Re-released in a restored version, Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless) was the most radical film to emerge during the heyday of the French New Wave in the late ’50s and early ’60s. At the time, it was seen as revolutionary in its use of film language and its deliberately disruptive assaults on traditional storytelling techniques. ‘What Stravinsky’s ‘La Sacre du Printemps’ is to 20th-century music or Joyce’s Ulysses is to 20th-century literature, Breathless is to film’, pronounced one critic. Beyond such grand claims, the film had a considerable cultural impact; with its combination of hip philosophising, glib humour and sexy young stars (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg) having great appeal to audiences in search of something new. Even the jump-cut edits and hand-held camerawork seemed like a breath of fresh air compared with the stale work being churned out by Hollywood and European studios of the day.
Breathless is essentially a modernist treatment of the B-movie crime thriller (it’s dedicated to Monogram Pictures, an obscure Hollywood studio). Belmondo’s Michel is a wayward young criminal who models himself on Humphrey Bogart and strikes up a relationship with Patricia (Seberg), an American student in Paris. Godard plays with the conventions of the thriller and the film noir to paradoxical effect. Belmondo’s mocking gestures may conceal real emotions, and his criminality may represent a genuine rebellion against an oppressive society. Contemporary critics claimed that Michel was a new kind of hero, but he could also be seen as a relative of the countless paranoid males of film noir. After all, he is betrayed by Patricia, who is the femme fatale in a new guise.
Godard’s real achievement, though, has to do with the way in which he sets up a confrontation between notions of rebellion and rigidity, and how this conflict finds expression in every aspect of the film’s construction.
Black and white.