Streaming Review

Breathless review – Godard’s restless reinvention of cinema

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg aimlessly wander Paris in this hugely influential French New Wave classic - now restored in 4K

That infamous and massively influential debut film by Jean-Luc Godard, generally regarded as his best or at least his most beloved work, is now 60-years-old and returns to our screens with a brand new 4K restoration. Safe to say that Breathless, with its aimless, jazz-like appeal, has never looked – or sounded – better.

Few films are as famous for what they inspired as this one – as Roger Ebert once put it, “Modern movies begin here.” Watching it again, you can still feel Breathless paving the way for the future of cinema. What's also apparent is that as the decades pass the film retains a strange ability to keep its freshness – and Frenchness – in a way that seems to transcend the years. It is above all a work of undeniable flare – its loose-fitting plot of a wannabe gangster and his sort of girlfriend running rings around each other in 1950s Paris. Jean Seberg is luminous as journalist Patricia; Jean-Paul Belmondo equally so as Michel, the young man who kills a police officer, almost by accident, and goes on the run.

The brilliant irony is that Breathless set out to imitate the American movies and ended up changing the landscape of that very scene – most famously it influenced the work of Quentin Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction is another contender for “most cited influential film.” But there was also Bonnie and Clyde before that; and Terrence Malick's Badlands. Breathless taught them all how to break the rules, drawing the industry away from a history of stuffier, more formal studio pictures.

Having now seen it three or four times, I'm still struck by its ability to feel like something unfolding at random, Godard focusing on what are ostensibly the least interesting aspects of this crime story in favour of the things one would usually leave out. Of course, Breathless is a film that upturned the idea of what a movie should be about – a slice of life, cut from the headlines, rambling, anecdotal, act of cinematic blasphemy, shot on the fly. It is made a masterpiece, ironically, through the sheer act of trying to be just the opposite of that.

The bedroom scene, the film's best, generates its own singular brilliance – a kind of film-within-a-film that purposely defies the heavier plot that's going on in the background, reframing the restless romance of its leads as far more important than any murder. At 25 minutes in length, it sits right at the film's centre, our two lovers restless, attempting to understand their feelings for one another. Michel tries it on; Patricia repeatedly slaps him away. They talk about books. Patricia changes her clothes and each outfit somehow appears more iconic than the last. All the time it feels like Godard inventing the new cinematic form.

The lovers' dream comes crashing down, eventually, as a surprisingly sad and brutal ending awaits – just as Michel always predicted. Like a fish flung from a pond, he lies wounded on the street, fighting for air, struggling to speak: breathless. Even the title itself is a stroke of genius, so willing to accommodate a multitude of meanings; and we have of course marvelled at how the film has left audiences feeling breathless for six decades. Yet one imagines, based on its continued ability to stun and stupefy, it could just as well have been called Speechless.

The 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of Breathless is now available on digital formats, DVD and Blu-Ray.

Where to watch

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