VOD film review: Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1960)
Leslie Byron Pitt | On 16, Mar 2019
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger
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It’s difficult to write about the classics. The influential stalwarts that have had so many words written about them so eloquently. It’s hard to even consider what to say about certain movies, when so much as already been expressed. While writing about Breathless may feel a daunting task, though, it’s the feeling the movie gives when watching that spurs a person on.
The important entries that lounge upon on the so-called greatest film lists are never cool. Citizen Kane, for all its deep focusing and grandiosity, isn’t cool. Tokyo Story’s quiet minimalism is subtly affecting, but it’s not cool. Godard’s Breathless is the rule-breaker – both literally and figuratively. It’s give-a-damn nature is absorbed in each frame. Do we have the money to make a film? Does it matter? Should we be jump cutting? And what? These characters are so self-absorbed. Who cares? If the film were a person, you could tell it about how far its influence has spread and only expect a gallic shrug.
Films like Breathless aren’t made without being divisive. They lodge in the mind like a splinter in the finger. Arguments about its appeal probably still go on to this day. It’s not a shock to hear a younger film watcher claim Godard to be a bore, due to the modern-day prisms through which certain cinephiles view cinema, yet it’s films such as Breathless that undoubtedly changed cinema, in the same way The Birth of the Nation did. No matter how some may think of then, techniques they use are now part of the language of what we watch. Consider the dizzying use of editing in HBO’s Sharp Objects, designed to extend and constrict time, given the mundane vivid new meaning. Such things always feel as if they start here, with the experimentation of Godard and the French New Wave.
It all starts with a small-time thief. Womanising thug Michael (Jean-Paul Belmondo) boosts a car and, while driving in the countryside (in which he breaks the fourth wall and regales us with his love of France), shoots a policeman in cold blood. He travels back to Paris seemingly to lay low, yet this all seems to be more of a chance to pursue his on-off journalist girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg). While the two hide out in her apartment, they bicker, flirt with and fondle each other.
While the form of the film takes the lead when Breathless is talked about, one of the most alluring aspects of the film is its laissez-faire nature. Michael’s crimes seem to flitter into the either, while he throws back-handed compliments to the playful Patricia. The film causally makes reference to 1956’s Bob le Flambeur, a film about honourable thieves and precise heists, while Breathless’ lead character labels himself stupid from the first frame. His crimes could have easily been avoided, but Michael styles out his amorality with his charisma, and diverts the actual plot, which drove us to that little Paris apartment. It no longer seems important. The audience slowly forgets that he’s a criminal and becomes complicit.
Breathless is so full of being full of itself that it doesn’t seem to matter that on-lookers gaze into the camera, as the film goes guerrilla on the Parisian streets. So much of the movie meanders on Michael’s weak attempts to lure Patricia to Italy, but the interplay between Belmondo and Seberg is so effortless, while Godard’s command of the sequences is so assured – filmmakers have been aiming for this confidence since the film’s debut in March 1960.
Frustrated with French film at the time, Godard and his cinematic kin looked to deconstruct what could be done with film through creation. Although critics at the time, the members of the French New Wave looked to critique film through filmmaking itself – something that feels quaint in a world in which everything we consume, in particular pop culture, is moulded into a meme before consumption. Watching Breathless now, with that immediacy in its camerawork yet laid-back storytelling, still feels like a call to arms to any young person with a means to make a movie. Godard may or may not have influenced the likes of the mumblecore movement or similar filmmakers, but it’s difficult to believe that his fingerprints didn’t mark such creators. In Breathless, as with many films now, there is an exuberance in its toying with form, its throwaway self-awareness and its encasement of youth. These qualities, so prominent in movies today, seem almost blissfully ignorant back then.
The overbearing praise given here by this writer, as well as many others in the annals of film writing, may not win the hearts of a younger film audience. It would not be a surprise if first-comers find Breathless to be more of a meandering piece or fall out with it politically. It is not difficult to find someone in the Twittersphere who is quick to dismiss men who seem to drone on about Godard and films like Breathless are the cornerstone of such talk. Why are we so interested in this doomed petty thief who rubs his lip like Bogart? Who spends far too much time with a woman who doesn’t seem wholly that interested in running away with him? For this writer, the answer is because it is here, like Kane, like Birth of a Nation, that Breathless opened the possibilities of how cinema could be conceived and consumed. When Seberg breaks the fourth wall in the film’s final moments, Godard places a fresh block on what we could consider cinema to be.
Breathless (1960) is available on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription. You can subscribe to BFI Player+ through the BFI website, or through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels.