Jean-Paul Belmondo might not be a household name to most Americans, but the French actor, who turns 80 next month, has enjoyed a stellar career encompassing some 60 films, ranging from rollicking comedies to elegant historical melodramas.
But Belmondo will likely best be remembered for his breakthrough role as a small-time hoodlum in a little film called "À bout de soufflé" ("Breathless"), released in 1960.
Directed by a 28-year-old novice named Jean-Luc Godard, "Breathless" represented the high water mark of France’s Nouvelle Vague ("New Wave") movement, which saw a group of intellectual Parisian cinephiles reject the stuffy formality of mainstream French films and revel in an anarchic style that rendered straight narratives irrelevant and celebrated a free-flowing, carefree visual style.
In keeping with the thrifty, do-it-yourself ethos of French New Wave cinema, "Breathless" had a small budget -- about $90,000, one-sixth of which went to American starlet Jean Seberg, only 21, who fled bad reviews in Hollywood to try her luck in European films.
Godard’s very first feature, "Breathless," offered a rather simple plot: Belmondo plays Michel, a low-level, wannabe gangster who loves American crime films and pretends he’s Humphrey Bogart. He steals a car in Marseilles, shoots and kills a policeman who chases him, then ends up a fugitive in Paris with a slim, boyish, but very sexy, blonde American girl named Patricia, played by Seberg, who doesn’t yet know he’s a criminal on the run.
While in Paris, Patricia unwittingly hides Michel from the cops, while he tries to seduce her (ultimately with success). When the police finally catch up to them, Patricia learns her erstwhile lover murdered a policeman, is married to another woman and has several aliases, and promptly betrays him. Michel accepts his grim fate as he is shot to death in the film’s closing scene.
Beyond the rudimentary plot, Godard thrilled and confounded audiences with such innovations as sudden jump-cuts (where the same subject is shot sequentially but with different cameras at slightly different angles), a disjointed plot, realistic lighting, location shooting, meandering dialogue, grainy overexposure and erratic hand-held camera movements.
Such nuances of depicting action and dialogue have since become familiar to cinema audiences across the world, hardly attracting much attention anymore. But at the time, such gimmicks were quite novel.
Richard Neupert, a film studies professor at the University of Georgia who has written extensively about European cinema, said "Breathless" caused an immediate sensation among 1960 audiences, presenting a radically different type of film experience.
Constantly experimenting, Godard wrote and amended the script as filming progressed -- adding to the sense of improvisation, spontaneity and unpredictability.
Presaging the global youth revolution of the 1960s (and coming eight years ahead of the May 1968 student riots in France, which Godard himself supported), the two protagonists of "Breathless" are narcissistic, amoral, self-obsessed, yet oddly naive and utterly dismissive of and oblivious to authority figures.
"Breathless" also featured a strong undercurrent of sexuality -- not explicitly, but the lovemaking of the protagonists was implied by an unusually long scene in bed where Michel and Patricia are having a rambling, post-coital conversation (an unprecedented episode in cinema, Neupert said).
This low-budget film, which has a threadbare plot and was made in less than three weeks, influenced the generation of filmmakers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, including famed American auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Arthur Penn -- the latter’s “Bonnie and Clyde” from 1967 might be considered an American (and far more violent) version of “Michel and Patricia.”
Indeed, the august British Film Institute anointed "Breathless" as the 13th best film of all time in its 2012 poll.
Essentially, the film reflects Godard’s love of American movies of the 1940s and '50s, particularly film noir and B-grade gangster pictures -- where "good" and "bad" guys were not clearly delineated and moral resolutions were fleeting.
Godard’s two stars, Seberg and Belmondo, were reportedly perplexed and frustrated by the film as shooting progressed -- the project seemed to be going in circles, with no resolution. They usually were not provided with dialogue for scenes until just before shooting -- putting them on edge and off-balance.
The actors had neither the time for rehearsals nor a chance to build psychological motivations for their characters, Neupert noted.
“Sometimes the characters look a bit irritated in the movie, and that is their actual impatience and frustration [with Godard],” Neupert added.
The finished product, much to the actors’ astonishment, was beautiful to look at and strangely compelling, despite the absence of standard fundamentals like tangible, linear plots and fully realized characterizations.
On the surface, "Breathless" is simply a gangster picture -- but the wily Godard turns the audience’s expectations upside-down.
"Breathless" makes the viewer think and challenges his or her values -- is Michel really a bad guy? Does he belong to a criminal organization or is he fake "tough guy" working alone? Does he love Patricia or is he just trying to sleep with her? Why does Patricia protect him? Is Patricia really an aspiring journalist as she claims, or just whiling away her time in France to avoid finding a job and adopting real responsibilities? Is she with Michel out of boredom or out of a real passion for him?
