Breathless (1959): Godard First Film, New Wave

(A bout de soufflé)

 

Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature, is a witty, romantic, innovative picture with the 26-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Parisian hood, and Jean Seberg as his American girlfriend.

 

Alongside Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “The 400 Blows,” “Breathless” is one of the films that launched the French New Wave, an important movement that revolutionized the international cinema.

           

The movie was made on an extremely small budget, $90,000, based on a script co-written by another leader of the New Wave, Francois Truffaut, whose first film, The 400 Blows, was also made in l959.

 

Godard dedicated this film to Monogram Pictures, a Hollywood studio that produced “B” movies; he saw something in the cheap American gangster movies of his youth that classical French movies at the time lacked–energy.

 

Godard introduced a number of stylistic innovations (elliptical story-telling, the jump cuts).  He also brought together disharmonious elements–irony, slapstick, and defeat–and brought the psychological effects of moviegoing into the movie itself.  His hero (Belmondo) was probably the first to imitate Humphrey Bogart, who became a cult figure in American culture a decade after his death. 

 

Seberg plays a boyish New Yorker, Patricia Franchini, a curious, atypical girl who likes Renoir posters and is working on a novel. When she’s not selling newspapers on the Champs Elysees, Patricia hangs out with Michel, a Bogart (Bogie in the film) lover and hoodlum who shoots a cop and then goes on the lam. He’s owed some money crimes, so he stays in Paris while he waits to collect, amusing himself by stealing cars and seeing his picture in the paper with the headline Killer on the Lose.”

 

Michel and Patricia are the epitome of cool.  They make a charming pair, even though they’re oblivious to everything, laws, emotions, and most of all, each other.

The film is light and playful.  The giddy, gauche character who don’t give a damn–the hood who steals a car, kills a highway patrolman, and chases after some money (owed to him for past thefts) was a new type of film “hero.”

 

Within a few years, Godard became the key influence on the New American Cinema of the late l960s.


Fifty years have passed since Godard’s low-budget, improvisational style and innovative editing, changed the course of cinema, but Breathless is still as fresh as ever.