- Breathless (movie 1960) review: Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as a thug and his dame, is Jean-Luc Godard’s cinéma vérité-style homage to American and French gangster films a wildly overrated classic?
Breathless (movie 1960) review: Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 homage to gangster films was hugely influential – but is it any good?
Jean-Luc Godard’s first film, Breathless / À bout de souffle (1960), made him a superstar director. While Breathless’ historical importance is indisputable, historical importance should not be equated with artistic excellence.
One of the leading lights of the French New Wave of the 1960s, Breathless has dated horribly. And even were it not dated, it would still be a bad film because it’s so self-conscious, so poorly written, and so poorly acted that while sitting through it I felt as if I was actually watching a Roger Corman cheapo horror flick.
Now, let me add that there is more “art” in your typical Corman piece from that era – say, The Last Woman on Earth – than in Godard’s feature debut because Corman’s commentary on the state of filmmaking and art was more subtle (and often unintentional).
Godard, by contrast, is so garishly dying to show his audience how hip and intellectual he is that he fails to put any of that hipness or intellect – or any substance, for that matter – into his film.
He attempts to capture “reality” on film without realizing that anything filmed becomes unreal – or irreal. In truth, any form of art can never be real.
To convey reality most aptly, art needs to be most affected. By shooting his film with a handheld camera while Parisians gawk at the filming-in-process, Godard ends up making the most artificial of films while trying to show the most tedious aspects of life.
He thus focuses on the two worst aspects of film – the artificiality of cinéma vérité and the reality of tedium – rather than the two best ones: The “reality” of film as artifice and the “artifice” of poetically chosen reality.
What little story Breathless has to offer starts abruptly. It’s an odd beginning, but not unlike many bad 1950s kids’ television shows or contemporaneous B horror films like Carnival of Souls.
A hood named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car in Marseilles and drives to Paris. On his way there, he is stopped for speeding and shoots a policeman. This goes by so quickly and without explanation that the viewer cannot empathize with him.
Once in Paris, he needs to get money from a friend and flirts with an American student, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). The mid-section is the dead zone of their flirtations admixed with stilted, wannabe-intellectual dialogue.
For a thriller, the duo have some rather pallid adventures before Patricia, for unknown reasons (to cover the fact that she has taken part in some of his criminal activities?), turns him in.
Real character development was obviously not a priority. This plot flaw – known as the dumbest possible action, a staple of later slasher and horror films – is needed for the tale to exist, so we must bear it.
For instance, up to an interview with a famous author for the newspaper where she works, nothing leads the viewer to believe a sensible gal like Patricia would for one moment go with a thug like Michel – much less go on a crime spree, especially after discovering he’s a murderer.
Execution matches aimless screenplay
If you’re not exactly going “wow!” over the storyline, its execution will not propel you that way, either.
Martial Solal’s score is poor, with jazz and melodramatic Hollywood crime movie music inaptly placed. Merely quoting such bad music is not mocking it, and there is no justification for its clumsy use.
Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinematography and composition are also rather forgettable, as Breathless looks haphazard, poorly framed, and poorly lit. Again, deliberate intent and the excuse of “realism” does not make up for the murky end result. Also, unlike true film noir, Coutard makes no great use of the power of black-and-white imagery, be it the grays or the play of shadow and light.
There are also poor stock-film inserts of Paris that don’t match the rest of the movie’s quality or style. The famed jump cuts may have seemed cool and revolutionary upon Breathless’ release, but nearly a half century on they feel self-conscious and do absolutely nothing artistically.
Their form does not serve the function of the narrative the way a breathtaking series of jump cuts in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories documents the psychic decay of a character. (Those Breathless jump cuts may, however, make the uninformed believe they are watching a battered print.)
Less widely praised but less amateurish Shadows
Across the pond, at the time Breathless was being filmed, John Cassavetes was also making his directorial feature debut with Shadows.
Although there is an amateurish quality to some aspects of Shadows – it wasn’t praised nearly as highly as Breathless – it is much less amateurish than the French film. Indeed, as a “realistic” piece of filmmaking Shadows holds up far better today.