Moreover, with his broad, flat, busted nose (he was a former boxer) and hangdog expression, Belmondo was hardly the conventional handsome “leading man” -- a circumstance that may have led to “ordinary” looking actors like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman becoming film superstars in the following decade.
By flouting such conventions, Godard makes us aware of the “artifice” of art, said Steve Alford, professor of humanities at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
For example, Michel (himself obsessed with movie images) seems to be playing the role of a “tough gangster” as exemplified in American films -- he stares at himself in the mirror, fiddling with his stylish fedora and trying out “tough guy stares.” He also smokes constantly, just like the celluloid gangsters he adores. Thus, Michel is himself a creation of the make-believe world of films.
Patricia is also rather hollow and inscrutable.
In a memorable scene, Patricia attends a crowded press conference where reporters are peppering a famous author (played by real-life director Jean-Pierre Melville) with maudlin questions about love. After she asks him what his greatest ambition in life is, the author boldly declares: “to become immortal and die.” The camera then lingers on Patricia’s face as she apparently contemplates the author’s answer -- but, in reality, it’s for the audience to decide the value of his response, and Patricia’s reaction to it.
Michel and Patricia are both lost souls, wandering aimlessly through life and perhaps deluding themselves into thinking they’re fully formed people (no doubt, conditions quite familiar to many in the audience). They are neither good nor bad, neither heroes nor villains.
Godard has completely obscured the normal film conventions and invited the audience into his anarchic world where they must abandon their safe expectations.
The film’s documentary-style immediacy -- in place of contrived, staged scenes -- can be partly attributed to the talents of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who spent years as a photojournalist in Vietnam during the French-Indochina war.
Alford also posits that Godard’s deeply held Marxist views were subtly suffused into the film -- not as an explicit portrait of the problems of the proletariat, but rather as a form of contemplation on the very nature and purpose of art.
If we as viewers, bored and frustrated at Godard’s refusal to conform to our expectations for a film, reflect on the nature of film and its economic connections to the larger structure of capitalist power in the world, he is doing his job as an artist, Alford stated.
Born to privilege, Godard believed that capitalism’s oppressive economic structure affects all levels of human interaction, from being in love, to working at a job, to watching movies, Alford added.
Thus, to Godard, films with straightforward narratives and which are designed for pure crowd-pleasing entertainment are meant to make the workers (i.e., the majority of the audience) temporarily forget their economic dependence upon and exploitation by the bosses -- thereby exacerbating the profound inequalities inherent in Western, capitalist societies by remaining passive consumers.
“Thinking is dangerous, and might upset the economic structure which has made the bosses rich and powerful,” Alford said. “The 1 percent elite want people to go to movies to see stories which convince them that everything is OK in the world.”
To Godard, plot is irrelevant -- he is not interested in telling us stories, but rather teaching us how to see.
Since Godard is an artist -- as opposed to a commercial filmmaker seeking to generate huge box office revenues -- Alford explains that Godard believes that he can best change the capitalist system by producing artistic works whose form is radically different from those produced by bourgeois film directors.
Godard himself provided some clues to his peculiar philosophy about moviemaking, which could easily be applied to "Breathless." In a diary entry from the early 1990s, he wrote "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." In Richard Roud’s 1970 study of Godard’s films, the director was quoted as saying: “The cinema is not an art which films life: The cinema is something between art and life.”
Perhaps no director owes a greater debt to "Breathless" than the American Quentin Tarantino, whose films "Reservoir Dogs,"’ "True Romance" and "Pulp Fiction" offer a virtual homage to Godard’s’ masterpiece – including loquacious wannabe tough guys, stylish but insecure anti-heroes, amoral women, philosophical musings and meandering plots.
However, given his mercurial nature, Godard subsequently downplayed the significance of "Breathless" -- his biggest hit and most-discussed work -- over his long subsequent career (which comprised some five dozen features through the next five decades). Godard’s films of the late 1960s and 1970s would become more stridently Marxist, including “Numero Deux” and "Sauve qui peut (la vie).”
Belmondo and Godard are now touchstones of French cinema, heralded around the world as giants of postwar European film.
But the other member of the "Breathless" triumvirate, Seberg, would endure a tragic and brief life, suffering through a series of abusive relationships with men. The last straw was the FBI’s campaign of harassment due to her left-wing political views and, in particular, her support of the Black Panther movement.
Under orders from J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI smeared Seberg by claiming she became impregnated by a Black Panther member – the accusation was a lie, but it led to a miscarriage of the baby.
She eventually committed suicide in 1979 at age 41.
"Breathless" remains one of the holy trinity of French New Wave cinema, along with Claude Chabrol’s "Le Beau Serge" (1958) and François Truffaut’s "The 400 Blows" (1959). Incidentally, both Chabrol (technical adviser) and Truffaut (original story) played roles in the development of "'Breathless," a coming out party for an artistic movement that changed our views of how films should look, feel and sound.