Breathless – A Film Review

Breathless (French: A Bout de Souffle), directed by Jean Luc Godard in 1960 is one of the most important films of the French New Wave. The script is written by Godard and François Truffaut, who was another significant auteur of the era. The film is entirely shot with a hand-held camera. This was Godard’s first feature-length film and is considered one of the most unconventionally styled. Like many other New Wave films, this was also a low budget production; one third of the film is shot in a hotel room and the rest shot on location in and around Paris.

The plot of the film can hardly be called complicated. The protagonist, Michel, shoots a policeman who was chasing him after he had stolen a car. He then runs back to Paris, where he has to collect money from an acquaintance, and to meet his American girlfriend, who sells “New York Herald Tribune” on Champs-Elysées. There he tries to convince her to accompany him to Italy. However, she does not seem too keen to go with him. Later, she calls up the police telling them that he is with her. Michel decides not to run but to stay and get arrested. But a friend of his throws him a gun in a desperate attempt to save him. The police lose their cool and shoot him. He dies on the street and his last words are: “It’s disgusting”. The girl does not hear him clearly and asks the policeman, who tells her that Michel’s last words had been: “You’re disgusting”.

The character of Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, bears a strong resemblance to the characters played by Hollywood’s Humphrey Bogart. He rubs his lips constantly. He always has cigarette in his mouth, which has a comic effect while he is dying. He is also shown, in one scene, to be staring at a poster of Bogart. Michel is stylish. Everything he does has an element of flair and style in it. As a result, despite knowing that he is an immoral thug and a murderer, the audience still sympathizes with him and feels sad for him when he is shot. Although his death scene is exaggerated, it appears to be fallin with his usual “style”.

The most eye-catching feature of Breathless is its unconventional and innovative editing. Godard uses “jump-cuts” to produce a brilliant, if discontinuous, flow of scenes, by mixing these cuts with scenes containing extremely lengthy shots. The jump cut is a technique in which short shots are cut out, that break up the continuity of a given scene. One such scene in which in the first shot Michel lying in Patricia’s bed, and in the next is seen walking out of the bathroom. As such, the viewer is compelled to use his imagination to fill in the missing scenes. Another example of the use of jump cuts is the scene in which Patricia meets the reporter from America in a restaurant. The man’s flow of speech is broken by the cuts, resulting in the audience hearing only the most important excerpts of his speech, while imagining the unspoken words.

Lengthy shots also abound in the film. The scene, in which Michel is walking with Patricia while she is selling newspapers, is almost a minute-and-a-half long, in which the camera moves with them when they are walking forward, and then follows them when they walk backwards.
The film takes much from the Hollywood genre of “Film Noir”. Gordard, the auteur adds his personal touch to it and the film gains another dimension and is elevated to the status of a masterpiece. The protagonist is a gangster who dies at the end, the presence of a femme fatale, the cigarette — all belong to the genre of “Film Noir”.

There are also internal references within the film. At one point, a young girl comes to Michel, trying to sell a magazine and asks him: “Do you support the youth?” He replies: “No I prefer the old.” The magazine was “Cahiers du Cinema”, the magazine Godard worked for before he became a film-maker. Guest appearance includes that of Truffaut himself.

Breathless, to a large extent, is a comment on the artificial nature of certain kinds of movies. Its exaggeration is a statement on the exaggeration done in cinema. It is a bold and superficial film; but superficiality is where its boldness lies.


Vipul Ralph Shah