By contrast, Breathless cannot be defended on its own merits – but only as a historical curio. Cassavetes’ first feature, on the other hand, stands on its own. His use of overlapping and realistic dialogue, neither culled nor self-consciously quoted from Hollywood movies, is far better than Godard’s.
Whereas Cassavetes brings true-to-life American dialogue to the screen, Breathless’ dialogue was stillborn once Godard’s fellow auteur François Truffaut abandoned the screenplay.
Compounding matters, Michel is no more a gangster type than Jean-Paul Belmondo is Humphrey Bogart, whom the actor imitates throughout the film. This is seen by apologists as the Breathless style. Except that this so-called style is actually stylelessness.
Of course, Jean Seberg was a goddess, but her character is badly underwritten. Seberg does well with what little she has to work – and her bone structure had me thinking of Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley, always a plus.
Influential vs. good influence
Also worth noting is that even when something has been influential, that doesn’t mean the influence was good or that the trendsetter was any good.
Later filmmakers went leagues beyond Jean-Luc Godard, actually demanding their innovations serve the narrative of their films rather than merely creating a bit of self-indulgence over which a haphazard story is draped.
Breathless spends far too much time showing off its many influences – thereby also its derivativeness. With no good execution, no real depth, and no character development, what was intended as satire becomes an awkward imitation, one that isn’t witty enough to be considered a comedy, resembling instead something like film noir lite.
In short, Breathless reveals not a unique innovator, but an old Romantic masking as a hipster, while wildly cobbling together a Frankenstein-ian mess. In America, we call that person a poseur. In France, they apparently call them a genius … just like, um, Jerry Lewis.
Breathless / À bout de souffle (movie 1960) cast & crew
Director: Jean-Luc Godard.
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard.
From an original treatment by François Truffaut.
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo. Jean Seberg. Daniel Boulanger. Roger Hanin. Van Doude.
Cameos: Jean-Pierre Melville. Jean-Luc Godard. Philippe de Broca. Raymond Huntley. Jean-Louis Richard. Gérard Brach.
“Breathless Movie (Movie 1960): Vastly Overrated Noir Homage” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes © Alt Film Guide.
“Breathless Movie (Movie 1960): Vastly Overrated Noir Homage” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Breathless Movie (Movie 1960): Vastly Overrated Noir Homage” notes
Breathless earned Jean-Luc Godard the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Director Silver Lion. Jean Seberg was a British Academy Award nominee in the Best Foreign Actress category.
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg Breathless movie images: The Criterion Collection.
“Breathless Movie (Movie 1960): Vastly Overrated Noir Homage” last updated in April 2023.
I’m not sure Dan quite ‘gets’ the film. His criticisms for the most part appear to reflect Godard’s deliberate creative intentions. These intentions seem entirely valid to me unless Dan believes that allowing the crayons to stray outside the Hollwood colouring-in stencil should be ‘vorboten.’ Of course the film looks and sounds different/unusual. It is supposed to. Dan gets very bogged down in notions of ‘art’ and ‘reality’ - things are immeasurable and entirely subjective. Personally, I really like the movie, despite its flaws, partly because its different and doesn’t lead me by the nose like a sedated bovine to an institutional slaughterhouse.
I watch this movie for the first time and recorded it on my PVR, and that is a good thing because my fast forward button was getting a workout. my first attraction to the movie was the beautiful cars and the pretty street scenes and driving along the highways with beautiful vistas. but upon closer examination I realized that I didn’t care for the characters at all and that the plot if any became tiresome rather quickly. some songs have a melody and they become entrenched in the culture and have a long life. they are admired for generations even centuries. some modern jazz however involves squeaks and growls with no melody whatsoever. I’m just taking a long shot here but, these pieces will have a short life and they will not be admired or loved by people generations from now. they will become minor footnotes in the shadows of great music, as this movie seems to be. take fashion for instance, you see an elegant Audrey Hepburn prancing down the street looking at windows, then juxtapose it to this angry contemptuous punker girl wearing torn stockings and disheveled hair and wearing badges, metal and chains.. its a fashion statement. I get it and I support it and I will defend their right to do it ,but I will not get warm and fuzzy to the style. the movie breathless had nothing to offer. fast forward to more entertaining films. some films educate and they even have an effect in changing the course of history, but that is done by well superbly written plots and well executed cinematography. you can look at a Andy Warhol film for 3 days, but at the end of that if you’re not bored silly there’s something wrong with you. I know that the message is deep and profound but you can cut to the chase and say “listen, this is boring as hell”, and you would have graduated to the next plateau of theosophical consciousness.
