Widely cited as one of the most influential movies of all time, Jean-Luc Goddard’s À bout de soufflé (Breathless) dropped a revolutionary bombshell on the cinematic landscape upon its 1960 release. Informed as much by the kinetic pace and pulp thrills of Hollywood gangster flicks as he was by the improvised non-linearity of the burgeoning French New Wave movement, Goddard tore up the rulebook and invented a new cinematic language characterised by spontaneity, radically unconventional cinematography and a self conscious emphasis on style and attitude over narrative cohesion. Yet À bout de soufflé is also a rebellion against conventional morality, with its iconoclastic young leads exhibiting an adolescent rejection of responsibility. They are interested in nothing outside of their own obsessive self images, careening impulsively from one haphazard circumstance to the next.
Godard wastes no time in letting us know what we’re in for right from the opening shots. A cheap girlie newspaper is lowered from the screen to reveal the cocked hat and ever present cigarette dangling from the lips of male lead, Jean Paul Belmondo. Instantly, we discern his character: he’s a two-bit hood; insouciantly charming maybe, but disreputable to the core. “After all, I’m an asshole. After all, yes, I’ve got to. I’ve got to!”he exclaims. At a signal from a female accomplice he leaps into an Oldsmobile, hot-wires the ignition and burns off down the street, leaving the disconsolate girl behind in the dust.
Although just about every film to follow in its wake copped aspects of Godard’s style, the startling cinematographic idiosyncrasies of Breathless remain striking even today. The abundant use of handheld camera shots gives the film an energetic, spontaneous, “live on the street” feel. And the frequency of jump cuts – jerky edits interjected right in the middle of the scenes – provides a sense of nervy, unhinged urgency to the proceedings. As Belmondo races down the highway, Godard casually tosses traditional cinematic rules out the car window one by one. Belmondo even turns to the camera and breaks the “fourth wall” by addressing the viewer directly with an impromptu commentary.
Pursued by traffic police, Belmondo finds himself trapped in a corner. With casual detachment he pulls a gun and blows a cop away and heads for Paris with a two quick goals in mind: to get hold of some money he’s owed and then flee to Italy with his American (sometime) girlfriend… if she agrees. It’s on this most flimsy of premises that the film is carried. An idea supplied by fellow New Wave director Francois Truffaut from a newspaper short he’d read. Godard is not so much concerned with narrative as he is with impromptu situations, meandering sketches and evoking a bold, striking visual style.
Jean Seberg plays the female lead opposite Belmondo. She’s not a great actor by any means, but she has a certain enigmatic quality; a kind of mischievous, elfin playfulness. She’s vaguely tomboyish with her chic short hair and ambivalent lack of commitment towards Belmondo’s overtures. Godard is fascinated with Seberg’s expressive yet curiously distant and unreadable face, spending an inordinate amount of camera time on lingering close up shots and profiles.
Breathless’ centre piece is the hotel room scene, which is basically an extended meditation on two people passing time together. At 24 minutes in length, it verges on a third of the film’s running time. Like flies on the wall, we witness the two leads banter, bicker playfully and attempt to engage each other in meaningful communication. Goddard basically lets the camera roll in a series of extraordinarily long takes while the actors do their thing. For an atmosphere of natural spontaneity, the sequence is almost unsurpassed in the cinema. Belmondo fervently attempts to win Seberg over, but she’s rather more ambivalent about his intentions, more interested in cultivating her own ingenue pretensions to culture and existential angst. “I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy,” she proclaims. Tellingly, neither character is ever really able to find common ground. Questions hang in the air unanswered. Each attempts to pursue the conversation in diverging directions. Later, in the film’s denouement, Belmondo reveals “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.
Sequences like this one really demonstrate that Godard is more concerned with the look and feel of his characters than he is with the structure of a story. The performances are riveting, if rather too self-conscious on occasion. Belmondo has a boxer’s face, ugly but striking, with an easy macho charm. But we sense that his character is not nearly as tough or as suave as he likes to make out. He’s just a dime-store thug, cultivating an aura of outlaw cool built from close observation of Hollywood tough guys. In a memorable moment, Belmondo stares admiringly at a poster of Humphrey Bogart in a cinema window, as if absorbing the star’s casually affected mannerisms for his own persona.
As Belmondo is really just playing at being a Hollywood gangster, Seberg is playing an archetype of her own: that of the bohemian intellectual bumming around in Paris, the perceived art-culture capital of Europe. She has a habit of dropping literary references into her talk as if they were a badge of credentials, much to Belmondo’s disinterest. “Do you know William Faulkner?” she asks. “No. Who’s he? Have you slept with him?” replies Belmondo.
Seberg is a the personification of pseudo-intellectual self image just as Belmondo’s self image is constructed from movie lore, with neither character having much reality beyond these facades. In fact, so obsessed are these characters with their own self images that they don’t appear to have any kind of moral centre. Belmondo blows away a cop without a thought in the world, while Seberg ultimately betrays Belmondo without a shred of remorse, apparently as something of an experiment in experience. Both characters behave impulsively, without consideration of consequences, as if they had little connection with external reality at all. They are movie characters of image and action, but not of substance.
Even the soundtrack by pianist Martial Solal appears to engage in this kind of self conscious statement of style and image over substance. It’s cool, detached, playful, wryly comic – giving off the impression of jazz without actually being jazz music. It’s an ironic European homage to jazz just as Belmondo’s performance is an ironic homage to the anti-heroes of Hollywood gangster flicks.
Breathless is infused with a sense of playfulness throughout, peppered with in jokes and references to other movies, constantly reminding the viewer of the stylistic unreality of the cinema form. During one scene, Godard makes an appearance himself as a concerned citizen fingering Belmondo to the police. The camera shot then closes in around him like an eye: Godard suddenly highlighted from the other end of the lens. Fellow French director Jean-Pierre Melville – often described by Goddard and his contemporaries as the “Godfather of the New Wave” appears as a famous writer, dispensing with comically acerbic philosophical comments during a press conference attended by Seberg. Electronic billboards comment on the action, announcing that “the police are closing in” while Belmondo flees pursuit. Such consciously self referencing puns were unheard of at the time, but they’ve since become a fixture of the movie landscape, especially in the work of directors such as Quentin Tarantino, whose films appear to occupy a kind of heightened reality; a fantastical movie world inhabited by characters who are practically defined by their hipster nods to the language and style of pulp thrillers and their mannerisms.
But for all its groundbreaking style and attitude, Breathless is not without its flaws. Goddard’s lack of interest in narrative form means that no real tension is ever built. During its final third, Breathless begins to run out of steam. It’s just not as interesting to watch these characters as the noose closes in as it is when they are first introduced to us, when they still feel larger than life. The film occasionally slips into a tone of smart-alecky affectation that can be rather grating.
Nonetheless, there’s little doubt about Breathless’ importance to cinema history; the scope of its influence has rarely been surpassed. Not only has Breathless come to be considered the definitive manifesto of the French New Wave, but elements of its style and aesthetic have been imitated everywhere else. The loose, improvised structure, emphasis on characters and stylisation over narrative cohesion and underlying moral ambivalence has been echoed in numerous films, especially in the work of seventies American directors such as Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Altman. And the portrayal of its characters as hipster personifications of movie cool has by now become very much de rigueur. But for all of its imitators, no film has ever really managed to duplicate the look and feel of Breathless. It remains a totally unique cinematic experience, and endlessly fascinating to watch.