The opening of Breathless is “unprecedented,” in that we never learn what route brought Michel Poiccard to the Vieux Port of Marseille, where he surveys the future from the very edge of France. This first shot strikes a match to touch off an oil fire that will race through the film’s incidents and images, indeed through the New Wave altogether. A girlie tabloid filling the screen slips down to reveal the face of Jean-Paul Belmondo, cigarette dangling from his lips, as he looks out from under his rakishly cocked hat. His head swivels, and he rubs those lips with his thumb; he is ready for action. At a signal from a female accomplice, he hot-wires a big Oldsmobile just parked by an American military man touring with his wife. Abandoning the girl, who begs to be taken along, Poiccard drives off, exhaling in the flush of freedom, “Maintenant je fonce, Alphonse!” We can feel Godard’s own outlaw freedom in this sequence, carjacking a Hollywood genre and putting it into drive. The film lurches forward as he shifts up with wild shot changes; it charges ahead (il fonce) on bursts of music and sound effects, and on Belmondo’s spontaneous speeches, directed right to the camera, to us. Character and auteur will gun down the French authorities when stopped for questioning. From Marseille, Poiccard makes his way to Paris, to the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter, then to the Champs-Élysées and its movie theaters (right under the offices of Cahiers du cinéma), where he shares the street with the crowds cheering Charles de Gaulle, head of the brand-new Fifth Republic. He will wind up in Montparnasse, on the rue Campagne-Première, the legendary street where Kiki hung out, as did Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Yves Klein. Breathless brings anarchy into the heart of Paris.
Auteur will meet character midway through the film, when Godard comes out into the open. Playing a concerned citizen, he exchanges suspicious glances with Poiccard, both from behind their newspapers and sunglasses. The filmmaker then reroutes the action by literally directing the police to the quarry that has eluded them. As Poiccard’s stolen car pulls out of frame, ominous music rises and an iris closes around Godard, who is seen fingering his hero to the cops. Genre will have its revenge in the final third of the film. And so we must ask: did Godard take himself to be an anarchic force, working his way from the outside into Paris, where he would flout the rules for the fun of it, or did he play the conscience of the art form, the critic who would reinvent the cinema by channeling the original energy of D. W. Griffith, Abel Gance, and Monogram Pictures that he plugged into at the Cinémathèque?
Either way, the verdict, rendered immediately, still holds: Breathless is the definitive manifesto of the New Wave. The movement was well under way when Godard made his entrée. In a much-discussed 1957 inquest, the popular weekly L’express had dubbed the ascendant generation “la nouvelle vague.” That generation’s pleasures, mores, and anxieties had been elaborated in the juicy novels of Françoise Sagan, particularly Bonjour tristesse, the best seller she wrote as a teenager, adapted by Otto Preminger in 1958 and starring Jean Seberg. As for the cinema, Godard was the very last of the notorious five Cahiers du cinéma critics to start a feature. Claude Chabrol had come out with two successes even before the triumph of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour at Cannes in spring 1959. But Breathless sealed the movement, defining it as simultaneously aggressive and nonchalant, adolescent and sophisticated. It did so through the behavior of its characters and its style, which, I insist, are linked.
Every criminal leaves traces of a style, a signature, as does every strong filmmaker. In Breathless, Belmondo gave to his character an engaging, if despicable, insouciance that resonated with Godard’s unapologetic way of making the film. Subject and style amplified each other. Belmondo provided calculated gestures—the thumb on the lips, the grimaces—and impulsive acts, such as shooting the cop or jumping out of a cab so he can win a sexist point by flipping the skirt of an unsuspecting pedestrian. He flips Seberg’s skirt too, just to provoke a reaction, enjoying her slap on his face. To these correspond the nervous jump cuts with which Godard gooses many of the film’s sequences, startling the audience each time. But the film’s audacious novelty is equally due to its superlong takes. Excessive especially by fifties standards, these decelerate the restless pace and make us watch for whatever may or may not happen next. Some shots last two, even three minutes. Not only does this match Poiccard’s impatient situation, waiting for acquaintances to show up for rendezvous, or for Patricia to get off work, or for phone calls from intermediaries; it also expresses his fundamental moral sloth, his fatigue, his death drive. Composer Martial Solal perfectly caught this bipolar aesthetic with two distinctive leitmotifs. And in repeating each theme close to a dozen times, Godard effectively detached the music from the plot, making it instead a palpable part of the film’s overall layout, its structure. Breathless absorbs the viewer not because it represents an engrossing story but because of the way it plays out that story. Thus Michel Poiccard fascinates us less than does Belmondo the irrepressible young actor coming into such a role. And Jean Seberg, though a well-known ingenue (particularly at Cahiers du cinéma, on whose cover she appeared in February 1958), likewise plays at finding her character—perhaps at finding herself, an American in Paris—as she adopts pose after pose for close-ups that come to make up 20 percent of the film. Similarly, the editing and music constitute elements as well as signifiers of tone and rhythm, visually and aurally structuring our experience.