it is best described as either a good film with irritating flaws or a bad film with a lot of charm. yes it is silly and has a sense of parodying its story and characters, but i think that makes the film likable. however, the middle scene in her apartment is so irritating with its poor writing and repetitiveness that i had to stop watching. i wondered, what happened to the cute and interesting film i was watching? i resumed watching it the next day when my level of irritation had subsided. when they finally got out of that scene it went back to being a good film in its silly charming way. in the end i was not feeling the film was a waste of time, i enjoyed it, but the scene in her apartment is loooong, witless, and you just want michel to shut up. however, if you were liking the film before that scene, and you can get through that scene, you will like the ending.
reading this article randomly, thus I can’t stand its whole point of view, totally stupid. who can define art anyway? the artist himself. godard made breathless to depict, to talk about a young generation: a generation that live aimlessly, reckless, doesn’t really care about the moral values, etc. and there are still people like that around. they chose and lived their lives as freely and dangerously as they want, and through it godard showed his attitude toward the society, the cinema at the time. cinema or art cannot stop at one point, it must move, breath and has its own lives. you propably prefer the tradtional film-making with the beginning, the middle and ending in its right order, you may prefer the character’s personality according to the morals, keep it to yourself. not every people is the same, not all directors have the same style. it’s not unreasonable that godard’s breathless hs been always highly acclaimed. godard, along with other directors from the french new wave changed the whole french cinema and awaken a whole lot of film-makers with his own style, his own thought. with people like you, with a narrow-minded attitude, boring taste in movie like that, no wonder world cinema has been so horrible!
agree with sentiment that Breathless starts and finishes in a rush but sandwiched in between is an agonisingly prolonged,smoky french discourse on life, which made my eyes glaze over. For conversations in bed, no one does it better than Rohmer in ‘My night at Maude’s’
It’s a shame for Dan Schneider that Partho Chakrabartty read this review and decided to comment on it. Partho makes Dan look like such an indulgent, closed minded, attention-seeking, B-grade critic.
“I don’t like nor dislike it. I simply recognize, as you do, it’s not good.”
This sums up what I can’t stomach about his B-Grade criticisms. He seems to believe that he can approach the film from some kind of omniscient objective viewpoint. That his opinions are fact, that the things he finds irksome or shallow are thus and that one can approach a film like this from a ‘fixed’ point of view. He uses the constitution as his defense here, and I’m assuming it’s the American one. As if everyone is entitled to butcher other people’s creations with their rigid thoughts and fundamentalist opinions.
As Partho said, ‘Always remember a critic is a nobody who talks.’
I just wish nobodies like Dan would shut up, constitution or no constitution.
Partho Chakrabartty I would love to read your paper on this..
“…absolutely nothing artistically.”
What does this even mean? What do you mean by “artistic?” Pretty vague.
And look, I’m no Godard or Breathless apologist (I’ve read plenty of good critiques of both), but to comment that the characters in Breathless are underdeveloped, as if no one noticed, is like saying chocolate ice cream is not as good as strawberry coz it doesn’t taste like…strawberry.
“In America we call that person a poseur. In France they apparently call them geniuses.”
Jesus. Is this a film review or is this Fox and Friends?
