France 1960, 90 mins
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

‘We barged into cinema like cavemen into the Versailles of Louis the Fifteenth.’ (Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s first feature is as fresh as ever after [in 1988] nearly thirty years. If Truffaut’s debut, The 400 Blows, beats it to their common style, this more mercurial, coolly pathos-free, follow-up wonderfully complements its stable-mate. Godard and Truffaut’s briefly shared style (regularly misattributed to the New Wave as a whole) was one response to an unprecedented conjunction of inspirations and opportunities. Technical developments suddenly extended the range, finesse and facility of reality-watching, and of expressive formalisms, and of their combination. Production costs plummeted. New youth and art-house audiences coincided with new subject matter: a bourgeois cultural revolution in sexual morality, social mobility, cosmopolitanism, education. The Cahiers ethos was largely bourgeois or conservative, and Breathless is entirely and radically incompatible with the mid-60s bourgeois-left-radicalisms which mistook Godard for a cultural leader.

This irresistibly insolent movie remains vivid witness to its era, in a manner transcending journalism and nostalgia alike. It’s not just its observation of significant forms then new (sunglasses all over, the skirts whose freely billowing forms Michel abuses, his wide-boy clothes, Jean Seberg’s cropped hair, the film’s MJQ-style cool jazz, its bleached-and-fidgety look). There’s a deeper resonance with a new, and crucial, social stratum, a virtual lumpenbourgeoisie, mixing young media people, hip students, criminal money getting into the leisure industry (like Tolmatchoff’s), smart-thoughtful spiv-drifters like Michel. His Cinecittà job appropriately evokes the overlapping world of La dolce vita. This film’s specific issues (underworld loyalty, love’s treachery) vividly paraphrase the alienation from old moral expectations that was swiftly spreading amongst educated youth. In particular: sexual transactions, freed at last from moral disrepute, promptly seemed void, because innocuous; and moral free-thinking unleashed so many moral codes as virtually to compel sensations of treachery.

Michel personifies a not uncommon mixture of (a)moral ideals: a French strain of ‘live dangerously’ macho; Bogartian mellow; anarcho-romanticism; and Sartre’s admiration for criminal outsiders as nay-sayers of great integrity; all combined with realistic pettiness, ignominy and callowness (Michel’s perfect indifference at killing a man). The problems and paradoxes of such positions win Michel our sympathy as a morally honest loser, as lucidly foreseen in his, and the film’s, first speech: ‘After all, I’m a cunt. But – one must!’ That mix of absurdism and voluntarism inspires Michel’s mime, the set of facial expressions that becomes a leitmotif. He sets his jaw (or silently screams?), smiles (or shows his teeth?), and scowls (or looks worried), then thoughtfully rubs his thumb along his lips. As if to say: ‘All attitudes are arbitrary. But – one must!’ Patricia represents a less heroic, more viable mixture: bourgeois egoist, little girl lost, early feminist. She’s Bardot’s drier, more cerebral, soul-sister, but also, alas, an American Friend (in Wenders’ sense); her treachery contrasts with two crooks’ loyalty. Belmondo and Seberg play with rare finesse, pulling us right inside their potentially derisory characters.

Not that the film is a simple choice, or conflict, between their specific positions. Godard’s subtle and mordant dialogue involves a wide range of a-/anti-moral positions, extending his film’s ‘content’ far beyond its narrative (which can rarely structure, and never define, a text’s meanings). Here Godard applies his gifts as philosophical prankster to a certain morality of action, as thoroughly as Week End will involve itself with an absence of morality in action. The earlier film is traditional drama, in that Godard still feels with and through characters in situations; Week End progressively foreshortens them while refocusing on (and, alas, resenting and refusing) language and form.

In Breathless, the traditional method allows Godard to keep playing his ace, the intimation of moral and philosophical issues and finesses through casual, conversational terms. This essentially verbal strength is concentrated in four sequences: Michel’s drive to Paris (a fine filmic ‘soliloquy’), the lovers’ dialogues, the Parvulesco interview, and the finale. Much of the rest is mechanical stuff, though saved by context and speed. In the interiors, the results of ‘wheelchair-camera’ almost justify the technicians’ derision – and Seberg’s distress – at the production. The plethora of half-averted faces and backs-of-heads facilitated add-on dialogue during post-synching, Fellini-style, and induce an – entirely appropriate – psycho-moral unease. The editing corroborates stories that Godard, having shot without knowing the continuity rules, vainly strove to edit the film conventionally until, with desperate inspiration, he topped and tailed every shot, leaving the middle sections juxtaposed by jump cuts. Which intensifies the flip, hip feeling of the new, jazzy, free-form montage idiom established by Truffaut.

