Breathless (A bout de souffle in French) was made by a 29-year-old Jean-Luc Godard, who started as a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma. Partly inspired by Jean Rouch’s Moi, Un Noir and partly by Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the film came out during a time when France was just beginning to find its place in the post-war world.
In the late 1950s as the French came out of the shadows of the war, they were exposed to the wide range of cinema from Hollywood, the youthful and rebellious spirit inspired a bunch of first-time filmmakers to try something new. This was during the heyday of existential philosophy, which explains Godard’s fascination of incorporating some of those ideas into conversations of his characters. Every frame in Breathless carries an afterimage of that heady time, one that plays in our heads long after the film’s climax. Godard stated in an interview after the release of the film, “I wanted to give the impression of just finding or experiencing the processes of cinema for the first time.”
Godard particularly championed genre films from Hollywood, mainly Westerns and B-grade noirs. This happened as France saw an uptick in its cinematic imports. Godard was trying to make a film that, at every turn, broke with his culture’s notion of what French movies were supposed to be. His characters, especially Patricia Franchini played by Jean Seberg, seem trapped between the French and American culture. However, Godard wasn’t trying to fit the Hollywood mould. He was trying to break it, as his films always had something wholly original to provide (especially stylistically), even if they borrowed from the old.
Jean-Paul Belmondo plays an antihero, a romantic outlaw for whom any fate but death would be too sad. Wearing an unstructured blazer with smart trousers, lazily rolled sleeves and shortened tie, he oozes rakishness in this role. He had trained for a career in the theatre and never expected to remain in movies. That’s what made his persona on screen so relatable to the audience. In one of the initial scenes in the film, we are led up to an action sequence where his character, after stealing a car, kills an American police officer. One would expect this sequence to go a certain way, understanding where Godard was coming from and what Neo-noir films he was inspired by. But we don’t really get big moments here. Instead, the scene is tightly woven with a bunch rapid closeups, giving it a hyper-realistic feeling. The scene feels disjointed, cutting awkwardly between the shots and soundtrack.
Almost every shot in the film was infused with an unmistakable nostalgia. What makes this film truly special, is that one doesn’t need to recognize its overtly cinematic allusions to appreciate the performance here. Watching it more than six decades later, it’s naturally quite impossible not to think about the influence Belmondo’s character and the film have had. This is especially true looking at the fact of how its style made its way back into the West, years later. Jean-Paul Belmondo helped define the French New Wave. The actor passed away last week, at his Paris home, aged 88. His legacy however, through these groundbreaking films, continues.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.