique and daring, in the year 1960, was unprecedented and frowned upon by film society.
But, albeit all the hype and unnecessary banter surrounding the picture, there’s a genuine reason why people all across the globe still discuss Godard’s masterpiece, 51 years after its release date: it’s something special. Whether it’s the jazzy score the story pulses to, the contemporary charm that continuously amazes, or the film’s unorthodox take on a standard genre,Breathless has a little something to offer to any cinematic viewer.
Breathless was and still is revolutionary. For better or worse the beginning of the French New wave sprung subsequently after the release of the film. Every standard practice and technique Hollywood had concocted in the years before would be changed significantly in the decades to follow.
With that said… the film’s brilliance lies in its uncertainty of purpose. It’s sometimes existential and other times wrapped up in its own cinematic flourishes.
Though, Breathless, like all truly great films standing the test of time, is whatever you make it out to be: Perhaps a heart-pounding caper mixed with a budding romance, or a maybe documentary streamlining the lives of these two amoral people. You decide what the art represents.
Personally? Breathless is a slick and cool, yet breathtaking endeavor that forever changed our outlooks on cinema.
[starreview tpl=16 size='30']Sam Fragoso is the creator of his site Duke & The Movies, Chief critic at Anomalous Material, and freelances for numerous online publications. You can follow him on twitter @Samfragoso
Have you seen this film? Do you agree with Sam in his high praise? Or are you on the other side of the fence? Comment below…