“Breathless” (1960) – Chris Luedtke

Anyone unfamiliar to classic noir wouldn’t raise an eyebrow to the 1960 French film Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard. They would probably dismiss it as some hokey, two-bit, cheesy piece of nostalgia that’s been shoddily done. But noir buffs know that smoky rooms, back alleyways, and blond bombshell fatales are always on the list, creating eerie underworlds always familiar to reality. These are places where nothing goes right and everything is allowed to go wrong. Breathless manages to follow few of these rules while shattering the classic delivery and reinventing the genre.

Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young thief in love with American journalist Patricia (Jean Seberg). During a drive, Michel is pursued by two police officers, which results in the death of one. Fleeing the scene, Michel has every intention of grabbing money owed to him and running off to Rome with Patricia. However, as Michel returns to Paris, he runs into trouble with not only the cops but with the cash he’s owed and his growing affection for the reluctant Patricia.

The first thing anyone will notice about Breathless is the messed-up camera. Shots tend to be either very long or short and choppy. Both of these display Godard’s strong vision; when things are moving, they’re moving fast and jagged, but when they’re slow, they’re drawn out and waiting. The symbolism here is extraordinary, and I’ve seen few movies that have said so much with just camera shots alone. Scenes often change within the short shots, and at first I thought it was just shitty cutting, but then I realized that there is much more behind all of it. One will also notice the almost complete lack of darkness. While the story can be dark at a few moments, everything is shot in daylight, save for one scene of going up a dark elevator shaft.

The relationship between Michel and Patricia is an odd one. Together, Michel and Patricia are four characters in classic noir. The thing I loved most is that she is arguably a femme fatale. One classic part of noir is the female being the ultimate predator at the end, and Patricia, within the film, both is and isn’t. She manages to blur the line between a simple love interest and a harbinger of Michel’s doom. However, a lot can be said about his part too. While he is without a doubt a bad guy throughout the film, he is also both in and out of love with Patricia. His villainous status becomes a question throughout as well, and we begin to wonder if he’s just acting on impulse until the final moments.

The only thing that doesn’t develop much is a seriously interesting story. A lot of Breathless is made up of talking heads, mainly Patricia and Michel becoming more entangled with each other. In the middle, Michel almost seems to simply bring up the money situation to remind the audience that something is eventually going to happen with that. There are several times here in which had they not reminded me that something besides character connection, was going to happen, I would have forgot that there was a point at all. However big a complaint that may be, though, it’s still a minor glitch in the grand scheme of the film.

Breathless is something you need to see if you are a noir buff. Every stereotype in here is reinvented and polished to a damn fine shine. You won’t find dark alleyways, smoke-filled detective rooms, or blond bombshells waiting under street lights. This time, the light is turned on, the rules have been changed, and the execution is intriguingly different.

Rating: ★★★½

-Chris Luedtke

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