What was once notoriously avant garde is now stylistically familiar, says Dan Slevin.
Down from 13th place in 2012 to equal-38th in 2022, Breathless made for an interesting rewatch last night.
Enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard (looking more enfant than terrible in his pipe smoking cameo) made his feature debut with this energised example of the French nouvelle vague. He was only 29 when he shot the film in 1959, fresh from his time writing incendiary pieces of criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma. Breathless was to be his statement of intent.
For all the fuss that has been made of the film’s style – the daring compositions, the fluid wheelchair-bound camera movement, the jump-cutting – it doesn’t seem as avant-garde to us today as it did to audiences in 1960. Commercial cinema has caught up. What we see now with Breathless are the same brave choices that modern directors make when confronted with not enough time and not enough money.
What I was interested in, this time around, was less about the form and more about the content. When I first saw it I was roughly the same age as the protagonists and didn’t really notice the narcissism that pervades the film. They just seemed rebelliously normal, in a '60s sort of way.
Former boxer Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a petty criminal who steals a car and in a panic kills a motorcycle cop who is on his trail. He returns to Paris to get some money he is owed and to hang out with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American woman he has had a fling with (and who he would quite like to have another fling with).
She is a budding journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, a rising star, but who also sells the paper on the streets by the river.
As les flics (the cops) close in Patricia has to make a decision – make a run for it with Michel or betray the man she is falling in love with.
The gender politics are much clearer to me now. Belmondo’s Michel (at one time a cabin steward for Air France, in a delicious detail) is an example of what we call now ‘toxic masculinity’. He thinks he is so cool, with his chainsmoking and his sunglasses, his fetishing of American convertible motor cars with big engines, but he is not a very good criminal and has a clear distaste for the violent reality of the profession he has chosen.
He is surly and judgmental about women, determined to dictate to them and see them only as sexual conquests. Even Patricia, who he cannot control but who – in Seberg’s stunning performance – wants to please him at the same time as she wants the independent creative life she came to Paris for. You can see the conflict in her face, every time he is being an ass. It’s a feeling that I’m sure is familiar to lots of young women who find themselves with mercurial, unpredictable men who promise adventure when what they really promise is a pile of trouble.
Both of these characters are just children – barely 20 – and they are constantly checking themselves out in mirrors, self-conscious about the clothes they are wearing and how they appear to others, mimicking each other’s behaviour.
There’s something else that I hadn’t felt before – the shadow of the war. I’m guessing that all European films of this era have an awareness of the scars of World War II but Breathless was shot only 14 years after the end of it. That’s no time at all. Paris escaped the worst of the destruction – it certainly doesn’t carry the scars that Rome does in La Dolce Vita (shot at the same time) or Bicycle Thieves – but there’s a reason other than opportunism why the film is set during a state visit to France of the American president, Dwight Eisenhower, who according to a radio broadcast was to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with De Gaulle.
The relationship between Ike and De Gaulle acts as a kind of mirror to the relationship between Seberg and Belmondo, the new world and the old, American cultural imperialism foreshadowing the rise of the teenager and the economic dominance of United States capitalism.
Belmondo was one of the greatest screen actors who ever lived, and he reminds us that insouciance is a very French word. I found Seberg to be a revelation in this viewing. So much more than just the pixie-haired object of (multiple) affections that I saw when I was an impressionable teenager, she’s a proto-feminist trying to get out of an unhealthy relationship so she can make choices for herself.
If you have never seen Breathless, it’s definitely worth a look and if you have, but not for a while, you might be surprised how it plays to an older version of yourself.
Breathless is currently available for streaming via AroVision digital rental. Alice in Videoland in Christchurch will rent you a Blu-ray copy.
If you want a 4K physical copy of it, Criterion have recently released a new remaster which is available from international retailers.
Dan Slevin is spending 2023 watching each of the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time (according to the BFI/Sight & Sound magazine).