I've never seen … Breathless

The pretty girl, the bad boy, the Champs-Élysées ... nope, never seen Jean-Luc Godard’s debut masterpiece. But I know what it’s about – don’t I?

I’ve never seen a Jean-Luc Godard movie. Or, I hadn’t, until this assignment. I know, embarrassing, especially for a so-called film critic. I’ve long blamed this gap in my knowledge on the fact that I didn’t take a first year university course in French New Wave cinema, but I know as well as anyone you don’t need to be a student to study. It’s not even that the Nouvelle Vague is a blind spot, necessarily – I’m an admirer of other films from the movement, such as Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, Agnés Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I’ve been known to treat my lack of interest in Godard’s filmography as something of a comedy bit, joking that I simply prefer Truffaut (he’s less of a basic bitch).

With French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma (RIP) back in the news after its writers quit en masse this February, it feels like an appropriate time to revisit some of the film-makers made famous by the magazine following its launch in 1951. Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol, Truffaut, and, yes, fine, Godard, were early champions of auteurism, the theory that the director is king. Now the most widely accepted way to read a film, at the time it represented radical rejection of commercial cinema, which tailored to a studio’s whims and centred on the screenwriter. And so, with some trepidation, I cued up Godard’s first and most famous film, his 1960 debut À Bout de Souffle.

I know this film, I thought, despite never having watched it. I know the monochrome imagery, the jump cuts, the cigarette dangling from Jean-Paul Belmondo’s mouth. I know Jean Seberg’s Breton stripes, her gamine pixie haircut and her New York Herald Tribune T-shirt. What I didn’t know was what the film was actually about. Something about a guy, and a girl, and a car, I’d guessed. Turns out, I wasn’t far off.

Michel (Belmondo) steals a car and shoots a policeman; attempting to lay low in Paris, he ends up in the hotel room of former fling Patricia (Seberg), an American studying at the Sorbonne. The plot is inspired by film noir, but the vérité-style handheld camera, real locations and naturalistic speech transform it from a pulpy gangster thriller into a hangout movie. There’s sex, betrayal and an antihero to anchor the narrative, but hard-boiled dialogue is swapped for digressive, philosophical rambling, in-jokes and winking addresses to the audience. “I’m a sonofabitch,” Michel says, direct to camera. Ah, I realised. This is what people mean when they say Godard changed the grammar of cinema.

Godard’s influence on New Hollywood cinema and directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Brian de Palma started to become clear, especially in the constant chatter and casual violence. And, I guess, the sexism. Michel is a self-described scumbag but it doesn’t quite let him off the hook for declaring all women drivers “cowardice personified”, refusing to pick up two female hitchhikers because they’re “too ugly” and the fetishisation of Patricia’s constituent body parts. I imagine Godard thought it romantic to describe the lovely “gleam” in Patricia’s eyes that emerged when she was “afraid and confused”. I found it disturbing. In another scene, Patricia is trying to have an intelligent conversation about William Faulkner. “Show me your toes,” replies a horny, distracted Michel (hello, Quentin Tarantino).

Still, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t hate it at all. I found myself drawn in by the irrepressible buoyancy of its narrative rhythms. I liked how the improvised jazz score creates the feeling of spontaneity. I was into the spirited sexual energy that animates the film and, clearly, the film-maker as Paris entered a new decade after the stifling conformity of the 1950s. Which Godard film shall I watch next?


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
I've never seen … Rocky
An underdog fighter wins hearts and respect – then gets punched below the belt by the jingoism of Reagan’s America

Paul Simon

15, Apr, 2020 @8:59 AM

Article image
I've never seen … Gandhi
Richard Attenborough’s epic, starring Ben Kingsley as a speechifying version of the Indian independence hero, takes some breathtaking liberties with history

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty

01, Jun, 2020 @11:31 AM

Article image
I've never seen … Metropolis
As part of a new series, one of our writers finally catches up with the cinematic classic they’ve somehow missed. Today, Stuart Jeffries watches Fritz Lang’s pioneering sci-fi epic

Stuart Jeffries

27, Mar, 2020 @1:10 PM

Article image
I've never seen … Top Gun
Jock aversion stopped one writer from catching the Tom Cruise film that launched a thousand action sequences. But how is a film so influential so unimaginative?

Ryan Gilbey

16, Apr, 2020 @8:35 AM

Article image
I've never seen ... Titanic
I knew the plot, the song ... so could James Cameron’s blockbuster surprise me? No, but a young Leonardo DiCaprio goes rogue and lifts this sinking ship

Xan Brooks

23, Apr, 2020 @8:24 AM

Article image
I've never seen … Con Air
Bare-chested fist-fights, loud guitar riffs, a billowing American flag and Malkovich turned up to 11. This is a cheese-filled treat

Sirin Kale

19, Jun, 2020 @1:11 PM

Article image
I've never seen ... Heaven's Gate
Forty years after its release the largest critical and commercial flop of its era has undergone a remarkable critical reappraisal. Is it really worth sitting through three-and-a-half hours?

Zach Vasquez

10, Jun, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
I've never seen … Solaris
Tarkovsky’s mysterious epic – a response to the ‘phoniness’ of 2001: A Space Odyssey – draws you into its melancholic dreamworld superbly

Nick Shave

01, May, 2020 @3:34 PM

Article image
I've never seen … The Shawshank Redemption
This enduring, much-loved classic about wrongful incarceration and dreams of liberation is an unlikely but irresistible joy in the lockdown era

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

08, Apr, 2020 @4:27 PM

Article image
I've never seen ... Doctor Zhivago
Would David Lean’s epic Russian-revolution romance stir my heart or leave me stone-cold? Well, all the balalaikas set my teeth on edge from the start

Anne Billson

06, May, 2020 @9:00 AM