Breathless (1959): Godard’s Seminal New Wave Film, Starring Belmondo and Jean Seberg–Part One

Tribute to the seminal Swiss-Franco filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who died Sept 13 at age of 91.

One of the most startlingly innovative films of its era, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, made in 1959 but released in 1960, is a seminal work of the French New Wave, which continues to exert enormous impact on filmmakers, scholars, and viewers all over the world.

Grade: A- (**** out of ****1/2*)

 

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 critical or theoretical perspective, Godard’s debut film–with its complex interplay of gestures, words, sounds, and collages–succeeded in creating a new kind of cinema. It was a feature for which no critical theory existed–yet–outside of Godard’s striking imagination.

Celebrating its 62nd 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.

First, a word about the English title. “A Bout de Souffle” literally translates into “Out of Breath,” 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 largely 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 (or even better chutzpa)

Released in March 1960, just months after Truffaut’s astonishing debut, The Four-Hundred Blows (aka The 400 Blows, 1959), “Breathless” is considered to be the most revolutionary film of the French New Wave, the first work from Godard in what would become an ever-evolving, amazingly impressive body of work.

Still active, if less prolific, Godard unveiled his work, Socialisme, at the 1988 Cannes Film Fest, and continued to make films almost up to his death.

Seen from today’s perspective, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is, no doubt, a better movie artistically.  Its tale of troubled childhood was both thematically and technically fresh (the freeze-frame at the end, for example).  But good as it was, the movie still could be placed in a broader tradition of other films, both American and French, the sub-genre of personal (semi-autobiographical) films about troubled childhood.

Photo: The 400 Blows

 

In contrast, Godard’s Breathless was a revolutionary in acting, tone, and style, and could not compared to any other work at the time. It’s not contents that made the movie special or distinctive; it was rather its cool tone, rich subtext, and self-reflexivity. Perhaps above all, it expressed the director’s determination to make a personal (but not autobiographical) film, which would comment on the unique properties of cinema as a medium, as well as on the role of the filmmaker as a creator and interpreter.

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 six decades years later, the film remains fresh, inventive, witty, playful, and enjoyable (and pleasure is not exactly a word associated with Godard’s films).

Breathless is a s

The irony is that, almost contrary to Godard’s original intent and expectations, Breathless is still one of his most popular and accessible pictures. The lay (mass) public, as Monaco has suggested, found Breathless to be attractive for other, simpler reasons than Godard’s filmic ideology and innovative stylistics.

The film mirrored, with both humor and irony, the existential ennui that had characterized European societies in the mid-to-late 1950s and was first reflected in literature, drama, music, 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 direct result of this picture. In appearance, attitude, demeanor, and language, Belmondo represented the epitome of “cool.”

Belmondo’s portrait of his character, Michel, as a restless, rebellious but always likable hoodlum was Belmondo’s first significant role. Playing a youth who’s 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 the anti-authoritarian streak of Belmondo’s character’s

Made on a very low budget, about $90,000, over a period of four weeks, the picture finished shooting in September 1959, and was ready to premiere in Paris four month later.

Following the success of Truffaut’s The Four-Hundred Blows, which won an important award at the 1959 Cannes Film Fest, it gained enormous triumph with critics and viewers, and instantly went on to become a seminal film in the history of 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, the 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.

End Note:

The 50th anniversary restoration of Breathless was distributor Rialto’s 50th release since the company’s founding in 1997.