Dan, Glad to read a voice of reason. Having just watched the film for the first time, I needing to know that not everyone gushes high praise for this “classic” movie. Thanks
Wow, was this a fresh and invigorating read. My film professor adores (and even worked with) Godard, and therefore he talks about him all the time. It gets old, especially since he always cites Breathless as a masterwork. It is boring, self-indulgent, and just plain bad. Thanks for writing this review!
almost everything you said in this article is ill-informed and incorrect.
i could comment on every point you made, and explain everything that was incorrect and ignorant about that point. but that would be an incredible waste of time.
i don’t know why i bothered reading this article - yet alone commenting on it. evidently, my views are intense enough to do so…
-The rigour in question is of artistic integrity, because artists are master illusionists. I’ll only trust an artist who will use illusion to show me reality-
This is the best film review I have ever read. You sum up delightfully and eloquently that feeling of complete dissatisfaction and frustration I had, but couldn’t yet articulate after watching Breathless. I adore this review and you.
As a film critic you need to be well informed about the history of film. This includes its historical context and influences which you have shown that you are not fully aware of based on your extremely biased review. This also applies to your perspective on postmodern art. I was wondering if you have actually read anything by the Cahiers from that era? I think it would also help if you did more research on Italian neo-realism and its influences towards the French new wave too.
If you prefer generic Hollywood conventions and its linear-style narratives, then I can see why you think Breathless would be a complete disaster of a film. Sometimes it is rather nice to sit back, enjoy and appreciate the mundane aspects of life too.
There is a lot more I would like to say, but I’m going to leave it at that for now.
thank you for this. i rewatched breathless the other day and was struck by just how bad it is. unspeakably, unwatchably bad. shadows - as you point out - is leagues apart and shadows ain’t that great.
I am shocked at how violently I disagree with your views.
For instance, dubbing is a travesty in a medium that relies on the dramatic value of dialogue. I would not have anyone tamper with the shape and tone of the dialogue even if it were in another language.
You approach Breathless from a fixed position. While knowing your own mind may have been a critical good in the early 18th century, canonical and restrictive views of art are now out-of-place. That is why your critique will earn both vociferous support and violent criticism - it is because your position is obviously closed. Instead of giving us quiet insights that allow us to form our own opinion, you have given us rhetoric. The same mistake Godard made sometimes. I, for my part, ignore the rhetoric, and find that the film still serves me wonderfully. Why?
Your ideas on ‘realistic character development’ signify a fixed idea of the human, of what human beings are expected to do. I consider that a myth, a myth that filmmakers have propagated down the ages. That a Phyllis Dietrichson must be evil to lead an originally flawed Walter Neff astray is exactly the kind of false reality film conveys. You seem to prize it, and I prize it too - film’s capacity to sustain an illusion is a wonderful thing. But is it therefore the only thing that film must do? That is like saying becoming President of the USA is a wonderful achievement, and everyone should be gunning for the post. No. Please allow film and filmmakers their freedom.
And not only freedom of intention, which you do allow them (by not caring for it, and I agree with you there). Ignore intention, but please do not ignore the way Breathless constructs its own language. Try and follow the thread of its own reasoning, as it is presented (and not as critics present it, or as Godard himself presents it). I found in the film many valuable moments - the stuff you called mundane was for me insights and recollections of similar situations, a case of almost watching yourself from a detached perspective and understanding how you behave. The long sequence in Seberg’s apartment is wonderful because it is not staged reality. It is as real as any afternoon that you and I have spent; the conversations falter and the characters are as unable to understand each other as people usually are. And Seberg’s character is real because it houses contradictions.
Some of us may view film as a medium of escape from our lives, or even as a chance to arrive at some exalted, or aesthetic, or simplified world. Some of us expect films to be as honest as possible so we can rely on the artist’s insights. The rigour in question is of artistic integrity, because artists are master illusionists. I’ll only trust an artist who will use illusion to show me reality, and yet make reality pungent and extra-mundane by giving me the benefit of his insight. An artist who uses illusion to completely transport me is a very skilled illusionist - and I’ll love him for it - but I will not rely on him or believe in him.
