Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless”

“After all, I’m an asshole.” Such is the self-description of Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the central figure of Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 debut feature, which was, at least in part, a loving homage to the then American gangster B-pictures beloved by Godard and his cohorts at Cahiers du Cinema. The film is in fact dedicated to Monogram Pictures, one of the “Poverty Row” studios that often supplied the bottom half of the bills for the more prestigious mainstream Hollywood features shown in American movie theaters. Thanks largely to the Cahiers critics, those films have been celebrated long after the A-picture super-productions have been relegated to forgotten footnotes of film history. The America-philia carries over into the presence of Breathless’ leading lady, Jean Seberg. The star of Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse and Joan of Arc is a pixie-like presence floating though the luminous Paris of the film’s setting, the irrepressible yang to the aggressive, brutish yin of Poiccard. “J’aime beaucoup la France,” Poiccard opines while cruising in his stolen car, and so does Raoul Coutard’s camera. Long traveling shots of the city abound throughout, supplying the romanticism that this film revels in, drunk off the mystique of the City of Lights. The ghost of Humphrey Bogart hovers over Breathless, in Poiccard’s emulation of that actor’s persona. Poiccard is the lead of not only the movie we see, but the movie in his head, as he gleefully indulges his criminal activities and his quest to enlist his sometime girlfriend Patricia (Seberg) as his own leading lady. But Patricia goes off the script when she informs on him to the police, and refuses to go off into the sunset with him. Instead, after a comically protracted death dance, he is reduced to childish insults. “You make me want to puke,” he tells Patricia before he dies. “What does that mean?” Patricia asks as she emulates Poiccard’s habitual gesture, running her thumb over her lips. She turns her back on us, and the film fades out.

The non-stop jaunty jazz score by Martial Solal is the perfect accompaniment to the improvisational style of Godard’s film. A manifesto in opposition to the studio-bound productions of most French films, Godard took his camera to the streets, writing his actors’ dialogue day by day. “I never knew what would happen to Poiccard next,” Belmondo says in an interview included on the Criterion DVD. Godard’s first cut of the film was very long and unwieldy, and he knew he needed to cut extensively, but found it difficult to get rid of necessary scenes. Godard came up with the idea of cutting within shots, breaking continuity, a technique that became known as the jump cut. It was a radical visual style, well in keeping with the radicalism of the project. This technique has now been overused to the point of cliché, but seeing it here in this context, it retains a startling freshness. As does the entire film.