When the turmoil conveyed by his young actors is insufficient to express the anxiety at the film’s core, Godard reveals his ambition, expressed in some of his earliest essays, to change the standard relation of editing to mise-en-scène, involving both cutting in the traditional sense and percussive effects within continuous takes. In a remarkable review late in 1958, he praised Alexandre Astruc’s Une vie for overturning, indeed for outrunning, standard expressions of violence created through “premeditated” editing, of the sort that whenever “a shot changed, a door opened, a glass shattered, a face turned.” Instead, in Une vie, even within its long tracking shots “the effect becomes almost the cause. The beauty is not so much in [Christian] Marquand’s dragging Maria Schell out of the château but in the abruptness with which he does it. This abruptness of gesture, which gives a fresh impulse to the suspense every few minutes, this discontinuity latent in continuity, might be called the telltale heart of Une vie.” Godard had already internalized the feeling, the drive, he would impart to Breathless.
As was the case with the similarly heralded Citizen Kane, Breathless’s audacious intervention in film history depended not just on the novelty or ambition of its debutant director but on his and his cast and crew’s technical genius. Take Martial Solal: his reputation in Paris jazz circles had led Jean-Pierre Melville to sign him on just a year earlier for Two Men in Manhattan, and he used him again in 1961 for Léon Morin, prêtre (starring Belmondo). Between these Solal worked simultaneously on Breathless and Jean Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus, a film mentioned by Melville’s character during the Orly interview with Seberg in Breathless. Godard knew that in Solal he had a world-class pianist, and so, during editing, he asked him for improvisations. Along with the Chopin that Patricia puts on the record player, these piano elements are interspersed through the lengthy hotel room scene for the range and rhythm they help structure. Or take Belmondo. How comfortable he is with Godard’s tempo as he shows off his tics and playfulness (the shadowboxing). Raoul Coutard’s camera trains itself on him and Seberg during the long takes in the cramped hotel, when the subject is nothing other than time passing between two people. Coutard, relatively new to feature films himself, immediately became Godard’s prosthetic hand and eye, remaining so for more than twenty years and fourteen films. Working as a Paris match war photographer in Indochina throughout the fifties, he had learned to capture his target, no matter what the conditions, and to do so without trampling on the subject. For Breathless, he was ingenious, feeding countless rolls of still-camera negative into magazines for the Éclair Caméflex, concocting a new developer to double the sensitivity of the film, rigging makeshift dollies for the candid-camera tracking shots on Paris thoroughfares, manipulating available light to give Godard and his actors range and immediacy.
Other first films (including many of today’s indies) exude the sparkling joy of filmmaking that one feels in Breathless, but how many can boast its sure-handedness? It is said that Godard never betrayed indecision on the set, even if he may sometimes have scribbled or shouted dialogue at the moment of shooting. He had prepared himself for a decade, during his so-called amateur phase. First of all through criticism, an activity that he has always maintained was a way of making films without a camera. Then he had helped his Cahiers du cinéma colleagues on their short films and watched them move into features, playing bit roles for Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. He had made one industrial film on commission, along with several shorts of his own. In the late fifties, he edited animal documentaries and travelogues and was hired to write dialogue for features. While serving as Fox’s Paris press agent and promoter, he met producer Georges de Beauregard, who was impressed enough with him to put him to work. De Beauregard would soon give him the chance he begged for, picking the brief story outline of Breathless from among several projects Godard put before him. It surely helped that Truffaut, who had just caused a sensation at Cannes with The 400 Blows, was the source of the idea for Breathless and that Chabrol agreed to serve as technical adviser. De Beauregard could take a chance on his haughty assistant because the laws governing subsidy had recently changed, and first-time directors were eligible to receive funds. Moreover, they were cheap and now carried a certain cachet. Godard seethed at having to use the names of his friends, even though they both understood he was on his own. He considered himself so experienced in the industry that he would scorch it with his first feature.