And yet for me both are artists, and as a critic I will deeply consider both their projects; I will make an attempt to understand them and break into their meaning. That attempt I find lacking. Always remember a critic is a nobody who talks, like I am talking right now. The artist is the one who creates, the one who’s doing the real work. Even as a viewer I would ask people to give the artist a chance, to really listen to him instead of imposing their own beliefs on him as part of their judgment. My problem with you is at a very human level. I don’t think you have bothered to understand the film at all, and have summarily dismissed it on account of its most surface appearances.
I would have given examples, but considering your review was theoretical with no close detail, I can’t be bothered to comment on it. I am doing a paper on the film at present; I will send it to you if you like.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mike, Dan you seem to have totally missed point of the French Nouvelle Vague. All the characteristics which you have seemed to criticise actually are part of the new wave techniques.
Thank you for enlightening the internet with your short-sighted analyzation of this film and Goddard’s work. You might try actually watching this movie next time you sit down for it (the translation is not actually “scumbag,” as others have pointed out, that’s a mistake the policeman makes when repeating Michel’s last words, which translates more literally to “it’s a bitch”).
I did not enjoy Breathless. I believe its comrade, Truffauts’ The 400 Blows, to be, as you like to say, “leagues above Breathless.”
What I gleaned from your review is that you percieve the art of intent to be a negative characteristic - of both cinema and of filmmakers - but that while holding this belief you simultaneously practice the opposite extreme in your criticism.
Is there no respectable middle ground?
“The first thing that is required for a film to produced is a screenplay, and the visuals, mise-en-scene, camerawork, editing, all exist to serve toe story. The word is king.”
That’s all I need to read to know I’m wasting my time reading your reviews. Don’t bother replying, I won’t be coming back.
I don’t like nor dislike it. I simply recognize, as you do, it’s not good.
But, he got better. Contempt, while not great, is leagues above it. And Louis Malle was better’n both Godard & Truffaut.
It was necessary at the time, French Cinema really did need a New Wave to stir it up a bit.
It can be argued that American and European Cinema could do with a New Wave today as well.
Godard is basically doing what Rossellini already did almost a decade before: Making “ugly” movies that throw traditional Hollywood filmaking out the window.
Rossellini, in “PaisÁ “, created something Sublime. Godard, in “a bout de souffle” created something Juvenile.
But the theory behind these two directors are very similar (although the practice is different. One must not forget that Rossellini hates Hitchcock, Godard idealizes him).
This is quite comprehensible, after all Truffaut worked on Rossellini’s side before making his own films and brings these theories across the border into France.
Godard makes “A Bout de Souffle” as a parody, a homage, a divertissement but more than anything he makes it as a “Manifesto”. An example of destructive cinematography, where everything that a movie “must not do” is happily done, over and over again.
It’s quite o.k. not to like this movie because, in fact, it is not a good movie.
It’s an emblematic movie.
You are practicing the criticism of intent. Homage or not, it fails.
John: ‘And the Jerry Lewis joke was completely uncalled for.’
Same could be said of this ‘homage.’
I don’t agree completely with this review. Although I will agree that A bout de Soufflè is a bad film. But it is bad in such a gratious and puerile manner that I find it hard to hate. In this it reminds a bit of Easy Rider, released almost a decade later: Bad, influential and thoroughly enjoyable.
Godard was making a statement with this film (But I’ll agree that this alone doesn’t make it in any way “good”). He was “rubbing it in the face” of critics and audiences alike, I would even go so far as to say that he was deliberately stirring up an uproar if only to bring more publicity to the then rampant “Nouvelle Vague”.
Godard was also filming on a tight budget, this is the real reson behind his “jump cutting” (if a scene came out badly he couldn’t afford to redo it, he would just cut out the bad part and stick the ends of the good parts together) and his “handheld camera” style.
The storyline, on the other hand, is openly ironic and has only grown moreso with the outdated fashions.
The jump from Interdiegetic to Extradiegetic music is just as ironic, and plays with the fact that the movie itself was completely filmed without sound (the entire film was completely dubbed and even reimprovised in studio, much inspired by Jean Renoir’s experiences with the same techinique).
