The Importance of Breathless
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Of all the different film movements that have impacted the cinema over the years, one of the most interesting was the French New Wave. The French New Wave consisted of a group of directors who wanted to take French films out of the studio and down into the street. They shot on location using new technologies, such as portable cameras, which allowed them to shoot quickly and cheaply. Several significant films came out of this movement; however, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless may be the definitive French New Wave film.
The Influence of American Culture on French Cinema
Breathless follows a criminal, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), as he flees from the police after stealing a car in Marseille and shooting a policeman. He drives to Paris where he renews his relationship with an American student, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). The film deals with Michel’s attempts to sleep with Patricia and hide from the police while he waits to collect a debt.
After World War Two and the end of the Nazi occupation, the United States began to send exports to France. One of the most popular exports was American films. Several years’ worth of American films made their way to France and had a huge influence on the directors of the new wave. Breathless works as a commentary on the way American culture had been absorbed into French culture.
The main female character in the film is an American being played by an American actress. Patricia is in Paris to study journalism at the Sorbonne; she is also working for the New York Herald Tribune. Even though she lives in France and speaks fluent French throughout the film, Patricia does not become French; she is still very much an American. By the late 1950s, American culture was becoming global to the point where you could have an American as a major character in a French film and the character’s defining trait would not have to be that they are an American.
Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
Patricia is not the only character in the film with a connection to American culture. The five directors usually associated with the French New Wave were all former film critics for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema and thus they had a great appreciation for film history. At its most basic level, Breathless is a variation on film noir and American crime films; Godard shows the influence those films had on him through his protagonist. Michel idolizes Humphrey Bogart. In fact, he seems to have created his entire persona as an homage to Bogart; the way he smokes seems to have been learned from watching Bogart films. During the film, Michel rubs his thumb across his lips which is something that Bogart used to do in real life. This implies that Michel is only playing at being a hardboiled criminal after watching too many American gangster films. One thing French New Wave films had were a lot of references to films that came before them. In that sense, it is not out of place for Godard to have Jean-Paul Belmondo imitate Bogart; he uses film history and American culture to add layers to a character the audience and the other characters do not learn much about.
Approximately nineteen minutes into the film, Michel stops in front of a movie theater that is showing the 1956 Humphrey Bogart film The Harder They Fall (Robson). He looks at a press photograph of Bogart and blows cigarette smoke at it in tribute. He then takes the cigarette out of his mouth and rubs his thumb across his lips. Godard frames this brief scene in a way that makes it about Michel’s infatuation with Bogart. The camera starts behind Belmondo, but when he blows the smoke we switch to a close-up of the Bogart photo. The camera stays on the photo as the smoke swirls around it, cuts to Michel blowing more smoke, then back to the photo. Then, there is a close-up of Michel without his sunglasses on as he takes the cigarette out of his mouth so he can rub his thumb across his lips. This is as intimate and real as Michel gets in the film. For this one moment he is not a gangster; he is a young man worshipping at the altar of his hero just like Godard is celebrating American cinema.
Breathless is also significant for its place in the French New Wave and the techniques that Jean-Luc Godard experimented with in the making of the film. The new wave favored location shooting, but Godard keeps his camera at street level. He never takes a tourist’s view of Paris as he follows his characters through the city; he shows us things as Michel, Patricia or any other denizen of Paris would see them. The new wave was also against the overuse of editing but that did not stop Godard from using jump-cuts all throughout Breathless. Following the lead of Cahiers du Cinema co-founder and influential film theorist Andre Bazin, the new wave directors believed that too much editing would make a film seem phony. The jump-cut is an editing technique where two consecutive shots of the same object are taken from positions very close to each other; this gives the viewer the feeling of skipping forward in time. This type of technique, which calls attention to its style, is the opposite of what Bazin believed in.
As an example of Godard’s style, let us take a look at Michel’s joyride in the stolen car. A couple minutes into the film, Michel is driving the stolen Oldsmobile through the countryside. A very happy Michel sings and thinks about his future plans as he passes other cars on the road. We see this from two different camera angles: First, from the passenger seat, looking at Jean-Paul Belmondo; second, a rough, shaky view from the hood of the car. The editing calls attention to itself as we get quick cuts with the car moving from one place to another. We are with Michel, complicit in his crime. Then, we get a view of the countryside from the moving car as Michel begins to talk about his love of France. Godard then cuts back to the camera in the passenger seat. Michel continues praising Paris as he looks directly into the camera breaking the imaginary fourth wall. After that, Godard uses a couple of jump-cuts as Michel turns his attention to a couple of female hitchhikers. He reaches into the glove box and we get another jump-cut as he finds a gun and begins playing with it. He drives for a little longer before he is noticed by a policeman on motorcycle. The cop chases him until Michel pulls over and climbs out of the car. The cop tells him not to move and Michel shoots him. We see him reach for the gun, then a close-up of Belmondo in profile, then a cut to his arm, then a cut to the gun. We hear a gunshot and the policeman falls down. We watch Michel run away as the scene ends.
This sequence sounds routine; a criminal steals a car and is chased by a policeman who he has to kill. The way Godard films it is anything but routine. The sequence runs a little over three and a half minutes and he uses shaky, amateurish camerawork, rapid-fire editing, fourth wall breaking and plenty of jump-cuts. We do not even see a clear view of the murder as we never see Michel pull the trigger or the victim get shot. He does not grant the viewer the thrills or suspense expected in a film of this type. Only a few minutes into his first film, Godard is already experimenting with film techniques and ignoring the classical style of filmmaking.
Making a Scene in Public
Another scene significant for its style is the first time we meet Patricia, just over ten minutes into the film. Michel finds her hawking newspapers on the street. The camera follows the two of them as they walk down the street while she tries to sell newspapers and he tries to convince her to go to Italy with him. It is a fairly simple scene; first the camera follows them from behind, then they turn around and walk toward the camera. This three minutes long scene is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it is all in one take; there is no editing during this walk. Secondly, even though the scene was shot on location, Godard did not block off the area for the shoot. Throughout this scene you can see passersby staring at the camera and the actors. While both of these things call attention to the idea that we are watching a movie, they do so in a way that evokes reality. It is obvious that Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg were really walking up and down the Champs-Elysees. Even though they are playing characters, this scene works as a document of what was happening on that street at that time. The French New Wave wanted reality and this scene is about as close as you can get to reality in a fiction film.
For Jean-Luc Godard, making film and criticizing film were one and the same. Breathless is critical and appreciative of both classical cinema and French culture. The French New Wave wanted to make films as though no one had ever made a film before and Breathless is unlike anything previously made. The film, with its anything goes style and cool performances, made a star out of Jean-Paul Belmondo and started Godard’s feature-filmmaking career with a bang. It still feels fresh and alive because of the way Godard rewrote cinematic rules as he went; his style and social commentary have made Breathless one of the most important films of the 1960s.