A bout de souffle – Breathless

France, 1960

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

With Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard), Jean Seberg (Patricia Franchini), Daniel Boulanger (Police Inspector Vital)

Michel Poiccard is a small gangster from Paris, a young man who is obstreperous, obstinate, childish, cavalier. After stealing a car in a seaside town he rashly fires on a patrolman – the crime makes the headlines over the few days the narrative takes place and sets in motion a big police operation across Paris, where he has moved back. To run away safely, Michel tries to get some dough a fellow criminal owes to him. He also tries to convince a young American he loves to stand by him and to follow him. Patricia Franchini is amused and intrigued by Michel’s antics but doubts she is truly in love with him. But when the police kill Michel after she has informed them on his whereabouts, she stands hopeless.

Like the lead character the film, the debut feature by Jean-Luc Godard, based on a story found in the papers by François Truffaut, is always on the move and hard to predict, a lively and fascinating object. It goes straight to the topic (there are no titles to speak of and little context) mixing mixes a noir plot with a romance between barely mature young adults, focusing on the impossible bond lovers who are from different worlds try to make.

Tender love: Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo

The roving camera follows ceaselessly, night and day, the lead characters in cars as well as inside an exiguous apartment. The montage is jerky and fast-moving, introducing the technique of jump cuts (which was actually an afterthought, as Godard simply realized that the first editing was too long and boring and took scissors to cut in the reels), though things slow down during the final conversation between Patricia and Michel in their lair, a subdued outburst driving relentlessly their relationship to its tragic end. A keen feeling of freedom pervades the images, as well as the intense pleasure of making a film, working on the technique, enjoying the creative effort.

Godard playfully hints at the possible fall of Michel, capturing him walking past ominous film posters (one speaks of living dangerously to advertise “Ten Seconds to Hell” by Robert Aldrich, 1959, while another promotes “The Harder They Fall” by Mark Robson, 1956); a shot highlights the fascination of Michel for a famous manly star (who played in noir films), Humphrey Bogart; running away from the police Michel and Patricia hide in a movie theater screening “Westbound” by Budd Boetticher (1959).

The young critic of the Cahiers du Cinéma even pokes fun at the review when a nice girl tries to sell a copy to Michel, only to be rebuffed – no, he doesn’t like the youth. But the character shares with his young creator a zest and passion that drives Godard to assert the import of film culture and the urge to keep the art moving forward, leaving aside the typewriter to grasp a camera to defend his ideas, the fresh tenets the so-called Nouvelle Vague writers and cineastes attempt then to force upon French film production (many of them contributed to this production, from Truffaut to cinematographer Raoul Coutard). Godard plays with the cinema culture and technique with the zeal of the youth and an awkward confidence – he is still far away from any concern about the death of the art that would appear in “Le Mépris” (1963) and inform part of his later films.

Set against the music of French jazzman Martial Solal the film’s rhythm is not only brisk and spirited but also shaped by discordance. The famous shot featuring Michel raving inside the stolen car while staring frankly at the camera only to conclude “Go to hell!” heralds the odd habit of letting the characters pronounce rather solemn, paradoxical, even nonsensical statements that jar with the rest of the scene. Taken a step further, the trick leads to shooting a long sequence that is seemingly irrelevant to the plot, though the remarks made during it give an interesting insight on Patricia’s state of mind – it narrates the arrival in Paris and the ensuing press conference of a famous and pretentious novelist, played by Jean-Pierre Melville; but it also leads to showing the most poignant truth, when Patricia explains to Michel she has informed the police and doesn’t not really love him, in a quiet fashion that runs contrary to the feelings the audience would expect, creating an outburst as deprived of violence as it is full of tragedy (it seems Jean Seberg and Godard had a heated argument on the acting requirements of the scene, the Hollywood-trained actress finding hard to gather the ideas of the Swiss-born director).

This sense of disharmony upends some cinematographic conventions but points to the complicated and unstable nature of the relationship between Michel and Patricia, a fact already made plain by their idle talk in a hotel room in the middle of the narration. If the French gangster is clearly a whimsical boy hard to handle, quick to entertain unrealistic expectations, the American student is more of an enigma, even to herself, and her fancy on Michel is hard to justify, especially once she gets all the information about him; the fact she sneaks on him just to test her sentiment is rather distressing. Up to the end their personas remain hard to understand even though the camera never tires of scrutinizing their faces. The grimaces and looks of Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo hog the screen and command the narration as much as the many inventions of the director – by the way, the film also turns right away Belmondo into an icon of rakish, cool, and bouncy manliness, putting him in the top rank of French actors for quite a long time. The film is the brutal story of their nonchalant slide towards a personal tragedy, indeed, but also a stunning expression of a cinematic flair redefining stylishness and urgency. To the surprise of many who took part in the movie, “A bout de souffle” did get a warm reception with the audience; over the years it has wielded a real influence; and decades later it remains a breathtaking experience.

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