Jean-Luc Godard, the New Wave doyen whose movies are distributed today in every theater where Milk Duds and Mike and Ike are not, learned to make films the way some people learn to paint: by studying the masterworks on someone else’s wall and trying to replicate them in the light of his own studio. For Godard, though, a number of the most inspiring models came not from the Old World but from mainstream filmmakers across the pond. “The Americans, who are much more stupid when it comes to analysis, instinctively bring off very complex scripts,” Godard observed in 1962. “The Americans are real and natural. But this attitude means something over there. We in France must find something that means something—find the French attitude as they have found the American attitude.”
Some version of that injunction lies behind Breathless, Godard’s first feature film, which came out 50 years ago this spring and, with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, carried the New Wave to the fore of European filmmaking. The movie’s unmoored, fast-paced style was striking on its release, and it’s equally seductive now. But is it French? Godard created Breathless in the mold of Hollywood: The movie’s plot, characters, and goals hew closely to American genre pictures of the 1930s and ‘40s. Since the film’s release, it has been cast both as an homage to this (even then) anachronistic U.S. style and as the expression of a new, uniquely Continental voice. It’s both, of course. Breathless is an orchestrated dialogue between two worlds—a world of stylized Hollywood romanticism and the everyday world of banal, uncinematic life. It’s Godard’s careful counterpoint between these two styles that helped him tease out a “French attitude” and gave the movie its relentless drive.
That drive is more vivid than ever in the new, restored version of Breathless now screening in honor of the movie’s 50th anniversary. The fresh prints, cleaned up with the guidance of Raoul Coutard, the film’s cinematographer, are crystal-clear and filled with light, and they open a new world of visual detail: When Coutard’s camera moves in close to frame Jean Seberg’s face in one iconic shot, we see a matte of mimelike makeup on her skin—a stripping of cinematic illusion that, in Godard’s hands, was almost certainly deliberate. In Breathless,every leading character—even the city of Paris itself—tries to reach past the grind of normal life to claim a new, exotic role.
The movie opens as Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a petty thief who idolizes Humphrey Bogart, steals an American car in Marseilles, and commits a traffic violation driving back to Paris. When he’s flagged down by a pair of motorcycle cops, he kills one with a gun he found in the glove compartment. Back in the capital, Michel tracks down two young women of his acquaintance, hoping they can hook him up with cash (or just hook up). His favorite free-love inamorata is Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a sprightly New Yorker who sells Herald Tribune newspapers on the Champs-Élysées. She wants to be a writer. She also thinks she’s carrying his child. As Michel goes about his business, bouncing around town stealing cars and cash and trying to track down shady friends who owe him dough, the net tightens around him. In the final minutes of the film, Patricia sells him out to the police to prove she’s not in love. Instead of running, though, Michel stays with her, waiting to be caught—a perverted version of the Romeo-and-Juliet story she cherishes. He dies. She lives. The movie ends.
This brand of brisk black comedy today seems quintessentially Godardian, but Breathless was, in plot and sensibility, a takeoff on Old Hollywood fare. Like most New Wave directors, Godard started as a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, a journal founded on the idea that mainstream movies should be seen as modern art. The magazine’s passions ran toward the studio-system masters (Cukor, Hawks, Hitchcock), due partly to a trade agreement that sent U.S. wartime movies flooding into Paris theaters just as the Cahiers generation came of age. These young critics united against the dominant style Gallic moviemaking: a big-budget, moralistic, and heavy-handed form. Godard particularly championed genre films from Hollywood—Westerns and B-grade noir were his critical specialties. Breathless, which he started in a rush of envy when his friend Truffaut won big at Cannes, was his idea of a fast-paced gangster flick transplanted to the Paris streets.
The movie is upfront about its Hollywood debts. Not only is its subject, literally, a French-American love affair (set during President Eisenhower’s visit to Paris to see de Gaulle, no less), the action that propels its plotline is imported from another geographic space. Breathless aspires to be a car-culture film in the style of The Big Sleep or In a Lonely Place: Godard’s camera trolls through postwar Paris the way Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray dragged their antiheroes across noir-era Los Angeles. The iconic shot of Breathless is the tracking shot, the better to accentuate the sweep and scale of Paris’ urban arteries.
