Breathless (1960)


Food: French movies call for French toast! Except not really French toast, but here are some of my favorite easy toast recipes for a quick snack.

Avocado Toast: Of course. Spread avocado onto a piece of toasted bread. Drizzle with olive oil and plenty of salt. You can add salmon and capers. Or a fried egg with arugula.

Banana Toast: Spread peanut butter on toasted bread. Slice small banana slices and spread out until toast is covered. Voila!

Mushroom Toast: Steam/heat button mushrooms. Spread marscapone cheese on toasted bread. Cover toast with heated mushrooms. It’s delicious.

Film: Jean Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (1960) has been on my list for a while. Starring the instant icon, Jean Seberg as Patricia, and Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel, this is Godard’s first feature film, paving the way for his longer career in French New Wave cinema that followed.

The French title is “Ă€ bout de souffle” which directly translates to “out of breath,” slightly more fitting to the nature of the story about a vagabond criminal, Michel, who models himself after the swagger of Humphrey Bogart. He is reckless and penniless, but charming enough to attract an American aspiring journalist, Patricia. Ambivalent and adventurous, she initially allows him to stay with her – unaware of the seriousness of his offenses. Where Michel is transparent, a wannabe tough guy, Patricia is enigmatic. It is consistently difficult to determine what she might be thinking about the situation she has found herself.

The naturalistic cinematography was partially Godard’s intention, as he tasks Raoul Coutard (cinematographer) to shoot the entire piece reminiscent of a documentary, with a hand held camera and next to no lighting. But much of it was Coutard’s creative solutions for this task, coming up with techniques which became influential in future of cinema. When they could not afford tracks for a tracking shot, he held the camera and had himself pushed in a wheelchair.  He found ways to create hand-held camera techniques even before lightweight cameras were available. He always made use of natural lighting.

“Breathless” was loosely based on a newspaper article that filmmaker François Truffaut found in The News in Brief about a man Michel Portail and his American girlfriend Beverly Lynette (what a great name!). In November 1952, Portail stole a car to visit his ailing mother, and ended up killing a motorcycle cop. Initially Truffaut was interested in work shopping the story, which he did with French director Claude Chabrol, but the two of them could not agree on a story structure, and eventually dropped the concept all together. Godard , however, liked the treatment of the story line and picked it up. Strangely, and now famously, Godard wrote this script as he went along, roughly working off the narrative around a “boy who thinks of death and of a girl who doesn’t.” There were also several inside references that film historians have pointed out. Godard partially based the character of Michel (besides being based off of Michel Portail) off of screenwriter Paul GĂ©gauff, who was a known womanizer. Perhaps, he inspired the characters suave air. Godard called Michel’s alias in the film “Laszlo Kovacs,” which is a reference to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in the 1959 film “Web of Passion.” When the film finished, Truffaut had envisioned a different ending in his version, once saying, ” “In my script, the film ends with the boy walking along the street as more and more people turn and stare after him, because his photo’s on the front of all the newspapers.” Godard’s ending was darker, but also spoke more deeply about the distrust and jadedness that spoils modern love.

“Breathless” as a whole is not solely a charming and eccentric crime drama that paved the way for French New Wave in 1960’s France. It had a much wider influence on Western cinema that is still seen today. The famous American film, “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) was heavily influenced by “Breathless” and is packed with visual references as a way of citation, such as Warren Beatty wearing a pair of round-rim black sunglasses missing one lens. Roger Ebert commented on this phenomenon saying, “young French directors discovered the poetry of crime in American life (from our movies) and showed the Americans how to put it on the screen in a new, ‘existential’ way.” During Hollywood Golden Age (1967 – 1974), there was an immediate surge of films inspired by the French New Wave prompted by “Breathless” such as “Badlands” (1973), “Chinatown” (1974), “Belle du Jour” (1967), “Valley of the Dolls” (1967), “The Graduate” (1967), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Love Story” (1970)… all of which of the top of my head embody the character and plot ambiguity that was a major trait in Godard’s movies. This meandering and dialogue-heavy filmmaking style proceeded to continue to influence cinema either directly or through influenced films. “Lost in Translation” (2003), “True Romance” (1993), and “Before Sunrise” (1993) all seem to focus on male and female characters coming to terms with choices they have made, who they want to be, and how gender dynamics plays a role in society, love relationships and friendship. Films that were successful with minimal plot, which rely on endearing chemistry between two lead characters all tend to feel like reverberations from the French New Wave.

From jump cuts to handheld shots, from themes to character traits, and probably much more, the influence of “Breathless” is reason enough for film lovers to watch this one. But as a stand alone piece, it is a dreamy and provocative crime drama that takes place in the streets of Paris, which thrives in the performances of two likable budding stars.

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