It took the pretentiousness of youth to flaunt the idea of a revivified cinema in the stone face of an even more pretentious establishment. Godard’s writings have always sounded brash and pugnacious, yet his earliest articles often sang the purity of artistic expression. Poe, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud were his models. He could write without irony, “What is difficult is to advance into unknown lands, to be aware of the danger, to take risks, to be afraid.” Breathless announces this as its principal theme early on, when Poiccard passes a movie poster advertising Robert Aldrich’s Ten Seconds to Hell: “Live Dangerously Until the End!” Godard believed that the powerful writers of the past (Stendhal, for instance, who provided the epigraph for Godard’s scenario) would surely have been auteurs of cinema in the mid-twentieth century. Long before Gilles Deleuze, Godard called on popular genres—the musical, the western, and of course the film noir—to address the philosophical issues of his day. Sartre, after all, had worked in film, as had Malraux, now minister of culture and the man who lent his personal support to get The 400 Blows to Cannes. In blaring the triumph of that film, Godard compared the dangerous gleam in the eye of Antoine Doinel to that in the eye of Tchen, the suicidal terrorist who opens Malraux’s La condition humaine, as he plunges his knife into a sleeping body. Merciless and intrepid, Godard took himself to be a loner even within the Cahiers du cinéma clan, tying genuine art to courage and solitude. “The cinema is not a craft. It is an art. It does not mean teamwork. One is always alone on the set as before the blank page. And to be alone?.?.?. means to ask questions. And to make films means to answer them. Nothing could be more classically romantic.”
The “authenticity” demanded by Godard’s existentialist ardor he found in the three filmmakers who were his principal models: Nicholas Ray, Roberto Rossellini, and Jean Rouch. Ray embodied that “classically romantic” soul at war in Hollywood. “If the cinema no longer existed,” Godard wrote, “Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to.” Ray’s first marvelous effort, They Live by Night, sets moments of unforgiving documentary technique alongside the fresh and painfully sensitive faces of Cathy O’Donnell and a young Farley Granger, who, like Belmondo, is gunned down in the final scene. Ray came to Paris in the late fifties and, when interviewed by Cahiers du cinéma, played right into Godard’s rhetoric: “My personal trademark has always been ‘I’m a stranger here myself’ . . . The quest for a fulfilled life is, I think, paradoxically solitary.” Breathless tries on such full-out romanticism, and likes the feel of it here and there; nevertheless, glancing at itself too often in the mirror, the film stares down this sentiment, and indeed itself, with irony.
Rossellini had been introduced to the Cahiers du cinéma équipe by André Bazin, and although it was Truffaut who served as the Italian filmmaker’s assistant from 1954 to 1957, Godard did discuss projects with him too. Breathless has been compared to Rossellini’s Rome Open City as a star-driven melodrama checked by its director’s tough urban neorealism. But I would highlight Machine to Kill Bad People, for its disorienting mixture of tones, its offhand cultural citations, and its direct reflections on cinema and death. Finally, Voyage to Italy, the masterpiece whose themes Godard would reprise in Contempt, can already be felt in Poiccard’s desire to take Patricia to Italy in a big car. But beyond film references, Rossellini inspired Godard to shoot quickly, to interrupt shooting when inspiration flagged, to use notes rather than a script, and to devise cheap technical solutions to logistical problems. Godard had originally slated Rossellini instead of Melville to play Parvulesco. And two years later, Godard would use Rossellini’s incendiary theater piece Les carabiniers as the basis for his film of that name.
