A look back at the film that launched Godard and the French New Wave

One might call Jean Luc-Godard a liberationist. Not in the traditional sense (little about Godard is traditional), but rather, in the way he pushes the boundaries of the moving image to free it from convention. His latest, 2018’s The Image Book (Le Livre d’image), with its jolting cuts and garish colour filters, takes the visual cues he once helped develop with films like Pierrot Le Fou (1965), and makes them feel nauseating; even in an age of media saturation, he can make cinema seem brutal. However, while his revolutionary beginnings have since become commonplace — most filmmakers using long, unbroken takes owe him a great debt — his feature debut, Breathless (À bout de soufflé, or “out of breath”), remains an oddity even in the modern cinematic landscape.

The post-World War II era saw an uptick in France’s cinematic imports, especially from the United States, and so, Breathless was born into a world where French cinema was heavily influenced by Hollywood features, and Hollywood studio tradition. The film follows suave criminal Jean-Michel Poiccard (Paul Belmondo), who fashions a Humphrey Bogart-inspired persona and gets roped into the gangster antics of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He stares longingly at a framed poster of Bogart’s final film, The Harder They Fall, as if window-shopping for an identity, even stroking his lips as “Bogey” once did. He steals an American car from an American military officer and finds, in its dash-board, an American pistol, which he then uses in an American noir-style shootout with cops; you know the type. But rather than satisfying, this scene feels disjointed, cutting awkwardly between extreme close-ups before omitting most of the action — as if to intervene in the overfamiliar.

60 Years Of Breathless Godard French New Wave (4)
Breathless follows suave criminal Jean-Michel Poiccard (Paul Belmondo), who fashions a Humphrey Bogart-inspired persona and gets roped into the gangster antics of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The rest of the film follows Michel’s evasion of law enforcement, and his romance with an American girl in Paris, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), who speaks French but works for an American newspaper; like Michel, she’s trapped between French and American culture. The film often gets lost in Michel and Patricia’s tête-à-tête. It fixates on their playful intimacy behind closed doors, rather than presenting their romance as grandiose opera typical of ’50s Hollywood.

Most of their scenes were improvised on set, albeit in service of the well-worn trope of the crook and the femme fatale; a then-new way to tell a rote and familiar story. It’s an identity crisis personified, existing in the shadow of another nation’s cinematic zeitgeist while pushing to define its own. At times, the film feels like a broken mirror; a jagged, uneven reflection of Hollywood at the time. In other moments, it employs upbeat jazz and feels spiritedly improvised. It’s an American gangster movie that’s also constantly making up what it means to be a movie at all.

Despite an outward adherence to Hollywood convention, the film rattles the cage that was the era’s established Hollywood aesthetic. Gone is the rigid character-blocking on a carefully built set, replaced with actors loosely frolicking in real environments, as a documentary camera follows their every move. The film jumps forward minutes, often seconds in time, cutting suddenly and unevenly amidst long car rides and during moments of indecision. This jump-cut technique, while inspired by Jean Rouch’s Moi, un noir, was born from Godard’s need to reduce the film’s runtime, but he applies it with precision. He excises the silences between dialogue and the spaces between moral conundrum — morally grey moments that form the heart and soul of Hollywood noir — as if to apply a layer of critical commentary to the genre (Godard was a film critic, after all).

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On set, Godard employed a fluid, documentarian style of filmmaking, a style that has — some might say, ironically — come full-circle since 1960, and has become the parlance of modern Hollywood.

In Breathless, plot takes a back seat; instead, Godard’s camera lingers on movement, and on the spaces between people. In one instance, he cuts from Michel and Patricia’s flirtations to a close-up of their locked lips, where the space between them has been suddenly and irrevocably shattered. As if in tribute to fourth-wall-breaking playwright Bertlot Brecht (one of Godard’s influences), the film draws attention to its own artifice by constantly making decisions on behalf of its characters. Godard himself even appears and speeds up the plot by pointing the police in Michel’s direction. This sort of rule-breaking might seem common now, but few before Godard had broken so many “rules” at once.

Written with Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut (whose own debut, The 400 Blows, had come out just a year prior), Breathless helped cement the arrival of a new generation of French filmmakers, for whom the lack of budget was no obstacle. On set, Godard employed a fluid, documentarian style of filmmaking, a style that has — some might say, ironically — come full-circle since 1960, and has become the parlance of modern Hollywood. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass have been known to work a documentarian feel even into highly polished productions (like Saving Private RyanBlack Swan and United 93), while cinematic remixers like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) are students of Godard’s post-modern, self-referential style.

Others, like Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) and Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) are known for employing Godard-like fluidity in unbroken shots. These long takes have since become a calling card of Hollywood auteurs (whether or not they’re warranted), in part because they adhere to modern cinema’s reliance on clear-cut continuity; they’re often one of the most literal ways to tell a story. However, the jump cuts once pioneered by Godard — disruptions to continuity — have, perhaps tellingly, found a comfortable home in New Media, rather than traditional filmmaking. Godard’s original critiques of cinema’s sluggishness appear to have come full circle too.

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Despite belonging to a time when the world of filmmaking was more rigid, Breathless feels exceedingly modern, like it’s waiting to break right through even the cinema of today.

Today, the jump cut is most commonly used by vloggers on YouTube who, regardless of having watched Godard, come to the technique for the same exact reasons as he did: economy of storytelling, carved from an improvised, documentarian style. Godard’s more recent techniques, involving the jarring manipulation of an image’s properties, have not permeated mainstream cinema — an industry where continuity remains king — but have instead found comrades in the form of inexpensive Millennial and Gen Z alternatives like Vine and TikTok, micro-comedy platforms where the jarring, the sudden and the discontinuous have become the new normal. That Godard was so ahead of his time is admirable, but that cinema now feels behind the times, still trying to catch up to an eighty-nine-year-old master, is a searing indictment.

Six decades later, Jean Luc-Godard continues to deconstruct movies — his 2014 Goodbye to Language 3D interrogated the very way we process images —  but his first film, Breathless, remains an urtext about cinema in its totality, commenting on the way we tell stories by turning them inside out. It wields a disjointed, disorienting romance, fashioned in the body of a looming, culturally imperial American industry (not unlike Hollywood’s current omnipresence, through Disney and the likes), all while capturing moments of truth; not by letting the truth reveal itself, but by jumping between snapshots of people at their most dishonest. Despite belonging to a time when the world of filmmaking was more rigid, Breathless feels exceedingly modern, like it’s waiting to break right through even the cinema of today.

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