Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet
Every film you watch now draws influences from others in the past, as those creating the features now grew up loving creators before them. Not many other films had quite the influence in the filming process than Breathless, but as with other influential features, it does not necessarily signify they hold up decades later.
On the run from the police, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) decides to seek refuge with an American college student named Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Paris. As he tries to seduce her, he also attempts to gather enough money to make his escape from France and get to Italy.
The influence of the French New Wave may be unparalleled with the voices it gave rise to, the filmmaking techniques it introduced, and has thus stayed relevant. With these critics, who then became filmmakers, they knew what they wanted to accomplish in their features as compared to what they consumed through their profession. Breathless serves as one of the major works of changing the way movies were filmed. It made the process of creating a film much more accessible by working on thin budgets and filming on real locations rather than an elaborate sound stage. Films like this one showed the rules of crafting a feature did not have to be followed by the large studios, which has only grown in popular thought since then.
However, for anyone who knows me, I’m all about the story and that is where Breathless loses its shine for me. The technicals and the major influence should be respected and I certainly do, but the plodding story became unbearable at times to stomach. It mostly has to do with the character of Michel and how he weaves through the story. He may be the smuggest man, who has accomplished so little in life. His conversations with Patricia become mind-numbing with the amount of arrogance he exudes, which could be justified if the film did anything remotely interesting with him through the narrative. Instead, the character becomes a practice of technique director Jean Luc-Godard utilizes to break the rules of cinema.
Jean Luc-Godard remains a puzzle I continually attempt to crack. Probably the most prominent of the French New Wave directors, he likes to craft these horrible and selfish men, but he rarely interrogates what makes them that way. He just continues to indulge in arrogance and continues to tinker with it. Even if Luc-Godard remains the most prominent, I certainly regard Agnès Varda, François Truffaut, and Jean Renoir in higher standing, because their stories match the technical inventiveness they provide. Their characters typically feel more fleshed out and with a strong and genuine purpose rather than what Luc-Godard attempts to do. Granted, I have seen a small number of his films. I will certainly continue to watch more and hopefully see how his narrative approach develops.
The saving grace of the film remains Jean Seberg’s performance as Patricia. She becomes the shining light in all of the much Michel brings to the story. Her naivete combats the arrogance of Michel but she still gives into his whims and charm. The ending does plenty to show the true character of Patricia and her place in the story but Seberg becomes the perfect subject for how Luc-Godard looks at women and where they fit in with the men in his stories. Patricia goes along with the games of Michel while still having a strong sense of independence to her. It adds some interesting detail to the feature in deciphering her intentions as she messes around with what has been described as a dangerous criminal.
The lasting impact of Breathless can never be forgotten because it opened up the process of making films to such a broader audience. We don’t need million-dollar budgets to make something worth putting out there. Sometimes, you just need a camera, a few friends, and a story idea good enough to land some attention. With much of the dialogue being improvised on the spot by Jean Luc-Godard, it makes sense that the narrative feels jumbled and not nearly as profound as it perceives itself to be. The film deserves its place as one of the most influential films ever made, but perhaps with the acknowledgment of its vast deficiencies.