The One about Jean-Luc Godard’s “À bout de souffle”

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Every director has their beginning but for Jean-Luc Godard, his 1960 film “À bout de souffle” a.k.a. “Breathless” was the beginning of a cinema revolution and bringing the world closer to nouvelle vague, the French New Wave.

Godard is a unique director who attracted attention for his innovative editing and his use of jump cuts, his style of not giving his talent a script until the morning of and using improvisation and utilizing film techniques that most directors would never do.  In fact, his filmmaking even infuriated his producer because instead of using a full day to shoot a film, sometime he was in the mood to do only 12 minutes.  But then again, Jean-Luc Godard is not your typical director and in 1960, no one knew what to expect from him.

Many looked at him as a rebel as he wanted to challenge the conventions of traditional Hollywood cinema and for those who watched his films evolve year after year, the more we get to see Godard in his characters but also his political ideologies as well.

But “Breathless” was a film that helped change cinema.  For decades, many followed the Hollywood tradition and sure, Jean Renoir did something unique and special decades earlier with “The Rules of the Game”  (unfortunately, no one at the time was ready for the film until three decades later and people acknowledge that his film was ahead of its time) but it was “Breathless” that inspired young directors and showed them that directors, auteurs can do something different.

From the use of jump cuts to capturing Paris with a hidden camera, the film and its director was hailed for its innovation and it was the beginning of the French New Wave.  Interesting enough, although the film made Jean-Luc Godard a popular name, the director himself was not as thrilled by all the attention and popularity of “Breathless” that led him to create “Le Petit Soldat” (The Little Soldier) which was highly political and banned in France for three years.  Regardless of whether or not Godard enjoyed the success of the film, the film was unique and an inspiration to many filmmakers.

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For anyone interested in French New Wave films, “Breathless” is a film that is recommended watching.  It’s a film that changed cinema and launched the career of director Jean-Luc Godard.

What I loved about the film is the acting.  The whole 25-minute improvisation scene in the bedroom is incredible.  I’ve learned through the special features that the scene involved Godard yelling and instructing the Belmondo and Seberg on what to do and also learned that the jump cut scenes were accidental but yet made the film quite creative, unique and artistic.

But is it one of the best Godard films?  This is difficult to answer because personally, there are so many Godard films that I do enjoy but yet this is his first and is an important film in his career. But the problem is, to enjoy Godard films is to know Godard films.  You appreciate his films, the more you watch several of them and learn his unique style of filmmaking.

Also, the film has been given so much credit for its innovation that so many people come to the film expecting something like Orson Welles “Citizen Kane” or a film that with this groundbreaking story and people who experience this Godard film are perplexed and don’t understand what the big deal is. And I think that is what has perplexed Godard after the success of the film.  Godard was very critical of the film to the point that he distanced himself from it and thus created the film “Le Petit Soldat”.

But as mentioned, to enjoy Godard is to know Godard and that is watching his films and learning about them.  Fortunately, The Criterion Collection does a fantastic job with this release of “Breathless” in presentation and also its content.  Not only do you get the film but you get to see the various interviews with the talent, interviews with those who worked with him and easily enough, different interpretations of what people got from the film.  The 1993 documentary “Chamber 12, Hotel de Suede” is a magnificent addition to the film as we get to see and hear from those who are involved with “Breathless”, giving us some insight to Godard and his unique filmmaking style.

As far as my enjoyment of the film, I absolutely enjoyed it!  Godard and Belmondo had a magical partnership during their short time together and as for Jean Seberg, this is an actress that had a bad experience  in her earlier years as an actress, given a chance in “Breathless” (and worked once more with Godard) and had a rollercoaster of a career that ended in tragedy.  If there was one positive, she is immortalized through her role as Patricia in this film.

“Breathless” is a film about two different people, their words and what they mean are different, they talk about themselves but yet never really talk to each other.  Are they even listening to each other?  Do they even care for each other?

There’s no doubt that one can rewatch “Breathless” and see something different each time.  May it be the two talking about paintings, the two talking about Faulkner, this dialogue between the two is something that I found so enjoyable (as I have with Eric Rohmer’s moral tale “My Night at Maud’s” with also a magnificent, smart and enjoyable long bedroom dialogue scene).  There is something about the tone about the film that is just so enchanting.

Despite Michel being the uncaring young bad guy, somehow you can’t help but be intrigued by his character.  He’s a dangerous man but yet Patricia is even more dangerous in some ways.  Compared to other films showing around the world during its time, “Breathless” was fresh, unique and different from what was seen in traditional cinema.

Cinematography for “Breathless” is absolutely beautiful.  Because timing and space was a concern, Godard elected to use a wheelchair to film.  Not wanting to use expensive lighting, Godard wanted to capture a realistic feel of these two characters by using natural light.   So, many different techniques employed in this film.

In fact, when they were seen in public, cinematographer Coutard was hidden in a cart as the two are seen walking down the street.  No one around the two actors are aware that the scene was being filmed.  And of course, I go back to the jump scenes and the editing but accidental as it may be, it was definitely a major part in introducing the world to nouvelle vague and changing the scope of cinema.

Overall, if you are a Jean-Luc Godard fan or a cineaste, “Breathless” is an important film worth owning in your cinema collection.  Is it Godard’s best film?  That’s a matter of preference, as I personally enjoy “Band of Outsiders”, “Pierrot le fou” and “Mascullin Feminin” much more.  But in the context of importance of cinema and its historical contribution to La Nouvelle Vague, “Breathless” is the feature film that launched Godard’s career.

If you are cinema fan, then “Breathless” (À bout de souffle) is highly recommended!


 

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Dennis A. Amith