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Jean-Luc Godard’s breath of fresh air

Jean Seberg (L) and Jean-Paul Belmondo in scene from Breathless. - Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection via

As cinema enters dark times, the 60th anniversary of À bout de souffle offers a much-needed reminder of film’s ability to revive itself, says JAMES OLIVER.

The irony is almost too bitter. This is the 60th anniversary of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, as it was translated, as it shall be hereafter), one of the most remarkable films from one of the most remarkable years in film history.

That was 1960, when it was one of several films to expand the frontiers of what movies could do. How painful it is to celebrate such a year when, in our own time, film is in such a parlous state; many cinemas have gone dark and there are bleak mutterings about the future of the medium.

Perhaps, though, that makes it all the more important to remember Breathless & co, and to draw hope from them.

After all, movies were not in the best of places in the late 1950s, when Godard began his journey from critic to filmmaker.

Then, as now, movie theatres were losing audiences to home entertainment, in this case ‘television’ (the Netflix of its day).

Hollywood responded with bluster – casts of thousands, that sort of thing – but elsewhere new forms were emerging, movies that offered new approaches to the medium, fighting off the challenge of the telly by offering something very different.

None of this was planned, exactly, but there was clearly something in the air. At the same time Godard was shooting Breathless in 1959, Federico Fellini was holed up in Cinecitta Studios, Rome, dreaming up the excesses of La Dolce Vita, the film that scooped the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960. 

His colleague and countryman Michelangelo Antonioni, meanwhile, was touring Sicily, at work on what became L’Avventura.

That went to Cannes the same year, where its ellipses and refusal to explain itself were met with lusty boos. (Within two years, it crashed the top ten of Sight & Sound’s decennial greatest-films-of-all-time poll.)

Nor was this confined to Europe; Alfred Hitchcock was, give or take, the world’s best known director, famous for large scale Technicolor entertainments like North by Northwest.

But he seems to have sensed the way the wind was blowing and stepped back to make Psycho, a low-budget, downbeat black and white crime drama that broke many of Hollywood’s most intractable rules.

Godard wouldn’t have known of those in 1959, but he already knew that things were changing.

His buddies Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut – like him, passionate writers for Cahiers du Cinema magazine – had already made an impact with their first films (Le Beau Serge [1958] and Les 400 coups [1959] respectively). Indeed, their patronage enabled Godard to make Breathless, his first film.

Truffaut also penned the story for Breathless. It was based on a real cause célèbre, a crime spree that happened in 1952: a man called Michel Portail shot a policeman and then went on the lam, until he was grassed up by his American girlfriend. Much of that survives in Truffaut’s treatment.

The lead character Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo in a star-making turn) shoots a cop within the first five minutes and isn’t caught until he is grassed up by his American girlfriend, played by one-time Hollywood face Jean Seberg whose salary consumed an entire quarter of the film’s already meagre budget.

The film was shot, quickly and cheaply, over four weeks with only a scant crew – there was no sound recordist, for instant; the film was shot mute and everything was dubbed in later.

Much of the economy was thanks to the cameraman, Raoul Coutard. He’d come to photography during his time in the army, and he’d cultivated a rougher-edged style that was perfect for Godard, who wanted to shoot on the streets (preferably without getting the necessary paperwork first).

New technology was crucial here; Coutard was using the latest lightweight newsreel camera, allowing the handheld work which characterises the film, and faster film stock that meant he didn’t have to bother setting up lights.

All this was far away from the polish that even lower-budgeted films then aspired to at the time, and it became an important part of the film’s aesthetic; even today, one of the most exhilarating things about Breathless is the sheer freedom of it, the evident delight of Godard and Coutard that they’re not tethered to the studio.

The editing was similarly inventive. Godard’s first cut clocked in at more than two hours, and everyone agreed that was far too long.

There were plenty of extraneous scenes that added nothing to the plot and which could have been painlessly removed but Godard decided he liked them. Instead, he hacked about within scenes, drawing attention to the edits.

