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Breathless

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard based on a treatment by Francois Truffault, with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, 87 minutes, 1960


Belmondo


Jean Paul Belmondo's signature lip-rubbing 

By Carter B. Horsley

"Breathless" is a sloppy, uneven masterpiece of murder and mayhem in Paris that quickly made a major international star out of Jean Paul Belmondo and set off terrorist rockets of irresponsible morality for youth if they could jauntily wear a fedora hat and tweed sports coat.

All is forgiven if one can create a querky personal signature such as James Dean's hand motions, or Belmondo's incessant lip-rubbing.

Nowadays, of course, such affectations are the norm, but back in 1960 they were extraordinary.  They were attention-calling, braggadoccio. show-off, derring-do, WTFs.

Belmondo is not particularly attractive and Jean Seberg French accent is not perfect when she blurts out "New York Herald Tribune" as she attempts to hawk the newspaper on the streets.

Yet they are mesmerizing and their critics have stood up at attention ever since.

Belmondo being kissed by Seberg


Belmondo being kissed by Seberg

In his 2011 book on Pauline Kael, A Life in the Dark," Brian Kellow noted that she considered Breathless "to be  the best of the New Wave group" and was "fascinated by the way Godard had managed to make two characters who cared for nothing about anything, or anyone, both attractive and appealing: They were so detached from the world that impulsiveness was a way of life for them.  She found Breathless both funny and sexy and playfrul and consistently surrprising.  It worked on the surface in a way that was unusual for movies at the time; those who saw the film found that it was almost impossible to regulate their responses to what was unfolding on the screen.  This style and technique resonated with Pauline - it was an another example of her attraction to 'messiness' on screen...."

In her review for KPFA-FM of Berkeley, the first listener-sponsored radio station in the United States, Miss Kael provided the following commentary about the film in her fine book "I Lost It At The Movies: Film Writings 1954-1965" before she became the film critic for The New Yorker Magazine:

"The codes of civilized living presupoose that people have an inner life and outer aims, but this new face lives for the moment, because that is all that they care about.  And the standards of judgment we might bring to bear on them don't touch them and don't interest them.  They have the narcissism of youth, and we are out of it, we are bores.  They are the youthful representatives of mass socieity.  They seem giddy and gauche and amusingly individualistic, until you consider that this individualism is not only a reaction to mass conformity, but, more terrifyingly, is the new form that mass society takes: indifference to humman values.  Godard has used this, as it were, documentary background for a gangster story....But Breathless has removed the movie gangster from this melodramatic trappings of gangs and power; this gangster is Bogart apotheosized and he is romantic in a modern sense just because he doesn't care about anything but the pleasures of love and fast cars."

In her broadcast for KPFA, Kael wrote that "Breathless, the most important New Wave film which has reached the United States, is a frightening little chase comedy with no big speeches and no pretensions.  Michel, the young Parisian hood (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car, kills a highway patrolman, chases after some money owned him for thefts, so he and his young American girl friend can get away to Italy.  He finances this chase after they money by various other crimes along the way  Meanwhile, the police are chasing him.  But both Michel's flight and the police chase are half-hareted.  Michel isn't desperate to get away - his life doesn't mean that much to him; and the police (who are reminiscent of Keystone Kops carry on routine bumbling manhunt.  Part of the stylistic peculiarity of the work - its art - is that while you're watching it, it's light and playful, off-the-cuff, if even a little silly.  It seems accidental that it embodies more of the modern world than other movies.  What speaks upon the you in Breathless that the engaginingly coy young hood with his loose, random grace and the impervious, passibly butch American girl are as shallow and empty as the shiny young faces you see in sports cars and in suburbun supermarkets, and in newspapers after unmotivated, pointless crimes.  And you're left with the horrible suspicion that this is a new race, bred in chaos, accepting chaos as natural, and not caring one way or another about it or anything else.  The heroine, who has literary interest, quotes Wild Palms, 'Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.'  But that's just an attitude she likes at that moment ' at the end she demonstrates that it's false.  The hero states the truth for them both:  "I'd choose nothing."  The characters of Breathless are casual, carefree moral idiots.  The European critic, Louis Marcorelles, describes their world as 'total immoralitiy, lived skin-deep'.  And possibly because we Americans live among just such people and have come to take them for granted, the film may not, at first, seem quite as startling as it is.  And that's what's frightening about Breathless: not only are the characters familiar in an exciting, revealing way, they are terribly attractive.