Godard works it very skilfully, the fusillades of close-ups of Jean Seberg’s head having a Miles Davis feel. Some fine ‘classical’ effects occur, notably in the killing of the cop, where cutting wonderfully expresses reflex, panic, switched fate. The Griffithian iris-ins evoke lost purity. The looks and direct address into camera, far from inducing Brechtian alienation, or spectator guilt over ‘voyeurism’, suggest sincerity (even via insolence), thus intensifying spectator identification. The subtitle dedicating the film to Monogram is a vague gesture, or ploy to amaze critics, excuse cheap flaws, plead unpretentiousness, and underline this film’s enormous differences from Monogram’s notoriously, and really dull, dim product. Despite the movie references, the film’s genre ingredients are all French noir: humanly vulnerable gangsters (Becker, Melville), doomed lovers, treacherous women, finessed psychology, alfresco realism à la Renoir. Its soul-brother is Shoot the Pianist (also 99.9% French, notwithstanding its literary source). The two films’ gangster-waif overtones might just be Truffaut’s input. No Chabrol touch is discernible, though his commercially ‘hot’ name must have reassured the producer.
Raymond Durgnat, Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1988

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Companies: Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie, Productions Georges de Beauregard (Paris), Impéria
Producer: Georges de Beauregard
Assistant Director: Pierre Rissient
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Based on an original idea by: François Truffaut
Director of Photography: Raoul Coutard
Camera Operator: Claude Beausoleil
Stills Photography: Raymond Cauchetier
Editor: Cécile Decugis
Assistant Editor: Lila Herman
Make-up: Phuong Maittret
Music: Martial Solal
Music Extracts: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sound: Jacques Maumont
Artistic/Technical Adviser: Claude Chabrol
This film is dedicated to: Monogram Pictures

Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard, ‘Laszlo Kovacs’)
Jean Seberg (Patricia Franchini)
Henri-Jacques Huet (Antonio Berrutti)
Liliane David (Liliane)
Daniel Boulanger (Inspector Vital)
Liliane Robin (Minouche)
Roger Hanin (Carl Zubart)
Van Doude (Editor Van Doude)
Claude Mansard (Claudius Mansard)
Michel Favre (2nd inspector)
Jean-Pierre Melville (author Parvulesco)
Jean-Luc Godard (informer)
Jean-Louis Richard (journalist)
Jean Domarchi (drunk)
Richard Balducci (Tolmatchoff)
André S. Labarthe (journalist at Orly)
François Moreuil (photographer at Orly)
Jacques Siclier
Michel Mourlet
Jean Douchet (passer-by)
Philippe de Broca
Guido Orlando
Jacques Serguine
R.S. Louiguy
Virginie Ullmann
Emile Villion
José Bénazéraf
Madame Paul
Raymond Ravanbaz

France 1960
90 mins

Breathless (À bout de souffle)
Wed 1 Feb 14:30; Tue 14 Feb 20:50; Fri 24 Feb 18:20
Le Mépris (Contempt)
Wed 1 Feb 18:10; Fri 17 Feb 20:50
Daughters of the Dust
Wed 1 Feb 18:15; Thu 16 Feb 20:30
Sans Soleil
Wed 1 Feb 20:40; Fri 17 Feb 18:00
M (Mörder unter uns)
Thu 2 Feb 14:30; Thu 16 Feb 20:40; Wed 22 Feb 18:00
Thu 2 Feb 20:45; Tue 14 Feb 20:30
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
Fri 3 Feb 20:40; Sun 5 Feb 20:40; Sat 18 Feb 18:10
Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin)
Sat 4 Feb 12:40; Sat 18 Feb 18:30
La dolce vita
Sat 4 Feb 14:15; Sat 25 Feb 19:30
Sherlock Jr.
Sat 4 Feb 17:20; Sat 11 Feb 11:45
City Lights
Sat 4 Feb 17:20; Sat 11 Feb 11:45
Sat 4 Feb 20:10; Wed 15 Feb 20:10
North by Northwest
Sat 4 Feb 20:20; Thu 9 Feb 18:00
Sun 5 Feb 12:15; Tue 14 Feb 18:30; Wed 22 Feb 14:30
Rear Window
Sun 5 Feb 12:20; Fri 24 Feb 20:45
Sun 5 Feb 17:40; Tue 7 Feb 20:10; Sun 26 Feb 14:00
Mon 6 Feb 20:30; Sun 12 Feb 13:20
Mon 6 Feb 20:45; Mon 20 Feb 14:30; Thu 23 Feb 20:40
8 1/2 (Otto e mezzo)
Tue 7 Feb 18:00; Tue 21 Feb 14:30; Sun 26 Feb 12:50
The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri)
Tue 7 Feb 18:10; Sat 25 Feb 11:50
News from Home
Tue 7 Feb 20:45; Fri 17 Feb 18:20 (+ intro)
Rashomon (Rashômon)
Tue 7 Feb 21:00; Thu 23 Feb 18:20
The Piano
Wed 8 Feb 20:35; Tue 21 Feb 17:50
Thu 9 Feb 20:30 (+ intro by Jason Wood, BFI Executive Director of Public Programmes & Audiences); Sat 18 Feb 18:20
Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf)
Thu 9 Feb 20:55; Mon 27 Feb 18:00
Ordet (The Word)
Fri 10 Feb 18:15; Sat 25 Feb 14:30
The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups)
Fri 10 Feb 20:50; Sun 19 Feb 18:40
Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)
Sat 11 Feb 11:50; Mon 20 Feb 20:55; Thu 23 Feb 14:30
Barry Lyndon
Sat 11 Feb 19:20; Sat 25 Feb 15:30
Some Like It Hot
Sun 12 Feb 13:30; Tue 14 Feb 18:10
The Third Man
Sun 12 Feb 18:30; Tue 21 Feb 20:40
Killer of Sheep
Sun 12 Feb 18:40 (+intro); Sat 18 Feb 20:40
Mirror (Zerkalo)
Mon 13 Feb 20:50; Tue 28 Feb 20:50
Pather Panchali
Sat 18 Feb 20:30; Tue 21 Feb 20:35; Sun 26 Feb 15:45
The Apartment
Wed 22 Feb 20:35; Sun 26 Feb 12:40

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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