The Godard-Rouch connection is increasingly obvious today. Just two months before he pitched Breathless to de Beauregard, Godard wrote, “Moi, un noir is the most daring and humblest of films . . . less perfect as cinema than many other current films . . . [yet] it makes all of them not only useless but almost odious . . . In calling his film Moi, un noir, Jean Rouch, who is white like Rimbaud, is saying like him, ‘I is Another.’ Thus his film is an open sesame to poetry.” Godard would immediately adopt Rouch’s crude aesthetic of handheld ethnographic camera, dubbed soundtrack, stories told by characters, throwaway film references (characters called Lemmy Caution, Dorothy Lamour, and Edgar G. Robinson), and an overall smart-aleck tone in which cinephilia meets up with documentary. Breathless could almost be called Chronicle of a Summer, the title Rouch would give his Paris essay filmed on many of the same streets and in the same manner twelve months later.
Uncomfortable with himself and allergic to much of postwar life, especially cinema, Godard would produce in Breathless the kind of aesthetic friction he felt in Ray, Rossellini, and Rouch, a friction that spilled over into their intransigent relations with producers and the larger public. All four were taken as difficult and disagreeable, representing the acerbic side of modernism, its refusal to please (or at least to do so easily). Breathless is indeed a hallmark of modernist cinema, as well as of modernism tout court. Godard forced the kind of confrontation between high and popular culture that energized the art world (Yves Klein, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein). Ingeniously, he scripted a chiasmus where an American girl is left to guard traditional artistic values (Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Faulkner) while the Frenchman, a reader only of newspapers, is a connoisseur of cars, particularly American ones. Cinematic modernism reaches a plateau when, while a crowd cheers Eisenhower and de Gaulle along the Champs-Élysées, the characters give the slip to the cops by hiding out in a movie theater that is playing Budd Boetticher’s Westbound. Michel and Patricia tenderly kiss in the dark against the violent sounds of the movie, but with Godard himself reciting a love poem by Louis Aragon as if it were Boetticher’s dialogue. The dramatic heat produced when distinct national cultures (both high and low) rub up against each other energized not just this corrosive movie but an entire movement, vigorous and critical: the nouvelle vague.
With Breathless, Godard forged to the front of this New Wave, which over the following half dozen years he would push beyond the breaking point, until he abandoned all vestiges of commercial filmmaking in the climate that produced the events of 1968. In his subsequent Dziga Vertov Group period, he recanted the aesthetic libertarianism that had made Breathless complicit, he intimated, with Michel Poiccard’s right-wing anarchism, and thus unwittingly an effect of bourgeois capitalist ideology. In 1975, having emerged from his most militant Maoist phase, Godard talked de Beauregard into helping underwrite a new project, Numéro 2: À bout de souffle. Ostensibly to commemorate their triumph fifteen years earlier, they determined, as a gimmick, that the new film’s budget would match that of its inexpensive predecessor. Godard referred to it as his “second first film,” completing what came to be called simply Numéro deux with Anne-Marie Miéville, for their company Sonimage. Despite the essay format it adopts instead of a plot, and despite the extensive use of video technology, Godard would continue to claim it as a remake of Breathless, if only to provoke viewers into interrogating both films. Although historian Michel Marie writes that their cost is the only thing that Breathless and Numéro deux share, I would claim that the latter abstracts the gender and media oppositions that gave Breathless such energy and pertinence.
More recently, Godard honored his first feature by making it an index of the century’s middle period. In a brief video essay that he put together in 2000 and called L’origine du XXIème siècle, Godard superimposed disturbing newsreel footage and clips from fiction films, in a time line broken into intervals of fifteen years. He grouped an extended montage of horrors around the title card “1975” and an equally ample series after “1945.” Between these he inserted but a single shot to stand for the period designated “1960”: Jean Seberg, nearly catatonic, thumb against lips, asks no one in particular, or asks us: “Qu’est-ce que c’est ‘dégueulasse’?” (the final line of Breathless). A symptom that he refuses to disown, Breathless is also a film and a stage that Godard and history have gone beyond. Yet even in his complex later works, Godard returns to the contradictions he fixed so indelibly in 1960, though increasingly through the lens of memory-images and historiography. Breathless is one of Godard’s (and our culture’s) reflex images, so acute and apt that it remains sharply in focus for anyone who cares about the cinema, about the West in 1960, or about ourselves at the onset of the twenty-first century.
This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2007 DVD edition of Breathless.