I started to really get into cinema when I was at university after first watching a couple of Martin Scorsese’s early movies. I was dumbstruck by the guerrilla style of Mean Streets and easy flow and strange editing of Taxi Driver as well as the way that both movies captured a time and place which although I’d never personally experienced, felt familiar. In the near decade since then I’ve expanded my cinematic experiences and ventured down many genre avenues, finding much that to like. It’s taken me to my late twenties though to venture towards The French New Wave, a period and collection of film makers who inspired those early Scorsese pictures perhaps more than anything else.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless or À bout de souffle in its native France is one of the most famous examples of the New Wave films which steamed across the Atlantic in the late 1950s and into the 60s, influencing the next generation of American directors. The influence follows a similar pattern to British rock music of the period as Godard and his compatriots François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and others were themselves being influenced by what they saw in American cinema. It’s almost as though the French put their own spin on what they saw in Hollywood and then this was subsequently appropriated and re-Americanised by ‘movie brats’ of the 70s.
From just one watch of Breathless, it’s instantly obvious to see what Scorsese and others from his generation took from the film. It’s a film made outside of any studio system, shot on handheld cameras, often without permits or permission. Scenes were constructed on the spot and improvised quickly and roughly while the editing proved to me even more influential than the actual cinematography. Breathless is over fifty years old but feels fresh and modern. It’s barely aged a day and in fact films such as Psycho, made in the same year and considered ahead of its time, feel old fashioned and rigid in comparison. Watching Breathless felt like going back to the source of something I love. I could literally visualise scenes, shots and movements from this film being placed into some of my favourite American films of the following decade and I’m thrilled to have finally seen it.
The film’s plot concerns a young, arrogant and free-spirited man called Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who commits petty crimes and models himself on the iconic American actor Humphrey Bogart. After stealing a car in Marseille and killing a police officer, Michel returns to Paris to hide out and seeks out an old girlfriend and wannabe journalist called Patricia (Jean Seberg). The plot is at times a little incoherent, perhaps due to the nature of its construction. In a way though, it works in the film’s favour and creates a more realistic feel which has the floating sensibility of a dream. Both central characters hide truths from each other and the audience and it’s sometimes difficult to pin point exactly what is true and what is a lie. Aside from the story though, I found the atmosphere of the film to be rich and intoxicating and I longed to be walking the same Parisian streets as the characters.
I’d be hard pressed to think of a cooler film than Breathless. Everything about it is effortlessly hip. It’s the film equivalent of Elvis and Samuel L. Jackson designing a Woody Harrelson clone in a freezer while listening to a great band that ‘you wouldn’t have heard of’. It’s that cool. The fashion depicted in the movie comes and goes on a cycle of popularity but is very ‘now’. Tight trousers, tweed, thin ties, puffed stripy dresses and big sunglasses are very much in right now and even at times when they’re not so massively popular, if you saw someone dressed in that way walking down the street, you’d think they were pretty cool. Not only did I want to dress like Michel but I wanted to be Michel. It might sound strange to want to be a penniless murderer but the character was so suave and confident that I couldn’t help admire him. Who wouldn’t want to spend their days driving around Paris in exquisite cars, well dressed, and chasing beautiful women? Michel is the ultimate anti-hero, a man you forgive terrible deeds, words and attitudes because he represents that angry uncorked youth you wish you still had.
Jean Seberg sports a surprisingly short haircut and occasionally exerts a tomboy look but is still stunning. The camera frequently focuses on her face, allowing the audience to take in her features with a voyeuristic eye. Her character is innocent and you feel as though she’s being corrupted by the more forceful Michel but at the same time, they seem suited. The brief journey they go on together is full of ups and downs but is exciting to watch and examine. The couple appear to run all over Paris at times together and sometimes apart but it’s always fast flowing. There’s a great deal of moment in the film, something which was made possible with a small crew and handheld cameras. It gives the film an energy which few contain. I felt dizzy after watching it, my head was spinning from the pace and images that had been sent through it and it took me a while to gather my thoughts about what I’d just seen. I normally review a film on the day I watch it but it’s been nearly two days since I finished this movie.
The film features a fantastic score which perfectly captures the pace and feel of the visuals, city and era. Like the central character, the score is influenced by the USA but its Jazz is decidedly European. It sounds great and made me want to get up off my seat and have a dance. It’s rare that I ever, ever want to dance so to want to do so while watching a film is really something. The score adds so much to the film that composer Martial Solal’s contribution to its success and legacy should not go unnoticed. I honestly think that the score was as responsible for my enjoyment as the acting, direction or setting. Although I’ve said that, I expect the film would still be widely regarded as a masterpiece with a different score because it’s the images for which it is remembered. Godard and his editors used revolutionary jump cuts in several scenes which really took me by surprise at first. I just wasn’t used to seeing such a harsh and ‘modern’ technique in a film from this period. The jumps give the film an abrupt style which messes with the passage of time in the audience’s mind. It creates an unsettled feeling which further heightens the already frenetic pacing.
Despite everything I loved about Breathless, I can’t honestly say that it’s a film I loved. I found it difficult to penetrate and was occasionally bored by the erratic story but as a lover of film history I can totally appreciate its influence. Not only is it influential but it still looks and sounds fantastic and has made me want to discover more of what the French New Wave has to offer.
- To help create a spontaneous quality, Godard fed the actors lines just before shooting scenes.
- The director has a small cameo as a bystander who recognises Michel from a photo in the newspaper.
- An American remake was made in 1983 with Richard Gere in the lead role. Quentin Tarantino is said to be a huge fan of the remake.