- Breathless (1960) movie 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 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
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 (1960)
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 (1960) Review: Film Noir Homage Vastly Overrated” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Breathless Movie (1960) Review: Film Noir Homage Vastly Overrated” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Breathless Movie (1960) Review” endnotes
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 (1960) Review: Film Noir Homage Vastly Overrated” last updated in September 2021.