The 1960 French film, Breathless, tells the story two people, a French criminal named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American student named Patricia (Jean Seberg).
Michel is a criminal but it’s hard not to like him. Some of that is due to the fact that he’s played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, a charmingly off-center actor whose confidence and refusal to pretend to be anything other than what he was made him appealing even if he was not exactly handsome. The other reason why it’s easy to like Michel is because, no matter how many crimes he commits, you get the feeling that he’s just playing a role. He dresses like he belongs in a 30s gangster movie and a lot of his attitude has obviously been borrowed from Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. Even the way he smokes a cigarette feels like an affectation. He’s a kid, playing dress-up. One almost gets the feeling that he knows he’s a character in a movie and he’s going out of his way to give the audience what they expect.
When we first see Michel, he’s stealing a car. He drives around the French countryside. He dismissively observes two hitchhikers. A few times, he appears to speak directly to the audience. Is he musing out loud or is he acknowledging that there’s a film camera in the passenger’s seat? It’s hard to say. When Michel gets pulled over by a cop, Michel shoots him. Or does he? The scene is edited in such a way that it’s hard to say for sure. Maybe the cameraman shot the cop. Maybe director Jean-Luc Godard shot the cop. Not that it matters. Michel is the one who is now wanted for murder.
With the authorities now determined to catch him and his face in all of the newspapers, Michel flees to Paris. That’s where his girlfriend, Patricia, lives. Patricia is an American student who aspires to be a journalist. She sells copies of the New York Herald Tribune while walking around Paris. Despite her journalistic ambitions, Patricia does not know that her boyfriend is wanted for murder. Then again, boyfriend might not be the right word. That would suggest more of a commitment than either one shows much interest in maintaining.
Michel hides out at Patricia’s apartment and, at one point, Patricia tells Michel that she might be pregnant with his baby. Michel promptly blames her for not being “careful” and we’re never quite sure if Patricia is telling the truth or not. While Michel hides out from the police and tries to figure out how to get enough money to flee to Italy, he and Patricia discuss …. things. (It is a French film, after all. It’s also a Godard film and, even if this film does feature Godard at his least pretentious, there’s still no way you’re going to get through a Godard film without at least a little conversation about the meaning of life.) Michel is resigned to the idea of living in the moment and seems to be somewhat death obsessed. Patricia remains optimistic and looks forward to the future. Michel complains that Americans always make heroes out of the wrong Frenchmen.
Do Michel and Patricia love each other? Who knows? By the end of the film, one of them has betrayed the other and we’re not quite sure why. One is dead and the other seems oddly ambivalent and rather confused about the whole thing.
One of the seminal works of the French new wave, Breathless was the directorial debut of Jean-Luc Godard, who was working from a story treatment that was originally written by Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. When it was first released, Breathless reportedly stunned audience by using techniques — like frequent jump cuts, location shooting, and the use of a handheld camera — that are now so familiar that we take them for granted. That said, even if Godard’s techniques are no longer shocking, Breathless remains an exciting film to watch. It’s not just the Michel and Patricia are frequently breathless. One also gets the feeling that Godard was breathless behind the camera, trying to keep up with the story that he was telling. This is a film that, much like it’s lead characters, never stops moving. Indeed, a huge reason why the film’s finale remains powerful is because it’s the first time that anyone in the film truly seems to be still. The viewer has gotten so used to the film’s frenetic energy that it’s a shock when it all comes to an end.
It’s been written that there are two eras of cinema — pre-Breathless and post-Breathless. I don’t know if that’s true but it is impossible to watch Breathless and not see what a huge influence it’s had on every crime film that has followed. Every film about lovers-on-the-run probably owes at least a minor debt to Breathless. It’s one of those films that you simply have to see, both because of it’s historic importance and also just because it’s a damn good movie. It’s a film that’s in love with cinema and, by the time things come to a close, you’ll be in love with it too.