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Breathless (À bout de soufflé) by Jean-Luc Godard (1960) (France)

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Film’s Original Release Poster

Breathless was based loosely on a real incident where a man Michel Portail who had an American girlfriend, journalist Beverly Lynette, and ended up stealing a car in order to visit his mother but killed a motorcycle cop called Grimberg. Francois Truffaut wrote a treatment together with Claude Chabrol. However, the collaboration did not work out well and they dropped the project. However, Jean-Luc Godard picked up the treatment and decided to film it.

In the history of film as film students would know, not many filmmakers are given prestige with their first-time feature-length film making it big. Twenty years before Godard debuted with Breathless, there was Orson Welles with Citizen Kane. Similarly, with the bar already set so high, both Welles and Godard’s films after, although good, did not receive as much critical acclaim and success as their first films. While Jean-Luc Godard isn’t new to the film industry, Breathless was the filmmaker’s first feature-length film. Shot entirely in black and white, the film has been known to be one of the most influential films that brought about the French New Wave. Known as “a pioneer of the French New Wave, Godard has had an incalculable effect on modern cinema that refuses to wane” (Criterion Collection, “Jean-Luc Godard”). Hailed as the “most iconoclastic of revolutionary films, Breathless is also the freshest” (Powers, “Breathless”), Jean-Luc Godard not only brought a new filming style to the industry but also a new perspective of the young adults usually seen on screen.

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Michel and Patricia walking on the streets of Paris.

Michel Poiccard, whilst on the run from the police for several crimes, tries to convince his girlfriend, Patricia Franchini, to leave Paris and go to Italy. Michel Poiccard is the type of despicable man that doesn’t seem to have a conscience, until the very end of the movie, when Patricia had told him that she had called the police and tipped them off that he was here. Michel did not run. It seemed as if his conscience was in the form of his love for Patricia.

When first released, critics and viewers “responded to the burst of energy it gave to French cinema” (Crowther, “Breathless(1960)”). The film, unlike any others before it, showed the freedom and impulsiveness that young people had. In Michel’s case, he lives his life recklessly. Throughout the film, Michel’s life was unpredictable and unlike Patricia, he didn’t look for answers to his questions.

In my opinion, I believe that both characters were representations of the New French Waves. Both of them were rebellious. Michel was a persistent man who wanted to escape from the cops with someone he love. On the other hand, Patricia was an independent woman who was trying to run away from her current life.

“I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m free because I’m unhappy.”  – Patricia

This line shows us that she wants make her own decision and have freedom.

Breathless is a movie on making decisions. Patricia was consistently thinking about the choices she has in her life. – To tell the police about Michel or not? To purse her dreams or not? To follow Michel to Paris or not? Does she truly love Michel?

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Godard, a crewmember and Coutard (in the mail cart with the camera) filming from behind

Breathless “uses the famous techniques of the French New Wave: location shooting, improvised dialogue, and a loose narrative form” (Crowther, “Breathless(1960)”). Unlike the majority of films back then, Breathless stood out because it was different. Many of the scenes that were shot in Breathless were shot on public streets of Paris and filmed discreetly as permission was not sought. Godard had, contrary to the conventional means of shooting in studios with proper lighting, decided to film using a handheld camera and no artificial lighting in order to give the film a much more natural feel. As Wall Street Journal writer Tobias Grey said, “The film’s remarkably natural street shots were made possible because Mr. Godard and his slimmed-down crew did everything to make themselves invisible to passers-by” (Grey, “The Timeless Appeal of ‘Breathless'”). Using a handheld camera, Godard and cinematographer Raoul Cotard made the impossible possible. The camera follows the actors as if the viewers are also walking on the road.

Despite the natural flow of conversations in the film, the script was actually written as filming went along, and then further improvised. Most of the time, the script was either written the night before or early that morning which meant that the actors didn’t know what scene they were going to shoot or what were their lines. The crew also didn’t know what they were going to shoot or how they were going to do so. However, since they were using the handheld, noisy Cameflex camera for filming, Godard made a decision to “post-synchronise his film’s dialogue by way of looping, [and that meant that Godard] could also feed his actors lines of speech while the camera was turning” (Grey, “The Timeless Appeal of ‘Breathless'”). The chemistry between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg was amazing which made it their impromptus seamlessly natural. The actors were also not given time to rehearse or understand their characters deeply.

