THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 36: A Bout De Souffle (Breathless)

by Daniel Suddes

A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) Directed by: Jean Luc Godard. Written by: Jean Luc Godard (screenplay) and Francois Truffaut (story).  Starring: Jean Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg. Oscar Count: 0

Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless is one of those films that completely rewrote what films could be. Better still, it was done without needing to be guided by some hot shot Hollywood producer. It was a completely organic work, a story that a director used to remind everyone why these little flickers of light are called “moving” pictures.

Do you remember the impact that Pulp Fiction had on the world when it was released in 1994? Breathless did the exact same thing, except, in many ways, it was more revolutionary. It pretty much popularized the use of the jump cut, and was, in many ways, the first real “indie” film. The film mostly centers on two people talking in a hotel room. The performances are mostly derivative (that’s part of the point) and the cinematography is not the best. And you know what? None of it matters. This still managed to be a better film than almost all of the Hollywood epics every produced.

The plot doesn’t really exist, honestly. Basically, a car thief named Michel kills a police officer and spends the rest of the film talking to his lover Patricia about why she should run away with him to Italy and hide from the police. Things don’t go very and…that’s about it. I can imagine someone trying to pitch that today. They would be laughed out of the room for even suggesting that a film should actually be based upon human emotions and connections. True, one of the humans involved essentially wants to be Humphrey Bogart, but he is still a human being rather than a caricature.

In fact, let me stop right there. Michel as a character needs to be examined, because he exemplifies exactly why the film works so well artistically. It was clear that, within him, there was a generation coming of age who was weaned on Humphrey Bogart as opposed to classic works of art. Many date the actual blossoming of this mindset to some point in the 1970s, but it really began here. In fact, the people involved with the French New Wave movement all started out as film critics. They were making their films to show people how to properly make films. Aside from giving aspirations to every struggling film critic (won’t you please read my sci – fi action screenplay, Mr. Bruckheimer? Pretty please), it also formed as an actual sort of art movement. Films grew up by getting back to the basics. Michel proved that – he was a young character that was still more world weary and downtrodden that his peers in the film world. He used films as a form of escapism, and his motivation was, for the most part, to be involved in one of the film noirs he so loved. He talks to the camera right before his crime, and even the final scene of the film seems as though it was planned to be a grand theatrical ending (one that Patricia cheats him out of). The two people involved had almost become wind-up toys, existing based solely on the different films that they have seen. When something actually happens, they are not sure how to act, and it overwhelms them.

The rest of the film is much of the same way, and that is why it exploded in the way that it did. At the time, films were almost safe in their approach. The studio heads of the past were retiring; big budgeted spectacles were gaining more attention. Figures of the past were either running low on steam creatively, or being cast aside. No one was coming up to replace them. People like Goddard were trying to remind people why films were ever important. They took it back to the basics – from simple premises to the amateur actors (before there was such things as a movie star, the films themselves were the star) to the budgetary constraints. In fact, most of the editing used in the film was not by design, but for money reasons.

That is why Goddard came at exactly the right time. Although it was not the first French New Wave film (indeed, the film’s dialogue makes explicit reference to the earlier Bob the Gambler) it was one that helped define many of the characteristics of both French cinema and the New Hollywood wave. I do not care to speculate how many times Dennis Hopper watched this film while directing Easy Rider. For that matter, the film’s stylistic influence carried over to quite a few genres, from the home spun look of documentaries to the staccato editing of music videos. People who watched this film were watching evolution take place, one that we are still experiencing today.

I know what I am about to do is a cardinal sin, but the best scene of the film is the ending. It is one of the perfect endings of film, in that it feels like something that the story has been building up to. Most films don’t end so much as stop. But for whatever reason, even though this one feels shallow (with Michel being killed), but it feels inevitable. Plus, his final words to Patricia are typical of their interactions. Both are trying to be profound, but cannot understand each other. Even the translations of this final scene are drastically different. The film manages to be universal but completely impenetrable – just like the characters, and the ending. That is why it proved so fascinating to audiences around the world – filmgoers would be required to use their brains for the first time since Citizen Kane in order to understand a film.

Did You Know: This film was nominated for “Best Foreign Actress” for Jean Seberg at the BAFTAs, where she was identified as “French.” However, she had grown up in America and had only moved to France after failing to find her big break.


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