[Note: this is the sixth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
When Jean-Luc Godard decided to make his feature-length debut Breathless in 1960, he famously turned to two of his fellow Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues for help. François Truffaut had already made one successful film – The 400 Blows – a year earlier, and would write the outline of a story for Godard that was based on a real life murder: in November 1952 Michel Portail, a Parisian dating an American journalist named Beverly Lynette, stole a car so he could visit his sick mother in Le Havre and shot a motorcycle cop named Grimberg. Claude Chabrol – who had three films of his own under his belt by the end of 1959 – was brought on as an ‘artistic supervisor’. These were two men with their own clearly-defined ideas about cinema, and storytelling, but this film is unmistakably Godard’s, from the way that it embraces a hip, French take on American pulp imagery to the film’s most obvious structural quirks, including the large number of jump cuts that were made when trimming down a five hour rough-cut to the released version of 87 minutes (90 unrated). This skittish, stuttering style would go on to become something of a calling card for Godard in the 1960s, but it’s not only utilised as a means of reducing the running time. It gives a sense of busy, young lives in perpetual (caffeine- and nicotine-fuelled) motion, while it also serves to highlight – through the lack of an expected smoothness – the awkwardness (or indeed the fractious nature) of the relationship between Jean Seberg’s American in Paris Patricia and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel, a man on the lam who seems to care more about adopting the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart than he does about the net that’s closing in on him.
The chemistry between the two is, of course, key to the film’s success. Seberg’s fee accounted for a hefty portion of the film’s budget and she is as cool as they come, her style in this film – short, cropped hair, striped Breton top, skirt, overcoat – as influential today as it has ever been. Belmondo’s shady crook is a walking chimney, perennially lighting up cigarettes, stubbing them out, flicking matches away with no concern about potential fires and generally not giving much of a fuck about anything other than Bogey. He calls her a louse repeatedly during the film (or ‘a scumbag’, depending on the version you watch), and most famously of all he says it to her during the final scene, when all that smoking catches up with Michel and he finally runs out of breath. Does he mean it as an insult? Is it a playful in-joke that acknowledges that her French isn’t perfect? Or is it just a defence mechanism? I’m inclined to go with the latter suggestion; he really does love her but is afraid of rejection, and anyway…it simply isn’t cool to show commitment. How many times do you ever see Bogart do that, after all? As for Patricia…does she love him? Maybe. Was she really going to go to Italy with him? Maybe. Does she believe he would be a good father? Maybe…weirdly. Both actors deliver very enigmatic performances, and both characters are hard to figure out as a result, as playful and flirtatious with each other as they are distant. Seberg and Belmondo improvised a lot with dialogue that Godard often came up with on the day.
Godard’s adoption of the fledgling cinéma vérité style for Breathless helped to popularise it among cinephiles, despite it being a term more readily associated with documentary filmmaking. Raoul Coutard’s hand-held camera moves freely and loosely around the characters as we experience the minutae of their quotidien life, be it buying newspapers, selling newspapers, lounging around indoors talking about their bodies, eating in cafes and more. Coutard was the choice of producer Georges de Beauregard, and he would become an important collaborator with Godard during the rest of the decade, as well as being an important figure in the careers of Truffaut and others. You can’t underestimate his contribution to the mood of this film, or indeed that of pianist Martial Solal’s insistent jazz soundtrack, which lingers in the memory long after the film has finished. Their importance has often been stated, though one could argue that the two women Godard edited with, Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman, have been overlooked. Both will have been key contributors to the rhythm of Breathless, and that – along with the look and the feel of the film – is everything; by contrast the plot is really so slight as to be almost – almost! – irrelevant. It’s not a surprise that this jittery black-and-white portrait of Paris – and Godard’s infatuated take on the city’s young, chain-smoking inhabitants – caused such a stir in the early ’60s; the director flings the door open here to usher in the new decade. Breathless is an experimental, era-defining masterpiece and it hasn’t lost any of its hipness during the ensuing years.
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard. Based on an initial treatment by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (uncredited).
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg.
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard.
Editing: Cécile Decugis, Lila Herman.
Music: Martial Solal.
Running Time: 86 minutes.