“What’s your great ambition?”
“To become immortal, and then die.”
Fifty-seven years ago, on 17th March 1960, Jean-Luc Godard’s debut, Breathless, was released. One of the first great French new-wave films, it served to redefine the boundaries of story-telling through film. It boasts an innovative visual style which is, even to this day, fresh and striking. It is frequently heralded as being one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments, ranking eleventh on the BFI’s Greatest Films list.
The film sees its protagonist, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), on the run after killing a police officer. However, it isn’t the crime but the events following that grant Breathless its hypnotic charm.
–Director Jean-Luc Godard
Michel’s response to his crime is detached and blasé. He seems to be making an attempt to imitate his idol, Humphrey Bogart. He dons a fedora, practices his tough-guy facial expressions in his mirror and smokes a frankly alarming amount of cigarettes. He’s simply playing the role of the gangster, not living it. His narcissistic yet playful persona borders on parody and only adds to the film’s absurdity.
He returns to Paris and immediately attempts to seduce the film’s female lead, Patricia (Jean Seberg). Running through several of their conversations is Michel’s vague desire to go on the run to Rome, but little time is granted to this idea.
Instead, the focus is the conversation itself. Around twenty minutes of the under-ninety-minute film is committed to a conversation in a hotel room between the film’s two leads. It’s jolting, abstract and hard to follow. Most statements don’t follow on from one another, almost as if both characters are so wrapped up in their own thoughts that they’re unaware of the other’s presence.
The nature of this conversation just serves to prove the self-obsession of the characters. During this scene, we entirely forget that Michel is on the run from the police. There is so much thought being put into the pair’s game of sexualised cat-and-mouse that the central events of the film seem secondary. Godard wants the watcher to exist in the conversation and forget about Michel’s crime, just as Michel himself has: to live in the immediate and not to worry about the larger picture.
This sense of immediacy is perhaps the film’s most defining characteristic. It is famed as one of the first feature films to make use of heavy, intentional jump cuts.
In the first murder scene, we hear a gun fire and then cut to the police officer already falling. This leads the viewer to a belief that everything they see is important. There is nothing superfluous; it’s just what Godard intends for us to see.
The editing beautifully compliments the handheld, naturally-lit camera work. There’s a palpable speed and energy to the visual aspects of the film. We feel as though we are in the room with Patricia and Michel through most of Breathless, engulfed in their lives just as much as they are.
This unrelenting speed is furthered by Martial Solal’s soundtrack. A frantic cacophony of fast paced jazz runs throughout the majority of the film, driving it forward, refusing the viewer a moment’s respite.
Fast-forward to around six decades later and the film’s impact on modern cinema since its initial release is undeniably clear. The documentary-like handheld camera work which pervades the film has been adopted by innumerable directors and can be seen in pinnacle Hollywood films from Jaws (1975) to Birdman (2014).
The use of conversational dialogue which skirts over the actual plot of the film is appropriated very clearly by Quentin Tarantino, a professed admirer of Godard’s work. Pulp Fiction (1994) is filled with seemingly inane, meaningless conversations about everything from burgers to foot massages. Such conversations predominantly serve as a means of favouring the creation of tone, over the movement of exposition. Breathless can certainly be thanked for popularising this style of dialogue in cinema.
Critic Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, wrote ‘modern movies begin here, with Breathless.’ He’s absolutely correct. Aside from innovations in camera work and editing, the tone of the movie is undeniably modern. It feels as relevant and gripping today as any 21st century film. Cinema owes a debt of gratitude to Godard’s creative masterpiece.