There is a dichotomy between films before Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de Souffle) and those that followed. With its unlikeable protagonist, meandering storyline, swanky James Bond music, and daring sex references, Breathless is, in many ways, the first modern movie. Perhaps this was because of the happy marriage of talents. It was directed and written respectively by two pillars of the French New Wave. After directing a number of short films, Jean-Luc Godard joined forces with François Truffaut who had arrived on the scene a few years before.
As what could reasonably be called the ultimate film of the French New Wave, Breathless is clearly a movie lover’s movie. Throughout there are references to Humphrey Bogart and the Europeans’ love of silent cinema. Interestingly, the first dialogue that comes from Michel, the disenchanted hood played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, is classic stream-of-consciousness lingo. Michel even breaks the fourth wall, and this effectively feels more intrusive and aptly illustrates what a self-centered jerk he is.
Michel treats women like objects, is a misogynist, consorts prostitutes, and sleeps with women at his leisure. He wants to be seductive, charming, adventurous, and full of mystery, but it’s just a façade. He’s really just self-absorbed. Michel so wants to be an action movie hero, however, that he has become disconnected from the real world.
The real world has real consequences, however, and the gun that he was playing with at the beginning of the film really does get used when he shoots dead a policeman. The scene is especially powerful thanks to Godard’s trademark use of jump-cuts. We see the officer arriving, there is a cut to the gun, we hear a shot, and then a quick edit of the body tumbling, and finally a shot of Michel running through a field. This one scene we are seeing through Michel’s eyes. This murder originated from his childish play (the cop was chasing him for stealing the car) and he never saw any humanity in the officer. We don’t either, for that matter. We never see his face or hear him talk much beyond telling Michel to freeze. We don’t even see him die. Godard’s jump-cuts are especially useful in alienating us from the experience. It all happens to quickly and too sketchily for us to care much about the murder, because that is the way it all seemed to Michel.
What current actor hasn’t played a character like Michel? Jude Law did in Closer and Jonathan Rhys-Myers in Match Point. He has had such a huge influence into the seductive yet selfish male persona.
Ultimately, Breathless is a movie about empty lives. Exactly what is Michel’s purpose in living? We never see him do anything other than talk about sex, money, or driving aimlessly. It’s a self-indulgent and empty life. He lives only to serve himself. Could this be Godard’s comment on French society?
He doesn’t even love his girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American making her way selling copies of the New York Tribune in Paris. Godard may have been the first director to paint a portrait of the City of Romance completely devoid of love. Patricia is an intriguing character, and the most curious thing about her is why she stays with Michel. Even his compliments to her are callous, “You rank an 8 out of 10.”
Patricia is a confused girl. She came to France to experience life, but doesn’t really (or is deliberately blind) to the nature of the people she is meddling with. She is like a Henry James heroine, a naïve American not savvy enough to survive in European society. She keeps asking, “What is your greatest ambition?”
It’s an empty question because no one in this film has one. Furthermore, it is ironic that she quotes Faulkner with, “Between grief and nothing, I’ll take nothing.” Fittingly, Michel agrees because their lives are nothing. Just look at how casually they discuss Patricia’s pregnancy and the large probability that it will be Michel’s child.
Godard’s jump-cuts once again are an effective way of removing us from the intimacy (or lack of) in Michel and Patricia’s sex life. “Can one still believe in love in our time?” Patricia asks. It seems like the movie’s answer is no and there is no love between them. Nor is there any difference between eroticism and love, another question the movie ponders.
In addition to the jump-cuts, Godard employs his famous external sounds (like a car horn or ambulance) to cover escalating conversation. The very banes of modern life that Michel complains of produce the sounds that keep cutting off his dialogue. His fanciful visions of a grander life are subdued by the ugly reality that created those sounds. Cars are a prevalent theme in the movie. From the car that Michel steals in the beginning, cars in Breathless play the same role they did in Fellini’s 8 1/2. Everyone is trapped in their own car, breeding their own selfishness.
Patricia, however, evolves more than Michel ever does. She sounds like a completely different person when she speaks her native tongue, and the allure of Europe is gone. Most revealingly, she is not that naïve. If anything, she becomes more involved with Michel after learning of the brutality of his crime. If it’s because she has, by this point, become too seduced with the low-life then how are we to interpret her next move? When Michel’s goal of moving to Rome seems finally about to be realized, Patricia turns him in to the police. Even here, it is clear that her intentions may not be as clear cut as they seem, but maybe Michel’s last words before his doomed attempt to escape contain a clue.
“I’m fed up. I’m tired. I want to sleep,” says the exhausted thug. Even Michel can have too much to lose. Apparently so did Patricia, but she too may have realized this too late. If her last line which closes the film with a close-up of her face proves anything it’s that she is, in the end, all too similar to Michel.