As the French New Wave classic is restored in 4K, Iana Murray wonders how Godard's debut has kept its cool after six decades
A word that tends to come up a lot when people are talking about Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is “fresh.” It’s a strange label for a film that turned 60 this year, yet there’s a reason we keep coming back to it. Trends come and go, today’s big thing becomes ancient history tomorrow – but Breathless remains a cultural constant.
Yes, Breathless is still cool. The fact that it has not only withstood the test of time, but is still omnipresent in culture today, is a testament to this ineffable quality. It’s a trendsetter shrouded in cigarette smoke. Zoomers yearn for Jean-Paul Belmondo to the extent that fancam tributes exist. Meanwhile, Jean Seberg cemented herself as a très chic style icon with her New York Herald Tribune t-shirt – a garment that’s available with quite the price tag courtesy of the New York Times merch store. Perhaps nothing speaks to Godard’s longevity better than the countless TikToks dedicated to him.
On Breathless’ 40th anniversary, film critic Phillip Lopate wondered whether the film could still grab the attention of today’s youth. Would young people still be able to recognise Godard’s debut feature as a revolutionary art? The funny thing is that Breathless did, in fact, make an impact on 17-year-old me. My introduction came in the form of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (I know, sorry) and its low-budget film within-a-film parody Breathe Less. In that movie, a young cinephile clumsily stumbles down an alley, collapses, and takes a puff of an inhaler. It didn’t convert this budding filmgoer to Godard’s charms in the way Lopate likely intended, but the effect was the same – I wanted to be in on the joke.
The film's real ending is darker, of course. It’s the conclusion of an ephemeral and turbulent love affair between runaway criminal, Michel, and American journalist, Patricia. Michel has fled to Paris after stealing a car and murdering a police officer, and goes into hiding in Patricia’s apartment. The cops are right behind him. These beats aside, Breathless lacks an overarching plot. But the film carries itself alone on the qualities that people remember it by: Raoul Cotard’s slick black-and-white cinematography, the lightning chemistry between Seberg and Belmondo.
Breathless is also fascinated with Hollywood. Michel constantly imitates the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart, rubbing his thumb over his lip as a cigarette hangs from his mouth, as if pretending to be a film noir hero to disguise his criminal deeds. In turn, the invoking of Bogart operates as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy – no noir is complete without a tragic ending. That ability to comment on pop culture endured in cinema, even as Breathless itself became a reference point for future filmmakers. Frances Ha, to name one recent example, emulates the style of Godard and the French New Wave, transplanting it to a contemporary context. Like Godard before him, Noah Baumbach incorporated existing iconography to create a film both modern and timeless.
These references to Old Hollywood also feel like a knowing smirk before the film proceeds to defy all the conventions of its American predecessors. “The French cinema was a frank plagiarism of the American cinema,” François Truffaut wrote in his seminal essay, A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema. Enter Godard to prove that thesis both right and wrong, imitating American cinema but also setting out to contradict it.
With its frantic jump cuts and fourth wall breaking, Breathless ripped up the cinematic rule book. While certain scenes have a frantic, kinetic energy, with moments cut down to the bare essentials, the film also has a lengthy conversation in Patricia’s bedroom that traverses the most inconsequential topics. Godard skims the fat and wades in it. It’s this unpredictability that gives the film an eternally innovative edge – the “freshness” that's so frequently referred to. Often imitated, but never replicated.
There are surface-level aesthetics to admire – Paris is and always will be the pinnacle of cool – but in the end, it’s Godard’s sincerity that makes Breathless so transfixing. He didn’t break the rules in bitter retaliation, but because he was thrilled at the prospect of discovering what cinema was capable of. In the end, this is a film by a man who just loves movies. That pure, palpable excitement works like a shot straight to the heart. It’s infectious.
Not all of Breathless has aged brilliantly. Viewed without the rose-coloured glasses, the uncomfortable undercurrent of misogyny is all the more apparent. It’s clear in the way the camera leers at women, and also later when the film turns its back on Patricia and paints her as a back-stabbing snitch. But you can’t view Breathless as the be-all-end-all. It invited experimentation in order to be improved on. Breathless was only meant to be the beginning.
The film's legacy comes full circle in one pivotal scene. Patricia attends a press conference to interview renowned author Parvulesco (played by director Jean-Pierre Melville), but struggles to get a word in. As the other reporters bombard Parvulesco with lofty questions about love, Patricia speaks up and asks about his greatest ambition. His response: “To become immortal, and then die.” Leaving a mark on the world is the hope of any artist. Godard accomplished that with his very first film. Breathless might not be immortal – but it’s far from dead.
The 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of Breathless is now available on digital formats, DVD and Blu-Ray.