Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless gave France’s nascent La nouvelle vague a solid international underpinning and it has remained a vibrant, stylish and entertaining influence on filmmakers for 54 years. Largely improvised and capriciously photographed, Breathless tore away the final threads that bound films to novels - and the formal elements of novels - leaving each medium a little freer to reach their own respective potentials. The narrative of Breathless, and unlike some later Godard films it does have one, is not dispensed through written dialogue designed to advance plot points but rather a capturing of fleeting ideas and quickly dissolving moments in time. Like life itself, some of these moments are big and important while others simply banal markers on the timeline of existence. Breathless gives equal dramatic weight to the climactic and the mundane, throwing a greasy yet elegant monkey wrench into 1960‘s accepted orthodoxy of what a movie was supposed to be.
Not only was the film’s storytelling shockingly new, the director repackaged 20 years worth of popular cinema iconography into a gateway to a new aesthetic; one that combined wispy absurdity with standard crime drama alienation. In essence, Godard celebrated the conventions of Film Noir while banishing them to irrelevance in a speeding Citroën; the dust of a generation in its wake. The rugged, big shouldered men of Noir, complete with dark suits and tamped down fedoras, had darted about the screen for two decades, their pockets crammed with cryptic messages on cocktail napkins and loaded roscoes at the ready. These shadowy, laconic figures always had heavy agendas, filled with big deals and important things to do.
The generation of Breathless also has their appointed tasks, but seem uncertain if all the effort is really worth it. The film’s main character - protagonist doesn’t seem like the right word - a hunky young thug named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is one of these confused souls. Weened on the imagery of American gangster movies, Michel spends his aimless days pursuing the twin pleasures of petty theft and venery; a fat Gauloise perpetually dangling from his lips. Michel seems unable to think more than two hours ahead - the typical length of a movie in other words - but one day his short sighted hedonism results in more than existential ennui. With the gendarmes closing in, Michel retreats to Paris and the bohemian flat of a visiting American student (Jean Seberg), where the couple hide out while Michel tries to raise funds for an escape to Italy. True to Godard’s genre-bending vision, Seberg is no gum chewing, bottle blond gun moll, but a tough-minded journalist charting her own course, Vastly superior to Michel in cunning and guile, this pixie-faced savant serves his emotional needs while holding the key to his eventual undoing.
The transformational aspects of Breathless aren’t limited to what appears on the screen. Godard broke filmmaking rules by the bushel, running a set so rife with creative chaos crew members doubted if the film would even be watchable, much less a historic achievement. Writing the script as he went along, Godard would shout directions and newly created lines of dialogue at his actors, often in the midst of scenes with the camera still running, leaving Seberg and Belmondo to define their characters on the fly. Jump cuts - prior to this movie considered an amateurish mistake - were frequently employed to shorten scenes due to Godard’s refusal to shoot conventional coverage. Shots were “stolen” all over the city of Paris, without permits or attempts at crowd control, as innocent passersby gawk into the camera with dumfounded curiosity. In a famous sequence that foreshadows the film’s violent finale, shot by Godard while seated in a wheelchair, Seberg and Belmondo ruminate on life and love while pacing around an apartment in a myriad of directions. Godard covers it all, tossing the trite notion of a 180˚ camera axis out the window and onto the cobblestones of Montparnasse.
Criterion’s cinephile edition is an excellent way to add an indispensable piece of film history to your archives. The many ways Breathless has influenced the course of moviemaking over the last half century cannot be overstated, and new innovations seem to reveal themselves with each viewing. In the interim, Jean-Luc Godard has made well over a hundred films, and while many have been remarkable, some even extraordinary, none have topped Breathless as a harbinger of style and approach.