Breathless (1960)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Drama, Urban Drama, Psychological Drama  |   Release Date - Feb 7, 1961 (USA)  |   Run Time - 92 min.  |   Countries - France   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Jonathan Crow

A loving pastiche of film noir yet an exuberant slap in the face of Hollywood convention, A bout de souffle is a movie landmark that wowed early 1960s audiences with its ultra-cool swagger, amoral outlook, and energetic style. Adopting a loose and shaggy narrative structure, the film follows Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a two-bit thug who models himself on Humphrey Bogart, steals from unsuspecting lovers, and, like the protagonist in Albert Camus's The Stranger, kills for no apparent reason, as he chases after debts, commits larceny, and tries to bed Patricia (Jean Seberg). Shot with hand-held cameras in natural light, the film has the gritty, documentary-like feel of such Italian Neo-Realist classics as The Bicycle Thief and Rome Open City, yet its visual style also breaks every cinematic rule in the book: characters and extras stare directly into the camera, edits occur in mid-shot, and the camera seems willfully restless. In the process, director Jean-Luc Godard gleefully breaks the illusion of reality, always reminding the audience that it is watching a movie. Ever the film buff, Godard packs this film with allusions drawn equally from American pop culture and high art: Nicholas Ray is referenced alongside Dylan Thomas, a 1956 Thunderbird Coupe alongside William Faulkner's Wild Palms. Godard's iconoclastic style, coupled with his constant referencing, might give the impression that the film is a vast inside joke, were it not tempered with a deep existential pathos for its characters. During the famous bedroom sequence, we witness Michel and Patricia, two thoroughly unlikable figures, try and ultimately fail to forge some sort of bond; they are too involved in their worlds to connect. Fran├žois Truffaut once remarked, "There is the cinema before Godard and the cinema after Godard." A bout de souffle is the masterpiece that launched Godard's career and, in so doing, changed the face of cinema.