Breathless (1959): Godard’s Seminal Film–Part Two

Part Two
One of the most startlingly innovative films of its era, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, made in 1959 but released in March 1960, has exerted enormous impact on filmmakers all over the world.
À bout de souffle (movie poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster
Along with Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol’s “Bitter Reunion,” Alan Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” and Truffuat’s “The Four-Hundred Blows,” “Breathless” stands as a landmark of creativity, reflecting a time in world cinema where the director was “king,” the auteur and author of his film over which he exercised artistic control.
The film, which has been restored, includes new, more accurate subtitles.
It will be theatrically released by Rialto Films on May 28 in a platform mode, in N.Y., L.A. and other cities.
“Breathless” is one of a dozen works to which I owe my career as a critic and a 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.
Written by Godard from a story suggested by his friend and colleague, Francois Truffaut, “Breathless” is based on a loose narrative form and contains many lines of dialogue achieved through improvisation. Indeed, the film was directed without a final shooting script. Godard outlined and altered the dialogue on the day of shooting in the course of the take.
Belmondo and the other actors were asked to improvise, resulting in long takes, and seemingly inconsequential gestures and striking exchanges. Among other innovations, the characters often stare at and talk to directly into the camera.
In approaching his text, Godard contested and revolutionized all rules of mainstream cinema. The camerawork is rough and unrefined, the script and editing deliberately jumbled and repetitious. One of the achievements of Godard’s personal and original style was to abolish the conventional distinction between art and kitsch, between highbrow and lowbrow.
Moreover, with its abrupt changes of moods, “Breathless” pivots from comedy to tragedy, and from documentary to melodrama.   As Sarris has observed, Godard’s dialectical procedures and sudden tonal shifts represented an unusually odd mix of the conventions of a B-gangster picture and screwball comedy.
The scholar Pamela Falkenberg has suggested in a perceptive article in “Wide Angle” (1985) that what is significant about the film is “its division through critique from once commercial cinema (the French cinema of quality, itself a commercial ‘art’ cinema self-differentiated from Hollywood) through a desire to support another one (the Hollywood commercial cinema conceived as an art cinema on a ‘higher level’).”
In this sense, “Breathless” could be described as a simultaneous and double writing: the rewriting of the French commercial cinema (conceived of as a transformation) through the rewriting of the Hollywood commercial cinema (conceived of as reproduction): the art cinema as Hollywood.
The development of the central romantic relationship doesn’t follow a predictable, linear pattern, culminating in a happy ending.   Au contraire: there are moves and countermoves, progression and regression in their interaction. As a couple, Michel and Patricia spend a lot of time together: They sleep together, lie and conceal, spar and probe each other, but they never get to know each other well. The film expressed Godard’s ambiguity of and towards women, an ambivalent that would continue in the rest of his work, especially in the pictures he made with his wife, Anna Karina.
James Monaco has singled out the iconography of words, which is reflected in the endless, free-floating talk about anything and everything. Michel and Patricia talk about love and politics, but they are seldom seen engaged in either; the sex scene is brief and undistinguished. There’s endless, internal battle in the text between the paralysis of contemplation and the desire for action.
Taking many of its references from the American cinema and popular culture, “Breathless” makes allusions to Bogart as an icon, observing a minute of silence in memory of the star that had died two years earlier. Always wearing a hat and chain-smoking, Belmondo, then 26, reminded viewers of Bogey. As a hero, Michel is probably the first to imitate Bogart, who became a cult figure in American culture in the 1960s, a full decade after his death and Godard’s film.
Godard broke new ground with innovative techniques, such as improvised dialogue, handheld camera, outdoor shooting in natural light, post-synchronized sound, and references to the histories of cinema, art, and literature.
Godard’s strategy was different from the usual one taken by Hollywood directors to film noir. The paradoxes of the film did not escape critics at the time. “Breathless” was a film noir, set in the City of Lights, mostly in the daytime and in the midst of the summer. Unlike most noir tales, there’s no pessimism or fatalism: The sudden shifts in Michel’s voice and intonation suggest that anything and everything could happen.
The first shot is of the last page of the newspaper. Michel reads the newspaper, hiding behind it, as he will for the rest of the film. The chase subplot is expressed in terms of newspaper stories. Michel reads about it and himself in the newspapers. Poiccard is a character of popular journalism, invented by Michel, who uses the pseudonym of “Laszlo Kovacs.” The whole film supports the theme of mediated reality. What’s important is not what we are but what we think we are, not the object, but the medium through which it is expressed and which modifies it.
A word about Patricia Franchini, which may be Jean Seberg’s best-known, most iconic role, following her work in Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan” and especially “Bonjour Tristesse,” which Godard saw and liked, claiming that the part builds on and represents continuity with Preminger’s 1958 landmark movie. With her cropped hair, Seberg projects the same gamine, mysterious, reserved image.  Patricia sells on the streets the New York Herald Tribune, the English language newspaper in Paris and wears a Herald-Tribune T-shirt. She serves as a visual metaphor for the clash of languages that it implies. Patricia wants to be a writer, and at the end she succeeds, rewriting Michel’s legend by turning him in.
Considered to be one of the most innovative film of the New Wave, “Breathless” is located between replication and impersonation of American film noir, offering a thoughtful and provocative homage to contemporary directors, dissection of film genres (noir, crime-gangster, screwball comedy), American pop culture, and contemporary art and literature; there are direct and indirect references to Lenin (“We are dead men on leave,” the film quotes the Soviet ideologist-politician) Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet”), Jean Renoir
Within a few years, Godard became a key influence on the New American Cinema of the late 1960s.  He was Warren Beatty’s first choice to direct “Bonnie and Clyde,” which was then assigned to Arthur Penn.
Contrary to popular notions, “Breathless,” is a narrative, even linear film of sorts, one of the few in Godard’s impressive canon.   The text is divided roughly into three segments. The beginning depicts Michel shooting a cop and running away. The middle and longest segment centers on the relationship between Michel and Patricia. And there’s also closure, a brief, enigmatic ending in which Patricia betrays Michel, who’s then shot to death by the police.
Authorial Intent and Result
Not surprisingly, the most perceptive analysis of the film came from the master himself, years later. In an interview in the book “Godard on Godard” (Viking, 1968, translated by Tom Milne), the director observed: “One never does exactly what one intended. Sometimes one even does the opposite. After a certain time, I realized that ‘A Bout de Souffle’ was not at all what I thought. I thought I had made a realistic film like Richard Quine’s ‘Pushover,’ but it wasn’t that at all. In the first place, I didn’t have enough technical skill, so I made mistakes; then I discovered I wasn’t made for this kind of film. Although I felt ashamed of it at one time, I do like ‘A Bout de Souffle’ very much, but now I see where it belongs—along with ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ I thought it was ‘Sacrface.'”


Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Produced by Georges de Beauregard
Screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard, based on story by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (uncredited)
Music by Martial Solal
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Edited by Cécile Decugis
Distributed by UGC (France)
Films Around The World (United States)

Release date: March 16, 1960

Running time: 87 minutes
Budget FRF 400,000 (about US $80,000)
Box office 2,082,760 admissions (France)