Breathless (À bout de souffle) (1961)
Breathless (À bout de souffle) (1961)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 30 min.

Release Date: February 7th, 1961 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Jean-Luc Godard Actors: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Claude Mansard, Jean-Pierre Melville

 


 

A

man reading a newspaper and puffing on a cigarette waits for the perfect opportunity to steal a car. After coordinating with his female accomplice and snagging a speedy ride, he takes off down the road through the French countryside. The thief is former Air France steward Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a petty crook who idolizes Bogart, lives in the moment, and embarks upon whatever on-the-spot venture he devises for temporary amusement. When he’s short on money, he assaults a man in a bathroom and robs him. When he needs another mode of transportation, he simply takes another unattended vehicle. He also talks to the camera, listens to the radio, hums some tunes, and finds a handgun in the glove box.

When a motorcycle cop stops him, he brashly shoots, and then hightails it back to the city, where he meets up with friend Liliane (Liliane David), a script girl at a television station, for some quick cash. Before planning an escape to Rome, he meets up with one-time lover (for five nights) Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), an American working for the New York Herald Tribune as a street vender along the Champs-Elysees. She has an appointment with another romantic interest, which momentarily takes her away from Michel, who tails her and eventually hides out in her apartment.

The film starts with a brisk pace, with actions transpiring and predicaments stirring, though motives and backstories are specifically vague. Then it slows, shifting to character development and building a singular romance between drastically different yet absorbingly compatible people. Trading casual, witty, inquisitive, sexy, amusing words and observations on unpremeditated subjects, they lazily wile away the hours. With obvious jealousy over her other beau, Michel presses Patricia to have sex with him. She’s mainly interested in studying his mindset and reaction to the news of her possible pregnancy, hoping that she’s not genuinely in love with the mystifying man.

As they recline in the tiny room, the movie becomes something of a snapshot of a carefree afternoon in the lives of two informal lovers, as if to completely dispense with traditional Hollywood narrative structuring. All the while, an unsteady camera uses quick cuts without changing the angle, as if the scenes are outtakes or frames have been routinely excised. Following this, a press junket with famous writer Parvulesco (Jean-Pierre Melville) provides some brief commentary on women and sexuality before the caper picks up again, with the cops steadily closing in. Inspectors stop by the Inter-Americana Agency mere seconds after Michel departs, spot his getaway vehicle, and try to convince Patricia to snitch on her companion. The romance morphs into exciting, forbidden love – perhaps based on the rebellion, the allure, and the thrill of accompanying a rakish criminal.

It’s an upbeat, jazzy, cops-and-robbers crime drama with the tone of a romantic comedy and the plot progression of an unfocused documentary. Smokey interiors, bright exteriors, and devil-may-care attitudes permeate this experiment in realistic interactions devoid of contrived storytelling interferences. It stays stylish, hip, edgy, suave to the very end, and tragic – but not heartrending, as Michel certainly isn’t a conspicuously sympathetic antihero. As a significant work from the French New Wave movement – intent on contradicting the formulaic, standard methods of contemporary filmmaking – “Breathless” is incredibly artsy, decidedly experimental (and of a questionable commercial value), yet also solidly entertaining in its uniqueness, improvisational dialogue, and unforgettable character designs.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10