"If you foolishly depend on the local reviewers to guide you  you may have been put off Breathless.  To begin with, where did they get the idea that the title refers to the film's fast editing:  That's about like suggesting that the title Two Way Stretch refers to the wide screen.  The French title A bout de Souffle, means out of breath, and it refers to the hero,  who keeps going until he's winded.  Their confusion is , however, a tribute to the film's fast, improvisary to style, the go go go rhythm,  The jazz score, the comic tehnique are prefectly expressive of the lives of the characters; the jump-cuts convey the tempo and quality of the activity of characters who don't work up to anything but hop from one thing to next. And as the film seems to explain the people in their own terms, the style has the freshness of 'objectivity.'  It does seem breathlessly young, newly created."

"How do we conect with people who don't give a damn?....They are as detached as a foreign colony, as uncomitted as visitors from another planet, yet the youth of several countries seem, to some degree or another, to share the same characateristics.  They're not consciously against society: they ave no ideologies are all, they're not even rebels without a cause  They're not rebelling against anything - they don't pay that much attention to what doesn't please or amuse them. They is nothing they really want to do and there's nothing they won't do.  Not that they're perverse or deliberately cruel; they have charm and intelligence - but they live on impulse...."

In his July 20, 2003 review of the film, Roger Ebert declared that "Modern movies begin here," adding that "no debut film since Citizen Kane in 1942 has been as influential," adding that "it is dutifully repeated that Godard's technique of 'jump cuts' is te great breakthrough, but startling  as they were, they were actually an afterthought, and what is most revolutionary about the movie is itsheadlong pacing, its cool detachment, its dismissal of authority, and the way its narcisissistic young heroes  are obsessed with themselves and oblivious to the larger soceity."

"The movie," Ebert continued, "was a crucial influence during Hollywood's 1967-1974 golden age.  You cannot even begin to count the character  played by Pacino, Beatty, Nicholoson, Penn, who are directly descended from Jean-Paul Belmondo's insouciant killer Michel."  Ebert notes that Belmondo's character "wants to be as tough as the stars in the movies in loves" and adds that Bosley Crowther. then the movie critic for The York Times described him as "hypnotically ugly," adding that "that did not prevent him from becoming the biggest French star between Jean Gabin and Gerard Depardieu."

Ebert argues that Seberg's character is "the great enigma of the movie": "Somehow it is never as important as it should be that she thinks she is pregnant, and that Michel is the father. She reveals startling items of information about Michel (that he is a killer, that he is married, that he has more than one name) with such apparent detachment that we study that perfectly molded gamin face and wonder what she can possibly be thinking.  Even her betrayal of him turna out to be not about Michel, and not about right and wrong, but only a tests she sets for herself to determine if she loves him or not.  It is remarkable that the reviews of this movie did not describe her as a monster - more evil because she's less deluded, than Michel."

Historically, it is of not, as Ebert reminds us, that "the credits for 'Breathless' are a New Wave roll call, includig not only Godard's direction but an original story by Francois Truffault....Claude Chabrol is production designer and technical advisorer, the writer Pierre Boulanger plays the police inspector, and there are small roles for Truffault and Godard himself (as the informer).  Everyone was at the party; the assistant director was Pierre Rissient, who wears so many hats he is most simply described as knowing more people in the cinema than any other single person. Jean-Pierre Melville, whose own crime movies in the 1950s pointed the way to the New Wave, plays the writer interviewed by Patricia [Seberg]...."

Mr. Ebert notes that the film's notoriety about "Jump cuts" was "a little more accidential than political," according to Jonathan Dawson, a film critic, who noted that the film was 30 minutes too long and Godard "just went at the film with scissors, cutting out anything he thought boring."

In his review of the film in the May 21, 2010 edition of The New York Times, A. O. Scott argues that it still "has the power to defy conventional expectations about what a movie should be while providing an utterly captivating moviegoing experience," adding that "a coherent plot, strong and credible performances, visual continuity - all of things are missing from 'Breathless,' disregarded with a cavalier insoucience that feels like liberation.  It turns out that a movie - this movie, anyway - doesn't need any of those things and that they might get in the way of other, more immediate pleasures.  You are free, in other words, to revel in the beauty of Paris and Jean Seberg, the exquisite sangfroid of Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the restless velocity of Mr. Godard's shooting style, and style, for those 90 minutes is, to phrase it in the absolute, hyperbolic terms Mr. Godard has always favored - everything."

In retrospect, it should be noted that Godard was not a one-trick pony, but the most intellectual of all movie-makers and always had surprises up his sleeves.  He did not throw down a gauntlet with "Breathless."  He just let his fireworks begin.  Continuity be damned.  Ideas, quick thoughts, possibilities.  Catch it on film, if you can, quickly.  If you can, start, or capture, a revolution.  So much the better!


This film is ranked 71st in Carter B Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films of All Times


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