Opens Fri., June 11
It’s worth noting that virtually no one who worked on Breathless—the film that established the French New Wave, loosening up previously staid and passionless cinema—thought they were working on one of the Most Important Films in History.
Making his first feature, critic-turned-filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was widely viewed as sub-amateur. He filmed handheld, mostly in natural light. He created tracking shots with cinematographer Raoul Coutard sitting in a wheelchair. He paid so little attention to crowd control that during star Jean-Paul Belmondo’s death scene, an on-duty policeman rushed to his aid. Once, after calling out sick, he was found at a café; he and high-end producer Georges de Beauregard then got into a fistfight.
Even the “jump cut,” the film’s most famous feature, was simply an inventive solution after the first cut ran two-and-a-half hours. Was only Godard aware of what Godard was doing? Debatable. He charged that the initial fans—good job, moviegoers of 1960, for making this a massive hit—were “exaggerating.” Later, he claimed he had been trying to imitate Howard Hawks, but hit Lewis Carroll by accident. Whoops! Still, it’s unlikely the 50-year-old Breathless would be as influential or lively—every shot feels genuinely spontaneous—were it not for the madness that birthed it.
The closest Godard ever got to a clean plot, the film is pure gutter noir. Petty thief, apparent psychopath and Bogie fanatic Michel Poiccard (Belmondo, swaggering) steals a car, shoots a cop and hides out in Paris. There, he bangs Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American ex-pat femme fatale. Of course, it’s no “mere” noir. The action (what little there is) is diced into discombobulation. The bulk of the film is dedicated to mega-idle chit-chat (see: the 26-minute bedroom scene) and shots of its two iconic stars radiating fuck fumes.
As a film about a gloriously mismatched couple, it’s a strong, dry run for the even bleaker portrait in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965). More importantly: Here’s a low-budget film made by an egomaniacal tyrant that created a fresh cinematic language with limited resources. Why doesn’t this happen more often?