BREATHLESS (A BOUT DE SOUFFLE) (1959) B/W 89m dir: Jean-Luc Godard
w/Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Claude Mansard, Liliane Dreyfuss, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Andre S. Labarthe, Francois Moreuil, Jacques Lourcelles, Liliane Robin, Jean-Louis Richard, Philippe de Broca, Claude Chabrol
From The Movie Guide: "What Stravinsky's 'La Sacre du Printemps' is to 20th-century music or Joyce's Ulysses is to the 20th-century novel, Godard's first feature, BREATHLESS, is to film. It stands apart from all that came before and has revolutionized all that followed. Dedicated to the B-movies of Hollywood's Monogram Pictures, the film's structure begins with the conventions of the gangster film and film noir and proceeds to fragment them in a manner which greatly influenced the style of subsequent filmic narration. Michel Poiccard, alias Laszlo Kovacs (Belmondo, not conventionally attractive but giving a very sexy and appealing performance), is an amoral, dangerously careless petty criminal who models himself after Bogart and becomes the subject of a police dragnet when he senselessly guns down a traffic cop. He tries every avenue possible to cash a check endorsed 'for deposit only' and hides out in the apartment of young American student Patricia Franchini (Seberg, whose imperfect French and limited acting skills lend something impossibly right to her enigmatic character). The couple, especially Michel, seem to be falling fatefully in love, but Godard is not content to merely develop character. During an extended, remarkable bedroom scene, this classic existential pair discusses art and philosophy in a way which prefigures Godard's lengthier and more profound ruminations in later films. Resuming the story, Godard ends his film with several ambiguous twists and an unforgettable close up of Seberg. Rather than tell his tale in a conventional manner, Godard uses nostalgia, humor, and brutality alike to create the cinematic equivalent of contemporary alienation. Quoting Hollywood affectionately, Godard is nevertheless more concerned with destroying previous film language and employing his own. He 'jump cuts' with little concern for continuity and then dollies the camera for long, fluid takes. Some scenes have a documentary feel, while others are pure pulp fiction. As the title implies, Godard's philosophy is to leave the viewer breathless so that he may breathe new life into them. (Look for his cameo as an informer.)"
From the Senses of Cinema website (www.sensesofcinema.com), this article about the film by Jonathan Dawson:
"Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature still looks like it’s breaking a whole lot of rules 40 years on. Basically it’s a classic chase movie. The action is set off when a young hood Michel Poiccard (his alias is Laszlo Kovacs --- in tribute to the great cinematographer of the same name), who adores Humphrey Bogart (the screen persona, that is), kills a cop and goes on the run with a young American girl, the iconic Patricia Franchini, played by Jean Seberg. 26-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo’s performance as the hood marks the real beginning to an extraordinary career as the biggest French star since Jean Gabin.
"Godard made the film for the equivalent of 100,000 Australian dollars and dedicated it to Monogram Pictures as a tribute to cheap American gangster movies of his own youth --- films that seemed to young auteurs like Jean-Luc to offer so much more than the more elegant, well wrought and polite studio products of France of the ’40s and ’50s.
"'A bout de souffle began in this way. I had written the first scene (Jean Seberg on the Champs Elysees) and for the rest I had a pile of notes for each scene. I said to myself, this is terrible, I stopped everything. Then I thought: in a single day ... one should be able to complete about a dozen takes. Only instead of planning ahead I shall invent at the last minute!' (Godard in Milne, 172-3)
"Breathless was instantly hailed as a truly revolutionary movie and the logical outcome of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) rejection of what they called ‘Le Cinema de Papa’ (Dad’s Cinema). The most patently radical Godardian style was the incessant use of the jump cut, a sudden temporal ellipsis even in the middle of a dialogue take. That’s standard practice now but at the time it broke every dictate of the conventional filmmaking manual. In fact this technique was a little more accidental than political. The film, loosely (with a minimal and constantly changing shooting script) based on a ‘crime on the run’ storyline by Francois Truffaut, ended up as a rough cut of around two hours long --- more the length of the despised blockbusters then and now. To be considered a commercial product the movie needed to lose about 30 minutes, so rather than cut out whole scenes or sequences, Godard elected to trim within the scene, creating the jagged cutting style still so beloved of action filmmakers. Godard just went at the film with the scissors, cutting out anything he thought boring and as a result the whole movie does indeed feel rather ‘breathless,' each scene seeming to rush jerkily to a finish, with barely enough time to make full sense. Who would have ever guessed that what is now a cinematic cliche (at its most excessive in the late ’60s and the ’70s) could have had so practical a raison d'etre?
"The film also vibrates with onscreen references to popular culture and the affects of the media in ways that anticipate later theorists of the postmodern. It draws, albeit unconsciously, on Marshall McLuhan’s contemporary ideas on the ‘Global Village’ and Roland Barthes’ work on the dominance of culturally produced signs in society. Belmondo’s character is literally obsessed with Bogart’s poster and screen persona, and constantly checks out his style against cinema posters of ‘Bogey’ as well as imitating his gestures in numerous mirrors.
"Belmondo is excellent, and classically existential (rather like Mersault in Camus' The Outsider) as the feckless young hood who steals a car, kills a motorbike cop, and chases after some money that is owed him for robberies past so he and his casually picked up yank chick (Seberg with a cropped head look that became existential de rigeur for years) can get to Italy. He’s always, like Pierrot le Fou (also played by Belmondo) in Godard’s 1965 movie, dreaming of the Last Score and the big escape to that foreign, safer land. There’s always a mythical, semi-mystical Other, Better Place in Godard’s earlier movies. Godard probably lives there now.
"Other cultural references and film in-jokes swarm throughout Breathless: admired cult stylist, the film director Jean-Pierre Melville, appears as a celebrity novelist being interviewed; Daniel Boulanger appears as the police inspector. Jean-Louis Richard and Philippe de Broca appear, and there are also bit appearances by Godard, as an informer, by Truffaut, and Chabrol (who also acted as supervising producer).
"And of course there are many legends about the actual shoot including the use of wheelchairs as camera dollies. Renowned cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s legendary ability in hand holding heavy 35mm cameras in long takes also comes to the fore. Coutard’s amazing work, predating Garret Brown’s invention of Steadicam, can be seen at its best in Jean Rouch’s short contribution to the compilation film Paris Vu Par (1965). This begins with a hand-held shot that traverses many rooms, an elevator, and street, and runs for a full 20 minutes!
"Finally there was the matter of the film stock which was in fact painstakingly hand-joined rolls of a very fast Ilford black and white still camera stock along with short ends of other stocks. This produced the grainy ‘naturalistic’ effect that Ken Russell --- and later just about everyone else --- was to borrow for his social ‘realist’ documentaries. Just about everything that looks different about Breathless became the signifiers of alternative, radical, independent film almost immediately. Nothing, until Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) came along three decades later, ever quite shook up film style as much as Breathless did in 1960.
"Perhaps no movie will ever break the ‘rules’ so effectively and so influentially again."