All in all I find this film bad, very bad, but in a cute way. All in all I enjoy it.
And the Jerry Lewis joke was completely uncalled for.
Godard was wrapped up in American film before and during the filming of Breathless. Of course he didn’t like the “Tradition of Quality”, the reigning French cinema of the time, but that’s because he felt it was bourgeois bs. Read Godard on Godard and you will realize that Godard was enthralled with American cinema, and Breathless is a homage to American film and its style (particularly the film noir and gangster film). A lot of people misinterprret this film, claiming it’s Godard commenting on commercial art and so forth, no it’s not. It’s a simple tribute to Hollywood, to Hitchcock, Nicolas Rey, Raoul Walsh, etc. What is great about this film is it’s editing, and the intertextuality found in the film. Peace.
The first thing that is required for a film to produced is a screenplay, and the visuals, mise-en-scene, camerawork, editing, all exist to serve toe story. The word is king.
As for your other logorrhea, was that you or Homer Simpson who said, ‘D’oh!’?
I don’t blame you for disliking the film so much, since you so amazingly misinterpeted it. You’re accusing Jean-Luc Godard of not being aware that cinema is, by nature, unreal? You’re joking right? I understand you probably read on Wikipedia or somewhere that the movie is “criticizing mainsream cinema”, and you probably bought this very simplified abridgment of the Godard’s intent and based your reading of the film on it.
Godard isn’t just commenting on classical cinema, he’s also commenting on art cinema. The hand-held camera/docu-style was a common characteristic of art cinema, and that “stilted wannabe intellectual dialogue” as you called it, was written to be so as a comment on art cinema’s penchant for “deep” discussions by it’s characters.
You don’t need a written statement by Jean-Luc Godard prior to viewing the film in order to know this, as you claim in your opening statement, you just have to be, y’know, informed, learned, have even a remote working knowledge of the history of film, as opposed to the aformentioned Wiki-cation that you clearly went through.
Should one be able to appreciate (or understand)a particular jazz album if it is the first they’ve heard as much as someone who knows the entire catalogues of Mingus, Miles Davis, Coltrane, etc by heart? (just an example, I don’t even like jazz). Clearly they should not, and clearly this does not detract from the quality of the artistic work, as your twisted and misinformed philosophy states. Obviously you have some people reading your work, so please, in the future, if you’re not going to be well-versed in cinema (oooh you’ve seen a Cassavetes film, good for you!), at least make an attempt to do some real research before you spew your embarassingly anti-intellectual rants that I’m sure aren’t at all intended to just get a rise out of certain people.
Films like Breathless are like writers like Charles Bukowski- valued because non-artists literally can say that they could make something as good- or bad, and generally be correct. Thus the previous poster’s comment.
8 1/2 is not a great film, ala La Dolce Vita, but it’s leagues above Breathless, technically, and even in narrative. It fails greatness because it’s too long, convoluted, and is on the fence between the early Fellini and later ones, where excesses worked- say in Amarcord.
I find your review rather refreshing, and so close to the truth. When watching these types of films with my movie-buff peers, I often feel alienated because I do not feel the same about the movie as they do. I had a similar experience while watching Fellini’s Eight and Half, and my written review pratically mirrors your own. I was estranged because almost every other review I read praised the film highly. I feel the same about Breathless as I did Eight and Half, and I am very relieved that someone else feels the same as well.
In honesty, however, films like Eight and Half and Breathless are valued for their specific traits, rather than their overall quality. The cinematography of Breathless is what draws most of its fans — but that does not make it a good movie. I agree with you whole-heartedly in your review.
Your review is neither innovative nor good. Nor influential. Not even hip. It would help if you watched the movie: In the exaggerated death scene, Belmondo-Bogart does not call Seberg “a scumbag.” It is the police who misstate his reflection on death (something like “It’s a scumbag”). I hope that you do not consider these remarks bigoted or abusive. It’s simply that your review lacks insight and credibility.