One cannot help but wonder what it would be like if Breathless had been made today? A well known tale associated with the film is that director Jean-Luc Godard wrote the script on the fly. Each day, before shooting, he gave his actors a few lines then let his actors improvise the rest. What was considered groundbreaking and experimental back then would be viewed as chaotic in today’s social media obsessed society. Twitter would be a buzz with people declaring the film a predestined failure simply because it was shooting without a solid script, and lacks conventional structure. If it is hard to imagine the film being made today, it is near impossible to imagine what it must have been like to watch Breathless for the first time in 1960. It is doubtful that anyone fully grasped just how influential the film would be.
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a petty thief who envisions himself to have the same tough swagger as his hero Humphrey Bogart. When Michel commits a traffic violation in a stolen car, a police chase promptly ensue. Though he merely intends to give the cops the slip, things take a turn for the worse when Michel kills a police officer with a gun he finds in the car’s glove compartment. On the run and penniless, Michel decides to visit several of his female acquaintances in hopes of acquiring some cash until he can track down an old friend who owes him money. One of the females Michel happens across is his American friend Patricia (Jean Seberg), a student and aspiring journalist. Despite not seeing each other in a longtime, it is clear that their attraction still lingers, though neither is willing to admit just how strong these feelings are. As the police close in on Michel, he begins to contemplate spending the rest of his life with Patricia. Believing that she is carrying Michael’s child, Patricia also wrestles with what possible future there is with Michel, especially when she discovers the truth about his criminal ways.
Breathless is a film that is cited as one of the key films that help to usher in the French New Wave movement in cinema. While most films of the era where often big budget spectacles that featured a strict linear structure and characters with clear moral compasses, Breathless is the exact opposite. Instead of obeying the established filmmaking techniques of the time, such as using studio soundstages and all the perks that come with it, Godard opted to shoot the film on a hand held camera while using only natural lighting. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg for what Godard does with the film. Characters frequently break the forth wall, some of the dialogue rambles on without having any real significance to the plot, and several scenes have random edits for the sole purpose of cutting down the running time. In regards to the editing, Godard also incorporates numerous jump cuts which give the film a frantic, and spontaneous, feel throughout.
This may all sound a bit disjointed, which to an extent it is, it is actually what makes Breathless such a fascinating film to watch. It is as if the viewer is seeing the birth of techniques that are now common place in the film industry. Although it is easy to write off Breathless as an anti-Hollywood film, the truth is Godard was clearly inspired by the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. It is not a mistake that Michel is obsessed with Bogart or that he is in love with Patricia, an American girl. The film’s structure is more about challenging the notion of how both gangster films and love stories are consumed rather than attacking the genres themselves. It is important to keep this in mind for those watching Breathless for the first time.
The film not only holds up extremely well all these years later, but there is also so much to take in from a film lover’s perspective. The film practically demands repeat viewings as there is so many different facets one could focus on when watching. The obvious one is the technical aspects of the film, but the relationship between Michel and Patricia is also interesting to dissect. One of the highlights of the film comes when the couple is merely hanging out in Patricia’s apartment. They talk about life, make love, talk about life some more and try to gauge how the other really feels about them. There is the constant question of exactly how much they love each other that is not answered until the very last scene. Breathless is at its most interesting when Godard is analyzing the difference between what drives men and women in regards to relationships.
Breathless is more than a mere gangster film, it is a piece of cinematic art that challenges the viewers to forget their pre-conceived notions on what films should be. It is a film whose impact can still be found in many of the great films that came directly after it and the films that are being made today.