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Review: Breathless (1960)

Breathless (1960)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

Premise: A smalltime criminal (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car and murders a police officer. He flees to Paris where he reunites with a former lover (Jean Seberg) and tries to convince her to run away with him to Italy.

What Works: Breathless is one of the most influential films to come out of the post-war period. Much like Citizen Kane, the film’s influence has been so far reaching and so complete that today’s viewers may not recognize what is so special about it. Prior to the 1960s, mainstream feature films were made in a liner, unified, and predictable way. Cameras were mounted, shot compositions were formally designed, and the action was edited together in an orderly fashion. Breathless is deliberately messy. That’s not the same as sloppiness. The messiness of Breathless is the unpredictability and vitality of everyday life which filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and his fellow French New Wave filmmakers sought to create on screen. In some ways, Breathless epitomizes what mainstream American audiences might derisively imagine a French art film to be; it is about two people drifting through life with little sense of direction and they spend a lot of screen time talking through their existential crisis. Breathless is about those intellectual themes but it is also very alive. This is on one level a love story. The protagonists are looking for freedom and escape as well as a meaningful relationship with each other. Actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg have a vivid romantic chemistry and for its time the movie was transgressive with its frank discussions about sexuality. The liveliness of Breathless, as well as the source of its profound influence, is in its cinematic innovations. The film uses all sorts of techniques that are common today but were novel in 1960, namely jump cuts and handheld camerawork. Godard uses those techniques purposefully. The jump cuts give scenes an interesting rhythm in which dialogue is stacked up on top of itself and the character’s reactions are shaped by the cutting. The handheld cinematography creates a sense of freewheeling instability but also an impression of intimacy as viewers are witness to scenarios and angles that, especially prior to 1960, they simply would not have seen before in a movie.

What Doesn’t: The form and technique of Breathless is its most important feature, certainly its most influential one. What’s less compelling is the crime story. The movie opens with Belmondo’s character murdering a police officer in cold blood but we don’t get much sense of violence or remorse from him for the rest of the picture. This aspect of the movie comes across tagged on. It gives the story a shape but it is also perfunctory, a mechanical storytelling technique in an otherwise organic film.

Disc extras: The Criterion Collection edition of Breathless includes interviews, video essays, a documentary, a short film, trailer, and a booklet.

Bottom Line: Breathless is Jean-Luc Godard’s signature movie and one of the important titles in the history of cinema. Its experimental qualities are no longer so avant-garde but it continues to have value as a cultural artifact and as a demonstration of what cinema can do.

Episode: 918 (September 18, 2022)