“Informers Inform, Burglars Burgle, Murderers Murder, Lovers Love.”
À bout de Souffle, aka Breathless, was Godard’s first feature film and you could make a good argument for it being his best. In fact, not only his best movie, but one of the best movies of all time, perhaps the best ever, even? I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that my favourite Godard is Alphaville, but in terms of influence and importance you can’t top Breathless. The movie’s direction has been written about in length in thousands of journals and books, and deservedly so, it’s pure magic. It inspires wannabe directors more than any movie I can think of. I could write this entire entry on the jump cuts alone, it took the art of moviemaking into a completely new and exciting area.
Never was Godard’s quote that all you needed for a movie was “a girl and a gun”, more apt than here. The story, for a movie so highly acclaimed, isn’t especially strong. Our cooler-than-cool anti-hero Michel, Jean-Paul Belmondo, is on the run for murder, but you wouldn’t know it. He spends his time walking the sun-soaked streets of Paris, talking to girls, stealing cars, and, never, never, never, without a cigarette casually hanging from the corner of his lips. Michel gradually starts to spend more time with his new lover, Patricia, Jean Seburg, an American journalist. They talk of love, sex, art, and philosophy. And these discussions take up the majority of the middle section of the film before the final section adds some excitement, tying up the opening threads of the film. So, we’re not exactly talking a Citizen Kane-esque epic story spanning across generations here! Of course, that’s not the point, this movie proves that there’s more than one way to entertain an audience.
One of the most striking elements of the film is the sense of spontaneity to everything. It doesn’t feel tied down, anything seems possible. The script has lots of improvised elements and you can see this in the acting. It’s very natural, almost carefree. It wasn’t just the dialogue that was improvised, even some of the locations were unplanned. Godard didn’t seek any permission to shoot scenes, hence we see some iconic and beautiful shots of the actors walking around Paris. Perhaps it’s this style of filmmaking that gives Breathless a timeless feel. If I didn’t know better I’d think this film was made yesterday. It’s truly ageless. The characters have such style and coolness, even liberalness, that you can’t quite believe this film is over fifty years old. It’s no surprise that Michel admires, perhaps even wants to be, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart himself has a timeless quality that fills the screen. They both have that trademark coolness when it comes to lighting a cigarettes. Bogart and Godard movies did more to make smoking look cool than a hundred years of cigarette advertising could ever do. In fact, if you’ve just quit smoking then avoid this film, I guarantee you you’ll be on a packet a day by the half way point.
One of the interesting things Godard explores in this film is youth. The younger characters have a moral ambiguity, they don’t care Michel has killed a policeman, they’re happy to help him escape the cops in any way they can. Michel, himself, shows no remorse whatsoever for actions. Nearly all the characters that try to stop, hinder, or refuse help to Michel are of an older generation. It doesn’t feel like Godard is saying one generation is better or more advanced than another, but he’s illustrating a gap between generations, giving different points of view. It’s a gap that references films like A Rebel Without a Cause, the kind of Americana that Godard loved, and is littered throughout this film. Ironically American directors would then go on to make their own versions of Godard inspired Americana movies, Tarantino would even lift entire scenes from Godard movies in homage, but I’ll get to that another time, in a different post.
There’s so many more elements to Breathless that I could mention that I haven’t yet, from the wonderful jazz score to the documentary style of filming, but this post would be huge and I have movies to watch!
This really is one of the great movies, and if you love movies you should see this.
Marks out of ten – Ten