Sunday, March 21, 2010

À bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960)

My housemate just got Netflix and is using it partially to pursue her love of all things French. I'd actually never seen a French New Wave film before so I sat in on the viewing of Godard's Breathless. It was... an interesting time. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a small-time criminal who suddenly finds himself a murderer on the lam in Paris. Instead of getting out of town, he tries to claim money that's owed him while romancing aspiring journalist Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American. The two spend lazy days together with frank discussions of sex and love; he constantly wants to sleep with her, and she's unsure if he's right for her as she struggles to advance her own career. Meanwhile, some cops are looking for him. I don't think much else happens, until the end.

I understand that this film was revolutionary for its time (wasn't it?), and I appreciate its importance in cinematic history, but without context of the time I'm not especially impressed or moved. The shooting style is really interesting, with a lot of quick jump cuts that lead to staccato conversations and jarring scene changes. Everything looks very cool and modern, as Godard sets his eye on the bustling city and its eclectic denizens- it's all big sunglasses, cute haircuts, shining streets, and sleek cars. The story oscillates between moving very quickly and slowing down drastically, sometimes focusing on Michel's fast-moving, ambiguous criminal dealings and sometimes allowing the two central figures to just talk for a while.

Unfortunately the two main characters that are so definitively centered in Breathless are not especially interesting. Michel is a jerk who tries to be a charmer but usually just berates, except for a few comedic moments. Patricia is captivating for her beauty and generally I liked her, but her wishy-washy, sometimes whiny demeanor didn't make her very sympathetic. Also why would she be involved with a jerk like Michel? I don't know. I didn't really care about their relationship, and while I liked some of their conversations it just didn't seem strong enough to be the focus of so much of the movie. This might be pegged for "Crime" and "Thriller" on imdb, but those elements are really more of a side note to the romantic narrative.

In the end I suppose I was underwhelmed by Breathless. Maybe I'm too young to "get it" but I'm pretty sure it's just not my kind of film. However, it's great for a first feature from Godard and I will definitely look into some of his other works as well as those of his New Wave peers.



  1. Well, I understand that you were left underwhelmed by the movie. It especially happens when you are expecting to be bowled over by a film (that happened with me when I watched Jules & Jim).

    I, on the other hand, was pretty much bowled over by Breathless, and along with Band a Part & Shoot the Piano Player, it happens to be one of my favourite French films. I loved the audacity, the freewheeling nature of the script, the pseuso-noir scenario, the seemingly inane dialogues, the dry wit, and much more. In fact, Truffaut, Godard's famous contemporary, once said that there're movies before Breathless, & there're movies after Breathless.

    Perhaps, given your present reaction to it, you can give another chance sometime in the future to let the movie work its magic on you.

  2. I would encourage you, Alex, to stick to Godard and try his other films. Breathless left me similarly dispassionate, though after a few more watches I at least built a healthy respect for its innovation. But I've been going through Godard's staggering filmography (not even out of the '60s yet and I've reviewed 11 films) and he's very nearly one of my favorite directors by this point. Vivre sa vie, Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le Fou and more grabbed me in ways Breathless never came close to doing.

  3. I felt quite the same when I saw Breathless, which made me reluctant to continue with Godard. Shubhajit and Jake may have turned me around to trying again, though...

  4. I agree with Shubhajit, Breathless completely bowled me over when I watched it; I love the fact that it still feels so fresh and contemporary. As for the characters, I love them both, especially Michel, he has a certain je ne sais quoi, but then French men are all ambiguous like him.

  5. Shubhajit: I have a feeling I'll view it differently in a few years, so I'll just have to get back to you then!

    Jake: Thanks for the encouragement! I'll have to read through your reviews to gain more insight before I start watching more of Godard's films. At the moment I've set my sights on Alphaville because I love sci-fi.

    Alexa: I'm glad it's not just me!

    Moshimoshineko: I guess I didn't get the same vibe from Michel. He was so pushy and self-absorbed, which I found frustrating. I'm no expert on French men though, so maybe I missed something!

  6. Alphaville is a bit of a contentious film for me. I admire its innovation and experimentation, but I think its hypnotic effect is perhaps too lulling during the middle. But I know some who absolutely adore it, and I by no means dislike it.

  7. I agree with your review, Alex. That's exactly how I felt about Breathless. Yeah, everything looks cool, but the film just doesn't strike a chord with me.

    It's definitely an interesting film, though.

    I enjoyed the two other New Wave films I happened to see, though, such as the ones by Godard's rival, Francois Truffaut--The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. New Wave director Eric Rohmer's Pauline at the Beach was quite awesome too, though it was made post-New Wave time period.

  8. Alphaville is ok but for great Godard watch Le Mépris, Pierrot le Fou, Bande à Part, Week-End. I understand all the blah around À bout de Souffle but at the time I saw it I thought it was the work of a dilettant amateur filmmaker... To say I hated it. But with time the film took place in mind with the innovations and Godard's personality disocvered by further readings... Now, I think the man is a genius!
    Personally I prefer Francois Truffaut to JLG but they are so different... Well, that's all another topic...
    To finish, the French New Wave brought so much to film criticism, film approachs, film culture, and films...

  9. I found this film a bit self-obsessed but enjoyable. Basically a collection of solid moments but lacks heart and the depth it thinks it has.

  10. Wow, I guess I should write about French New Wave more often- it sparks quite a discussion!

    Jake: Thanks for the warning about Alphaville- it's good to know that sort of thing going into it, so I won't have the wrong expectations.

    Marcy: I'm glad you agree! I would really like to see The 400 Blows, and I hadn't heard of the other two you mentioned, so I'll check them out too!

    Michael: Since this is the first one I've seen, I really haven't formed an opinion on the director or the movement yet, but I'll look into the films you listed!

    Univarn: That about sums up my opinion. I should hire you to help me speak more succinctly.

  11. I dress as Patricia every year for Halloween. This is one of my favorite films of all time. But, it's one that I had to see three or four times before I really loved it. At any rate, I'm really glad you got to see it even if you didn't love it.

  12. Breathless is great! I never really got into french films until I saw Cleo from 5 to 7 and then this, and finally started understanding them a little better. Isn't Netflix the bomb. Where else would we find these movies?!!!