Breathless (A bout de souffle)

Art & Culture

Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film, Breathless, or À bout de soufflé as it was known in its native France, is not a film for those struggling to quit smoking. Engulfed in a thick veil of tobacco smoke, the film was to become regarded as a seminal exponent of the French New Wave Movement of the 1960s, with the undeniable charm still resonating through to the modern day. Following the nicotine-fuelled exploits of endearingly obnoxious anti-hero Michel, Jean-Paul Belmondo, as he attempts to escape the grasp of Parisian police after murdering a policeman whilst simultaneously winning the heart of American Patricia, Jean Seberg, Breathless will be undoubtedly remembered for years to come for its innovation in the field of cinema.

One of the most striking elements of Breathless is the lack of any real sense of narratorial progression or obvious urgency, at least until the final pivotal scene, which seems to stand at odds with what one may expect from an archetypal murder film. Indeed, rather than providing the focus for the film, Michel’s murder seems to act merely as a catalyst to perpetuate the romance between himself and Patricia as he attempts to whisk her off to Italy to escape the long arm of the law. The portrayal of this relationship is notable as one of the film’s key triumphs, with the coupling of the largely improvised dialogue and the looseness of the narrative resulting in electric on-screen chemistry between Belmondo and Seberg, with the aimless conversation of the young couple being decidedly more charming than boring.

This rapport is accentuated through the innovative use of so-called ‘jump cuts’, the deliberate mismatching between shots, to facilitate the impression of the passage of time, affording a sense of the audience as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’. Presenting us with excerpts from ordinary conversation rather than constructing grand set pieces between the leads, Godard rejects brash cinematic bravado in favour of an understated rawness to depict the reality of a young couple in love. This restraint subtly endows the film with a sense of intimacy and realism that was largely unprecedented at the time of its release.

Cinematic techniques aside, perhaps the most enchanting aspect of Breathless is its spectacular visual documentation of Paris in the 1960s and the inherent ‘Frenchness’ associated with it. With all of the outdoor sequences shot on location in the centre of France’s capital, the audience is treated to a tour of the architecturally astounding romantic centre of the world. Despite being filmed on relatively cheap handheld cameras, scenes of the ruggedly handsome Belmondo walking along the iconic streets of Paris alongside the classic beauty of Seberg create a remarkably compelling extended piece of markedly French visual cinema that still grips the viewer now.  The superb jazz soundtrack provided by virtuoso Martial Solal further accentuates this sense of ‘Frenchness’, coolly complementing and underpinning the action rather than constituting an overbearing element.

When broken down into its constituent parts it is somewhat hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Breathless a great film. A lack of strong narrative, raw filming techniques and unfocussed dialogue are hardly elements one would attribute to a classic, but something in the way in which Godard portrays the love affair of two young people in love in Paris strangely works. Stylistically challenging and visually stunning, this defining piece of the New Wave Movement just has, as the French say, a certain je ne sais quoi. 

Patrick Henderson

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