Breathless (in French À Bout de Souffle, which translates to ‘at breath’s end’) remains one of the most celebrated films of the French New Wave movement. Based on a treatment by fellow New Wave director Truffaut, who had released his superb The 400 Blows a year before in 1959, Breathless took its inspiration from the hard-boiled noir films of the 1940s.
The plot is minimal. Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmonda) is a young hood, obsessed with Humphrey Bogart to the point of mimicking the old star’s tick of running his thumb over his lips. Michel casually shoots and kills a cop, before heading to Paris to meet up with a young American he is mixed up with, Patricia (Jean Seberg). She is a newspaper street vendor, not sure if she loves him. She aspires to become a journalist and she’s been experimenting with her feelings.
The narrative is as simple as that. Cool is a big part of Breathless. Michel is obsessed with his image, a cigarette is never too far from his mouth and we always feel as though he’s not as tough as he’d like us to think. The characters are relaxed and fresh, but cool and detached, seemingly just as comfortable with shooting police as they are making love.
Considering how much Godard draws on classical Hollywood cinema in the film, it’s odd that Breathless could arguably be seen as the exact opposite of the films that shaped it. The essentials of a classic noir are there; the shootouts, the gritty visuals, the criminals, but the staple techniques of classical Hollywood cinema are nowhere to be seen. Godard throws continuity editing out in favor of the accidental jump cuts, the narrative meanders around without ever really heading anywhere and it’s difficult to establish just exactly whether the character’s motivations are having any impact on the plot whatsoever. But it was a style that stuck and cinema was changed forever.