These were the film’s celebrated ‘jump cuts’, using a device that was usually considered a mistake – it looked like the film was damaged – as a conscious artistic choice. (Jump cuts are ubiquitous now, in adverts, in action films; one more sign of Godard’s seismic influence.)

Above all, Breathless is a work of enthusiasm, the work of a young man in love with movies, who thought the real world ought to be more like the one he’d seen on screen.

There’s no real psychology in the film; Michel is patterned after the anti-heroes Godard had seen in American thrillers, smoking, chasing skirt and self-consciously cool.

He idolises Humphrey Bogart (then two years gone), even rubbing his lower lip in imitation of ‘Bogie’; you could say that Godard was doing something similar, using his meagre resources to recreate Hollywood technique on the Parisian streets. 

The handheld camera is his version of the dollies and tracks that better resourced directors used, the high-angled shots taken not from a crane but the roof of a tall building.

Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Penelope Gilliatt of the Observer spoke for many when she wrote “Jean-Luc Godard makes a film as though no one had ever made one before.”

There’s truth in that, but Breathless was never quite as radical as some commentators would have it; it fits snugly into a popular genre and, backed by canny publicity – Godard had been a press agent and knew how to play the game – it even became a bona-fide hit, attracting a substantial mainstream audience in France.
Godard would quickly reveal how straightforward Breathless was.

Not that this is a terribly plot-driven film: almost every other director would have significantly trimmed the scene between Michel and Patricia where they lounge around in their underwear – boiled down to 30 seconds or so.

Godard, by contrast, lets it run for almost 20 minutes to let us savour the chemistry, and the cool, of the characters.

But at least it tells a story.

That’s something Godard would rarely do again, abandoning the narrative arcs beloved by screenwriting gurus for something more essayistic and analytic; you might say he went back to being a critic but using a camera rather than a typewriter to make his points.

Moreover, the joy he showed here would quickly dissipate. His vision darkened. In 1964, he made Pierrot Le Fou, another man-on-the-run movie with Belmondo, pairing him off with Anna Karina, then Mrs Godard.

For all it’s a crime film, it’s intensely autobiographical, about the director’s failing marriage and his disgust with himself.

At one point Belmondo wanders into a cinema where he sees an advert starring Jean Seberg and the call-back is clear enough. The revolutionary spirit of Breathless has been tamed and commodified; Godard has failed.

At the end of Pierrot le Fou, Belmondo’s character blows himself to kingdom come, profoundly distressing Godard’s sister who took it as a sign her brother was suicidal. He wasn’t, but he was increasingly disillusioned with everything, even the movies he once loved so much.

In 1968 he made Week-end which had an equally apocalyptic ending: first there’s one end title: “FIN DE CONTE” [‘end of story’], then another: “FIN DE CINEMA”.

Thereafter he drifted into work even his most fervent admirers find challenging, before returning to something close to regular duty – Godard’s version of it, at least – in the 1980s.

And he’s still at it , producing films that range from the maddening to the brilliant, often within the space of about 30 seconds.

It is unlikely that Jean-Luc Godard has given much thought to the 60th anniversary of his debut; he’s an unsentimental chap and not much given to looking over his shoulder. And maybe he’s right not to: nostalgia really doesn’t suit something like Breathless, not after all the doors it kicked down.

Happily, it’s not ready to be pickled in aspic just yet; invest in the celebratory restoration-and-re-release and you’ll see just how vital it remains; even after six decades of having its best tricks borrowed, it remains fresh and inspiring, a reminder of just what movies can do.

And no matter the problems that face cinema – which is to 
say, films produced for public exhibition rather than streaming – right now, the mere existence of Breathless should itself be a counsel against despair.

No-one in 1959 could have predicted that a single film could re-invent cinema; the medium could yet surprise us again.

A 60th anniversary release of Breathless is released on home formats on November 9

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