Go See Breathless
Godard's debut reinvented the movies, and it's never looked better.
Jean-Luc Godard, the New Wave doyen whose movies are distributed today in every theater where Milk Duds and Mike and Ike are not, learned to make films the way some people learn to paint: by studying the masterworks on someone else's wall and trying to replicate them in the light of his own studio. For Godard, though, a number of the most inspiring models came not from the Old World but from mainstream filmmakers across the pond. "The Americans, who are much more stupid when it comes to analysis, instinctively bring off very complex scripts," Godard observed in 1962. "The Americans are real and natural. But this attitude means something over there. We in France must find something that means something—find the French attitude as they have found the American attitude."
Some version of that injunction lies behind Breathless, Godard's first feature film, which came out 50 years ago this spring and, with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, carried the New Wave to the fore of European filmmaking. The movie's unmoored, fast-paced style was striking on its release, and it's equally seductive now. But is it French? Godard created Breathless in the mold of Hollywood: The movie's plot, characters, and goals hew closely to American genre pictures of the 1930s and '40s. Since the film's release, it has been cast both as an homage to this (even then) anachronistic U.S. style and as the expression of a new, uniquely Continental voice. It's both, of course. Breathless is an orchestrated dialogue between two worlds—a world of stylized Hollywood romanticism and the everyday world of banal, uncinematic life. It's Godard's careful counterpoint between these two styles that helped him tease out a "French attitude" and gave the movie its relentless drive.
That drive is more vivid than ever in the new, restored version of Breathless now screening in honor of the movie's 50th anniversary. The fresh prints, cleaned up with the guidance of Raoul Coutard, the film's cinematographer, are crystal-clear and filled with light, and they open a new world of visual detail: When Coutard's camera moves in close to frame Jean Seberg's face in one iconic shot, we see a matte of mimelike makeup on her skin—a stripping of cinematic illusion that, in Godard's hands, was almost certainly deliberate. In Breathless,every leading character—even the city of Paris itself—tries to reach past the grind of normal life to claim a new, exotic role.
The movie opens as Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a petty thief who idolizes Humphrey Bogart, steals an American car in Marseilles, and commits a traffic violation driving back to Paris. When he's flagged down by a pair of motorcycle cops, he kills one with a gun he found in the glove compartment. Back in the capital, Michel tracks down two young women of his acquaintance, hoping they can hook him up with cash (or just hook up). His favorite free-love inamorata is Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a sprightly New Yorker who sells Herald Tribune newspapers on the Champs-Élysées. She wants to be a writer. She also thinks she's carrying his child. As Michel goes about his business, bouncing around town stealing cars and cash and trying to track down shady friends who owe him dough, the net tightens around him. In the final minutes of the film, Patricia sells him out to the police to prove she's not in love. Instead of running, though, Michel stays with her, waiting to be caught—a perverted version of the Romeo-and-Juliet story she cherishes. He dies. She lives. The movie ends.
This brand of brisk black comedy today seems quintessentially Godardian, but Breathless was, in plot and sensibility, a takeoff on Old Hollywood fare. Like most New Wave directors, Godard started as a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, a journal founded on the idea that mainstream movies should be seen as modern art. The magazine's passions ran toward the studio-system masters (Cukor, Hawks, Hitchcock), due partly to a trade agreement that sent U.S. wartime movies flooding into Paris theaters just as the Cahiers generation came of age. These young critics united against the dominant style Gallic moviemaking: a big-budget, moralistic, and heavy-handed form. Godard particularly championed genre films from Hollywood—Westerns and B-grade noir were his critical specialties. Breathless, which he started in a rush of envy when his friend Truffaut won big at Cannes, was his idea of a fast-paced gangster flick transplanted to the Paris streets.
The movie is upfront about its Hollywood debts. Not only is its subject, literally, a French-American love affair (set during President Eisenhower's visit to Paris to see de Gaulle, no less), the action that propels its plotline is imported from another geographic space. Breathless aspires to be a car-culture film in the style of The Big Sleep or In a Lonely Place: Godard's camera trolls through postwar Paris the way Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray dragged their antiheroes across noir-era Los Angeles. The iconic shot of Breathless is the tracking shot, the better to accentuate the sweep and scale of Paris' urban arteries.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Breathless © 1960 Les Films Impéria.