Despite these Tinseltown trappings, though, it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to lose yourself in Breathless’ vision of a Paris measured out in gas miles. It feels false, and that falseness is the linchpin of the movie’s style. Michel’s Bogie affectations are supposed to be absurd. He speeds down the highway playing cops-and-robbers with a gun but ends up stuck behind a station wagon and roadwork. The film’s best physical-comedy moment is wannabe noir: Monsieur Tolmatchoff, a gangster, is tracked down and hustled by some cops hot on Michel’s trail. In a Hawks film, this encounter would be tense and portentous, a meet-up at the counter of a femme-fatale-infested dive bar. In Breathless, the setting is a well-lit travel agency, the cops are guileless and overfed, and Tolmatchoff starts the scene leaning Continentally against the counter, smiling with effete disdain, and toying with a small airplane. What’s daring and charismatic in the subtropics of Florida or L.A. becomes, in the bright light of Paris’ boulevards, a little silly.
This hue of absurdity, like most of Breathless’ qualities, developed largely in production. “[O]ne never does exactly what one intended. Sometimes one even does the opposite,” Godard once explained. “I realized that [Breathless] was not at all what I thought. I thought I had made a realistic film like Richard Quine’s Pushover, but it wasn’t that at all.” The noir realism he’d sought turned disingenuous because he “didn’t have enough technical skill,” he claimed—an admission that both gives a window onto Godard’s sense of the craft (few besides the Cahiers critics would argue it took a virtuoso to pull off a gangster flick) and shows how Breathless’ limits turned into its strengths. Where the noir of Quine and Hawks took scripted, processed cinematic fiction and imbued it with real human stakes, Godard took footage with the spontaneity, rhythms, and anonymity of banal life and braided it on-screen with stylized cinematic fiction. Breathless was filmed with light equipment and a small crew, and Godard designed each scene the day of the shoot from notes he’d made. The result was new and striking not so much for its documentary flavor—the vérité approach was amply fleshed out by the time Godard began—but for its dissonance: the conflict between what Breathless purported to be (an exotic Sin City flick) and what it delivered (scenes from commonplace Paris).
That dissonance sharpened the movie’s tone. Although Breathless presented itself as a high-strung gangster picture (the French title, À Bout de Souffle, has more the sense of “out of breath” than the romantic “breathless”), the middle of the film finds Patricia and Michel padding around her apartment for minutes on end, washing up, teasing, chatting about music, and doing nothing in the way that only young lovers can on a lazy morning. It is startlingly real. The camera shifts and wobbles as the two orbit her tiny room; cigarette ash drops—spontaneously—onto the bed, the floor, his chest. Then there’s a cut, and we’re back to a still, composed frame of the two lovers kissing in sunglasses, a perfect Pop rendition of silver-screen artifice. Against the scenes of the young couple chatting and dressing, it’s clear how unreal and stylized that shot is. (The movie’s soundtrack likewise moves abruptly from a lush, romantic score and programmatic jazz, on one hand, to unadorned Paris street noise on the other.)
In flipping between these styles—one ragged, unplotted, and pedestrian; the other glamorous and reeking of the storyboard—Godard was not trying to pick a fight with Hollywood’s mien or to lampoon audience expectation. (That came later.) He was trying to make a film that, at each turn, broke with his culture’s notion of what French movies were supposed to be. Where the dominant screen style had moral overtones, Breathless is breezily amoral, at least until its final moments. And where most postwar showpieces were realized largely in the scripting, Godard’s plot, tension, and themes are wrought entirely with the camera and the cutting blade. For all the movie’s stylistic nods to noir, in fact, its crucial moments are deliberately generic. Nearly every major scene of Breathless is shot from behind, a vantage from which the movie’s poseur heroes become anonymous motorists and pedestrians; the focus of these shots is not their distinctive expressions but the totally routine street life they’re facing. In the final moment of the film, Patricia makes a 180-degree turn to show the lens the back of her head—receding, as the movie has, into the texture of the modern Paris street.
By the time Michel and his gangster affectations die at an impassive intersection, it’s clear that Godard isn’t trying to fill the Hollywood mold. He’s trying to break it. Breathless’portrait of the normal flow of Paris life sticks with you long after the credits roll: Patricia and Michel beating a path down the boulevard, doing nothing half-dressed in her apartment, dipping into cafes for a cup of coffee and then dashing out before it’s drunk. Compared with the low-key realism of these scenes, the movie’s gangster gambit comes across as tedious and heavy-handed. What lay beyond, and lies there still, is the image of a new Paris: sexy, raw, and, for the young and restless, filled with light.