One of the most eye-catching techniques in this film was the use of jump cuts. For example, in this scene, while the actors remain in the car, the background jumps. Godard’s jump cuts in Breathless marked one of the most important editing techniques that are evident in movies today. While jump cuts existed before Godard’s Breathless, “it was typically counted as a mistake” (Casey, Godard and the New Wave) back then. However, Godard uses the jump cuts “to jolt the viewer out of their continuity-induced coma” (Casey, “Godard and the New Wave”). Godard uses the disjointed jump cuts to also tell the mood of the story.

Godard had stated that he was ashamed with Breathless once because he had aimed for a chilling crime movie but the outcome was not what he wanted. Instead of the movie being dark and scary, Breathless had comedic values. Unlike the normal crime films where it would be fierce and strict, the main characters of Breathless, Michel and Patricia, “banter, tell fibs and act silly” (Carleton), thus creating an atmosphere that doesn’t fall in to the stereotype of a crime film. However, Godard has acknowledged, two years after the film’s release, which Breathless fitted into a different genre of crime films. Throughout the film, Godard conveyed messages that he wanted to touch on; love, death, making choices in life and literature. There were references to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Godard developed the characters to have very human liked qualities so that his audience would be able to connect with them. Both Michel and Patrica are representations of anyone who wants to run away from anything. I believe that we, humans often want to escape the world we are in and go elsewhere to start afresh.

Despite being a film released in 1960, Breathless has remained a timeless masterpiece, still capturing viewers with its’ storytelling and the camera techniques executed and with it’s 50th anniversary in 2010, a fully restored version of the film was released. “The 50th anniversary rerelease of Godard’s Breathless is another opportunity to marvel at the sheer joie de vivre of this film, at its pure, raw, chaotic newness – still fresh after all this time – and at the fascinatingly and exasperatingly unschooled quality of Godard’s film-making” (Bradshaw, “Breathless”).

About the Author:
Edna is an avid reader who spends her free time searching for new snacks to eat.

References:

  1. Carleton.edu. 1959. the godard experience. [online] Available at: http://www.carleton.edu/curricular/MEDA/classes/media110/Friesema/breathless.html [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
  2. Grey, T. 2010. The Timeless Appeal of ‘Breathless’. [online] Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126834523980560391.html [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
  3. Heller, N. 2010. How Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless reinvented the movies.. [online] Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/summer_movies/2010/06/go_see_breathless.single.html [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
  4. IMDb. 1930. Jean-Luc Godard – Biography. [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000419/bio [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
  5. Movies.nytimes.com. 2013. Breathless – Trailer – Cast – Showtimes – NYTimes.com. [online] Available at: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/7054/Breathless/overview [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
  6. The Criterion Collection. 1968. Jean-Luc Godard. [online] Available at: http://www.criterion.com/explore/12-jean-luc-godard [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
  7. The Criterion Collection. 1960. Breathless. [online] Available at: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/875-breathless [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
  8. the Guardian. 2010. Breathless. [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/jun/24/breathless-godard-film-review [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
  9. Wbko.com. 2010. Jump Cut: Godard and the New Wave. [online] Available at: http://www.wbko.com/blogs/behindthegreenscreen/50365357.html [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
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2 thoughts on “Breathless: Godard’s Première Feature-Length

  1. Hello Edna! I love your review on Breathless!
    I love the paragraph about the techniques cause it was the start of the French New Wave.

    I enjoyed Breathless a lot so I have decided to add some of my thoughts into your review.

    I have updated it with my views on the characters. – how they can be relatable to the audience, Godard’s character development and their representations!

    I believe that there is some sort of representation or message behind using an American and French character but I can’t seem to put them into words. What are your thoughts on that? :O

  2. Hi Fiona! Thanks!
    I really liked your input about the film and what you think and I agree with you too!

    Personally, I don’t know if there is any kind of representation or message behind his use of an American woman and French man. Godard may have wanted to show the stark difference between American women and French women. It may be foolish of me to think this (especially since I am a complete idiot at any country’s history), but perhaps Godard may have wanted to prove that love was possible between two humans of different nationalities even despite their language barrier. But that’s just one theory that I have.

    From what I have learned about Godard and Breathless, this was actually a real incident that happened. The couple in the real incident had the same nationalities that Godard’s film had, an American woman and a French man.

    I’m glad you liked Breathless too! I enjoyed the show myself!

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