A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.
Michel Poiccard, an irresponsible sociopath and small-time thief, steals a car and impulsively murders the motorcycle policeman who pursues him. Now wanted by the authorities, he renews his relationship with Patricia Franchini, a hip American girl studying journalism at the Sorbonne, whom he had met in Nice a few weeks earlier. Before leaving Paris, he plans to collect a debt from an underworld acquaintance and expects her to accompany him on his planned getaway to Italy. Even with his face in the local papers and media, Poiccard seems oblivious to the dragnet that is slowly closing around him as he recklessly pursues his love of American movies and libidinous interest in the beautiful American. Written by
Together with François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" (one of my favorites), Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" is considered the defining, instigating film of the French New Wave. It's more ironic and detached, less emotionally accessible than "The 400 Blows," and its technical innovations like jump cuts are perhaps even more surprising. For these reasons, I found "Breathless" easier to admire than to lovethough by the end I grew to enjoy its too-cool- for-(film)-school tone.
Ironically, the pace of this movie isn't "breathless" at all. It begins abruptly and takes a while to get going: Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a character we barely know, drives a stolen car around, talks at the camera, and shoots a police officer who has tried to pull him over. Then he goes to Paris and tries to borrow money from some friends, while the police-shooting plot goes undeveloped. I only became fully engaged with the introduction of Patricia (Jean Seberg), a young American who sells newspapers on the Champs-Elysees. The relationship between Michel and Patricia is the heart of the film, especially a 25-minute-long scene in Patricia's apartment where the characters smoke, flirt, and laze around in bed, though nothing really happens. That's where I really started to admire "Breathless," because I was so captivated by a scene that, on paper, doesn't sound all that captivating.
Eventually the police catch onto Michel and launch a manhunt, but this doesn't really ratchet up the suspense. Instead, Michel is (or at least, Michel acts) aimless and nonchalant about the whole thingthis is not a typical "man on the run" movie. The cool jazz score adds to the hip, laid-back tone.
Since I didn't care for the movie too much until the scenes between Michel and Patricia, I believe a lot of the credit for the film's success has to go to the charismatic performances of Belmondo and Seberg. Belmondo, with a perpetual cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, is the archetypal cocky criminal who models himself after Humphrey Bogart (there's a great scene where he sees some Bogart photos and gets a vulnerable look in his eyes, as though saying "I'll never be as cool as this"). Seberg plays Patricia as a confused girl who is delighted by the attention she gets as an American in France.
It's easy to see why "Breathless" was so influentialthe jump cuts, the ragged style perfectly match this story about amoral, aimless youth. Definitely a movie that expanded the range of stories the cinema can tell, and perhaps a major precursor to youth-oriented '60s culture. Nearly fifty years later, it still seems "hip," and still challenges our expectations of how movies should behave.
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