Breathless (1959): Godard’s Influential Debut Starring Jean Paul Belmondo

Part One

 

One of the most startlingly innovative films of its era, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” released in 1960, has exerted enormous impact on filmmakers all over the world, particularly French and American.

 

The scholar James Monaco has described the film as “a collage of cultural data and artifacts, a sea of images, sounds, metaphors, and cultural clichés.”  And, indeed, way before postmodernism took root as a perspective, the film’s complex interplay of gestures, words, sounds, and collages created a new kind of cinema for which no critical theory existed outside of Godard’s imagination.

 

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the film, which has been restored with new subtitles, will be theatrically released by Rialto, co-headed by the estimable Bruce Goldstein and Adrienne Halpern, in major cities such as N.Y. and L.A.

 

“Breathless” is not only one of my favorite Godard films, but one of a dozen works to which I owe my career as a critic and scholar. I am very grateful to the great critic Andrew Sarris, who had shown and discussed the film in his classes at Columbia University in the late 1970s.

 

First, a word about the English title. “A Bout de Souffle” literally translates into “Out of Breathe,” a more accurate and poetic moniker than “Breathless,” but I guess it’s too late to introduce such a change in history texts.

 

Godard dedicated his stunning debut film to Monogram Pictures, a Hollywood studio that produced “B” movies. He recalled seeing in his youth something in the low-budget American gangster movies that classical French movies at the time lacked—call it attitude or energy.

 

Released just months after Truffaut’s “The Four-Hundred Blows” (1959), “Breathless” is considered to be the most revolutionary film of the French New Wave, the first masterwork from Godard in what became an ever-evolving, amazingly impressive body of work. Still active, if less prolific, Godard, who will turn 80 in December, will unveil his latest work, “Socialisme,” next month at the Cannes Film Fest.

 

 

A lot has been written about “Breathless” ever since it played at the 1960 Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Best Director prize. However, it’s safe to say that, 50 years later, the film remains fresh, inventive, witty, playful, and enjoyable (and pleasure is not exactly a word associated with Godard’s films).

 

The irony is that, almost contrary to Godard’s intent and expectations, “Breathless” is still one of his most popular and accessible pictures. The lay public, as Monaco has suggested, found “Breathless” attractive for other, simpler reasons than its innovative stylistics. The film mirrored with humor the existential ennui that had characterized European societies in the mid-to-late 1950s and was reflected in literature, drama, and the other arts.

 

Jean-Paul Belmondo

 

Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that, to a large extent, the film’s commercial appeal rested then (and continues to rest) on the stunningly amicable and charismatic performance of Jean-Paul Belmondo, a bit player at the time who went on to become a major French (and international star) as a result of this picture. In appearance, attitude, demeanor, and language, Belmondo represented the epitome of “cool.”  His portrait of Michel as a restless, likable hoodlum was Belmondo’s first significant role. Playing a youth living on the edge reflected the state of mind of many youngsters during that era’s changing (and troubled) moral, political and social orders. Judging by the reaction of my undergraduate students, the movie continues to speak to youth due to its rebellious impudence and Belmondo character’s anti-authoritarian streak.

 

Made on a very low budget of $90,000 over a period of four weeks, the picture finished shooting in September 1959, premiering in Paris four month later. Following the success of Truffaut’s “The Four-Hundred Blows,” which won an important award at the Cannes Film Fest, it gained enormous triumph both with critics and viewers; instantly becoming a seminal film in French (and world) cinema.

 

Showing Godard’s debt to American B pictures, its surface plot examines the last hours of a cocky, irresponsible Frenchman named Michel Poiccard (Blemondo), specifically his attempt to escape the police, while being involved in a romantic relationship with an American girl, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg).

 

On a more serious (and existential) level, the movie deals with issues of identity, vulnerability, impossibility of love, betrayal, and ultimately death, but these graver matters are handled in humorous, unpretentious mode.

 

Michel Poiccard (Belmondo), a petit, more amoral than immoral thief, is wanted for the murder of a police officer after a car theft in Marseille. On the run, he arrives in Paris, where he is supposed to collect money for some undisclosed jobs. In Paris, he meets Patricia Franchini, a young American woman who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysees but aims to be a writer. Michel falls hard for her and wants to take her away from Paris. His first sentence is “Come with me to Rome.”

 

A long sequence takes place in Patricia’s hotel room, during which they talk about literature (Dylan Thomas), drama (“Romeo and Juliet”), cinema (Renoir), and sex. Michel is in bed naked with only his hat on.   Consider the following exchange:

Patricia: I’m afraid of getting old.

Michel: I’m stupid.

When Patricia tells Michel that she’s pregnant, he coolly and nonchalantly responds, “You should have been more careful.”

 

Later on, Michel steals a car to go for his appointment, but by now, his photo appears on the front pages f the newspapers. While the police are closing in, agents pressure Patricia to reveal Michel’s hideout, and ultimately, she turns him in. In the end, running away, Michel is humiliatingly shot in the back.

 

The film ends on an enigmatic tone, with a striking dialogue as the dying Michel agonizes in the middle of the street.

Michel: It’s truly disgusting!

Patricia: “What was he saying?

Police officer: He just said, “You’re really a bitch.

Patricia, staring directly at the camera: What does it mean?

 

Please Read Part Two.

 

Theatrical Release:

Rialto Pictures will open the 50th anniversary restoration of “Breathless” on Friday, May 28 at Film Forum in New York and at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles, followed by additional cities.
For this 50th anniversary release, Rialto has made new 35mm prints from a restored negative supervised by the film’s director of photography, Raoul Coutard, the first restoration of BREATHLESS ever.  Rialto has also added completely revised English subtitles by Lenny Borger, capturing Godard’s playful language like never before.  Borger has just finished working with Godard on the subtitles for the director’s latest film, “Film Socialisme,” which will be shown in the “Un Certain Regard” section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The 50th anniversary restoration of “Breathless” is Rialto’s 50th release since the company’s founding in 1997.