Breathless (1960) – Godard Retrospective

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writer: Francois Truffaut
Actors: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 min

Director Jean-Luc Godard began his feature-film career with the film Breathless (1960), immediately causing critics to sit up and take notice of his work, a feat few first-time directors have accomplished. Instantly hailed as a masterpiece, this film was certainly a tough act to follow, but Godard rose to this challenge time and time again over his long and illustrious career. Breathless is an incredible debut feature, and is a must-see for any fan of this filmmaker.

This film is about Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), an irresponsible individual who steals a car and ends up murdering the policeman who attempts to chase him down. On the run from the authorities, Michel befriends Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a spirited American girl studying journalism overseas. Although he is being ruthlessly pursued, Michel nonetheless expects Patricia to accompany him on his flight to America, and his actions become increasingly ruthless as his desperation increases.

BREATHLESS (1960)

Michel is a cocky, reckless, and unlikeable individual. Even when he is alone, he provides a constant monologue so that the audience always knows what is going on in his somewhat foolish head. As opposed to creating a connection with this character, however, the technique causes an even deeper dislike. The beautiful Patricia, on the other hand, is a spunky and genuine individual who appears charmed by the suave European Michel. It is easy for an audience to fall in love with her, and to hope for her well being, without her appearing vulnerable or naive.

The action in Breathless begins right from the opening scene, and this film is certainly one of the most engaging and entertaining within the Godard repertoire. Music is almost constantly present in the background, guiding audience mood and reactions effectively and appropriately. The cinematography within this film is also fascinating, and Godard understood how to use his camera to his advantage even this early in his career. While the characters are driving, the audience is placed within the car, so they feel as if they are a part of the action; while they are walking, the camera moves with the characters, again placing us in their position.

BREATHLESS (1960)

Michel’s infatuation with the American Patricia, as well as of American film, works as a metaphor for his love of the entire culture. Godard is clearly making a statement here: if love of the American lady is dangerous and foolish, and said lady is representative of the society as a whole, then America itself is not depicted in positive terms. Whether Godard is specifically anti-American, or simply sees flaws within what he viewed as a highly capitalist society, is known by none but the filmmaker himself. Godard also raises the topic of gender relations, a theme often explored within his filmography. Here, he presents a strong female lead, which is a refreshing change from many of the works that are to follow later in his career.   

The film Breathless is known as being one of the most astounding feature film debuts in history. Many filmmakers learn their tricks and techniques through experience, yet Godard clearly had a sense even as he was just starting out. This film was a major milestone in the French New Wave movement within which Godard  played an influential part, rejecting the conventions of the films that came before it and favouring a rougher, less polished style and improvised dialogue. This piece was the one that made famous Godard’s characteristic jump cuts, which were unsettling for some and revolutionary for others. Also, Godard’s penchant for politics in film and making statements that reflected his personal opinions were already on display. Breathless is an entertaining and influential work of film, and can be enjoyed by many, whether they are long-standing fans of Godard or are simply looking for a long-standing classic.