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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #125: Breathless

I have noticed that the French have a love-hate relationship with the United States, with the love part generally due to Hollywood. One of the greatest examples of that loving relationship is Breathless (1960) a film directed by French film critic Jean-Luc Godard, starring a character attracted to the film persona of American actor Humphrey Bogart, and a French-speaking American expatriate as his girlfriend. The film’s plot is pretty simplistic, but at the time its use of jump cuts was something entirely new, and Godard’s style actually ended up influencing many American filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Robert Altman.

This movie is a part of cinema history, but upon first viewing it seemed dated to me. I don’t mean the black and white cinematography, that is objectively gorgeous, but rather the story and characters. The movie was played as a double feature at a film club when I was at the University of Sherbrooke and it seemed to me the rest of the audience was also struggling to take it seriously. The next film, Pierrot le fou (1965), was not much of an improvement given the meandering plot and ridiculously bizarre ending. That being said, I can’t argue the two leads in Breathless embody the definition of cool in the 1960s.

Jean-Paul Belmondo, in a career-defining role, stars as Michel, a petty thief who goes on the run to Paris after stealing a car and shooting a police officer. Yet for a criminal Michel is very well-dressed with a suit, hat, sunglasses, and of course a cigarette frequently attached to his lips. No way around it, this guy looks like a movie star, and the same can be said for his love interest Patricia (Jean Seberg), a student and aspiring journalist who sells American newspapers in the streets.

That’s about all there is to say in terms of plot. These two meet up, talk a lot, spend time in Patricia’s bedroom, and eventually the law comes calling. The film is only about 90 minutes long, and sometimes it quickly shifts through events thanks the aforementioned jump cuts. Instead of lingering on the shooting that sets off the events in motion, the filmmakers quickly cut through it as though Godard is short for time. Reading about how the film was made I learned a lot of it was improvised, and it definitely seems as though some of the lines and the way they are delivered were unrehearsed. The film’s title thus seems to have more than one meaning.   

A lot could be written about the film’s style, its meaning in regards to French society, or the significance of its loose narrative structure, but I guess I am just not knowledgeable enough when it comes to cinema history to write about that. However I am enough of a film fan to see the influence of Breathless in the film’s of Quentin Tarantino, from the cool-looking criminals to the loose story structure. True Romance in particular, with its amateur criminal with a love of movies who goes on the run with the love of his life, seems to owe a lot to Godard.

Given its influence on modern day movies, I can appreciate Breathless’ place in cinema history, but it is not a movie I would enjoy watching repeatedly. That being said, I love the work of the directors it has inspired. If it wasn’t for Godard, we might not have Clarence and Alabama sporting cool sunglasses as they shoot their way to Los Angeles.


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