Breathless is a stunning film. Shot from the hip on a tiny budget and hardly planned prior to the day’s filming, Godard’s first masterpiece cobbles together the story of a love affair that blossoms into a strange dance after a brutal crime. The camera jumps and the dialogue wanders as our protagonists approach their day like carelessly rolling through the sheets on a Sunday morning. As the police close in, their cool attitude keeps us close and their freedom closer – not a literal freedom, as it is clear where the film is headed in the first fifteen minutes, but a social, emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal freedom that Godard expresses with his direction and cinematography as much as the stellar performances of the small captivating cast.
There are two elements that make Breathless so revolutionary. One is the informal, free filming and editing style incorporated into the final cutting of the film – something that is replicated today but hardly pulled off with the same, smooth coolness of Godard. Add a hip soundtrack, and you’ve got everything many realist modern directors wish they could accomplish on a budget millions of times Godard’s. Second, the performances and story structure is beyond anything seen before – and easily holds immense appeal to people of my generation as “children of existentialist reflection,…beat culture cool, pop culture flip (who are) antiheroes treat(ing) love as a game, and (our) own identities as makeshift masks… (we) are stranded between traditional values that (we) reject,” and that makes for a killer execution that makes us all cheer for something of a beautiful, tragic, and careless end as beautifully lived and notably famous as this iconic duo (Martin).
We watched Breathless on Criterion DVD (#408).
Even though this film was made almost fifty years ago, it continues to retain its hip stylish edge. While it took me a while to get used to the different style of this film (lots of jump cuts, which made this movie feel both a little dated, but also very modern), I was thoroughly entertained. It’s a little bit of a thriller, little bit of a romance, and a little bit of an artsy sort of film. For me, the appeal lies in the bad boys, fast cars, and doomed romance – but reimagined in a way that still feels unconventional and novel.
Jean Seberg is aloof, uncommitted yet also endearing in this film. Even though we know Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character is a bad boy, he steals your sympathies (or at least he stole mine) with his performance in this film.
Finally, this movie is loosely based on a true story of a similar young man who stole a car on the pretense of visiting his sick mother and ended up killing a motorcycle cop. Godard originally set out to make a film about this story but decided it was too boring.
Godard’s style in this film is incredible. Considering the costumes, the cars, the incredible dialogue that is impossible to believe that it was written and shot on the spot, the editing, and the incredible true story about its minimal funding and shoestring production, it would have been truly earth-shattering to have seen this film come out in 1960 and not had audiences absolutely baffled at what was playing on the screen. There is no doubt in my mind that he knew exactly what he was doing as he threw this together – in a manner both haphazard and also with such extreme vision – to create an almost definitive new genre, new technique, and new wave of filmmaking. I have seen something so pure with such the minimum of action and dialogue and budget before in a variety of early-nineties low-budget films, but in hindsight, each of these were just sorry attempts to do what Godard does so perfectly in this piece. Essentially, what we got in this film was the beauty of a lazy new relationship where their romantic feelers connect, and around every corner, a new twist of language and fun moment is contrasted with the potential weight of something really terrible crashing down around the next corner.
The music, the dialogue, the style, the cuts, the edits, and the sexiness of the young, fresh characters in their stupendous performances make this piece unforgettable. We also watched the special featurettes on Criterion. Most notable were the featurettes about Godard’s style and approach to filming this piece, as well as the story of Jean Seberg‘s troubled and sad life after her early films. If you watch Breathless, the Criterion featurettes are highly recommended to add some context to the genius of the piece and the strange avenues the cast and crew traveled after the film exploded into the public as something completely before its time.