Written by François Truffaut and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Breathless” is a classic French crime film that helped to form the New Wave style of films coming from French filmmakers at that time. The story centers on Michel Poiccard, (Jean-Paul Belmondo) a petty thief in Paris who frequently steals cars for joyrides and pickpockets cash from unsuspecting pedestrians. He reunites with an American girl, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), who’s studying to become a journalist after he impulsively murders a police officer on one of his more casual grand theft autos in the countryside just outside of Paris. Most of the film is spent following these two in the streets of Paris, in cafes and hotels, almost always smoking while they discuss many aspects of life with whimsy through their opinions and fluttery definitions about everything from the opposite sexes to how one should drive while behind the wheel.
Now, admittedly, I wasn’t a gigantic fan of this film after giving it a watch, but I had to know what made it so renowned and gilded among cinephiles. Given the year the film was made I was surprised at the speed and abrupt use of jump-cuts in the film’s editing. However that didn’t seem enough to make it supposedly legendary, so I did some reading on the movie. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s in France were a rebellious era of filmmaking characterized by a coup of sorts against the established narrative form in French cinema. These new French filmmakers broke away from any sense of a studio system and shot their independent features on shoestring budgets, often without permission on locations, and usually focusing on characters that weren’t natural protagonists by the standard definitions. As for “Breathless” itself, filming took place anywhere between 15 minutes to 12 hours depending on what Godard had come up with that day. They filmed in Paris in stores and cafes mostly without being granted access in order to secure the spontaneous feel in the film that Godard was going for. There was a considerable amount of improvisation and Godard reportedly kept his journal of dialogue close and only shared what he believed to be necessary.
In today’s world, the film may not seem all that special, but it did a lot to give independent filmmakers an origin, somebody had to be the first to get their shots without the permission from the gatekeepers, right? Indie film cred aside, the film may harbor some resentment from modern audiences for its characters’ opinions. I suspect that many American audiences today could be triggered by the subjects that the characters discuss and how they go about discussing them. To be fair, the perspective is from an entirely different culture and from a generation and a half ago. As we’re still very much embroiled in the #MeToo movement here in America, everything is still tender. Simply talking about sexuality and the roles of women and men in life and the workplace can be a careful tap-dance of attempting to recognize and listen to every person’s point of view, let alone expressing the viewpoints that this film does. The French culture approaches these topics in a fairly different manner, but especially so in the 1960’s, in a post war Paris, and given that the New Wave movement was focused on morally ambiguous characters to stand aside from the greater film structures of the time- so there’s a lot to dissect given all of the variables in play.
The film does have it’s place in celluloid history, but I wouldn’t say that its the most entertaining film out there. Which is fine, not every story works for every audience. I’d have to see more from the New Wave directors before making a final opinion on the select era and group of filmmakers’ work, but the making of this film was more interesting to me than the final product. Surprised by the international praise of the film, Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t regret making the film because they defied the power structures of the filmmaking process and he was glad that they had thrown all that aside and opened the process up. In the end, I’m glad I gave it a watch, another film can be checked off my list and my perspective widens because of it.
Final Score: 100 cigarettes and 50 cups of coffee