1959 was a vintage year for cinema: North By Northwest, Rio Bravo, and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, a key film of the French New Wave...
Like Citizen Kane, it was a powerful cinematic debut, and deserves the label "revolutionary" because it changed the way films were made. Shot quickly and cheaply, it's an affectionate pastiche of American gangster flicks alongside an existential enquiry into love and death, freedom and betrayal.
Based on a scenario provided by fellow critic-turned-director Francois Truffaut, Breathless is infused with a postmodern sensibility, long before that term became common currency. It contains endless references to American cinema - to studios (it's dedicated to Monogram Pictures), actors (the trilby-sporting Michel models himself on Humphrey Bogart), and films (the skeletal narrative borrows from couple-on-the run B-movies). And, particularly in the long bedroom scene between the leads, there are quotations and allusions to diverse writers, artists and composers.
Forty years on and Breathless remains a stylistic tour de force. Filmed on the streets of Paris using hand-held cameras, it captures the youthful spirit of the French capital. Godard tears up the rule-book of classical Hollywood style, fragmenting his story with jump-cuts which constantly remind us we're watching a movie.
Breathless also endures because of the iconic performances of the leads. Both are struggling to understand their place in the world and to communicate with one another. "I don't know if I'm free because I'm unhappy or unhappy because I'm free", Seberg muses. But the show really belongs to Belmondo, a cooler-than-thou anti-hero who, with constant cigarette louchely dangling from his busy gob, oozes an enigmatic charm all his own. Allez voiant!
A welcome 40th anniversary re-release for one of cinema's landmarks. A pastiche of American gangster flicks, with added philosophical contemplation, Breathless jump-cuts through Paris with real panache.
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