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An Appreciation: Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless"

by Anne Bothwell 2 Sep 2010 8:15 AM

Tonight’s the last night to see a newly restored version of the film “Breathless” by Jean-Luc Godard. KERA’s Rob Tranchin explains why you really might want to do that.


Tonight’s your final chance to see on the big screen, a newly restored version of Breathless – the 1960 groundbreaking first film from French director Jean Luc Godard. KERA’s Rob Tranchin explains in his review why he views Breathless as an existentialist anti-hero of a movie.

Screening times today at the Angelika

Another take: An essay by Dudley Andrew from the Criterion DVD release.

KERA radio report:

Breathless stars a young Jean Paul Belmondo as Michel, a small time French hood who idolizes Humphrey Bogart, and Jean Seberg as his American girlfriend, Patricia.

Michel is on the run from the police, and Patricia is trying to figure out whether she loves Michel.  But the plot is only a pretext for making a movie, and Godard’s redefinition of what a movie could be made Breathless an international sensation and a landmark in film history.

For one thing, it’s the way the film deliberately quotes and then violates movie conventions in favor of delivering an intensely present experience.  The famous jump cuts in Breathless seemed heretical at the time, but they represent a simple idea—Godard simply removed the boring parts from a continuous shot.  That’s what makes the movie feel like jazz: it quotes the melody, but it’s the improvised departure from the melody that makes the music soar.
Another slap in the face of convention is the way Godard intentionally reminds us that it’s Belmondo and Seberg we’re watching, not Michel and Patricia. The fiction breaks down, but not our interest.

That’s because it’s not about the story.  Rather than deliver a drama about life, Breathless seems to deliver life itself.  As Belmondo and Seberg talk about choice and destiny, the world and a thousand questions about it press in from outside the edges of the frame: Mozart, Faulkner, movies, radio, sirens and sunlight all crowd their way onto the screen.

Breathless is fifty years old this year. The newly restored print showcases cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s sensuous black and white photography in sequences that capture the romance of Paris at night, the roguish glint in Belmondo’s eyes, the youthful glow of Jean Seberg’s luminous skin.

Godard has said he thought he was remaking Scarface but later realized he had remade Alice in Wonderland instead.  Like Alice, Breathless combines irony and self-consciousness with a poetic yearning for beauty that Godard proves can be found in the cinema.

  • MovieMike

    It was amazing to see this on a big screen. I love this movie. My 18 year old budding film director son was a little baffled and said, “this movie has no plot”. But he still liked it.

    The after-the-movie comments by the crowd were interesting, but not surprising “that was different, well it was nice to see Paris in 1960, that was vague now I know why they called it Nouvelle Vague”.

    I hope the Angelika screens more classics like this. Godard, with “Breathless”, changed the way movies have been written and made since then. It’s great to have the opportunity to see these in a Theater.

  • Hi, MovieMike!

    Your son’s comment about the lack of plot made me think of this great sentence from the Boston critic Ty Burr on the film: “The nicotine blood of this film still flows through the veins of every indie that tries to observe its characters rather than decide their fate for them.”

    Yeah, seeing these films in a real theater is a wonderful treat. I remember a few years ago when the Italian government sent around an entire Fellini retrospective in beautiful new prints that were screened over at the Modern in FW. Wish that happened more often…