Breathless (1960)

By Afra Nariman

Breathless (1960)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Stars: Jean Seberg, Jean-Paul Belmondo

Plot Summary

A thug named Michel (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) kills a policeman while driving a stolen car. To escape the law, he hides in his journalist girlfriend Patricia’s (played by Jean Seberg) apartment in Paris. His plan is to come up with enough money for the two of them to flee to Rome, but when Patricia learns about Michel’s shady life of crime, and the murder that he is now being searched after for, she begins to question her loyalties, and her conception of love all together.

Review

Crime and Love intersect in this exciting, riveting, yet poetically fluid and fast paced story about a French car thief named Michel and an aspiring American journalist named Patricia, whose lives cross paths in Paris, when the unexpected pair begin to realize their feelings for one another, but whose lives and relationship together are ultimately complicated by Michel’s past and his life of crime. Breathless, the debut feature film of one of the icons of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, accomplishes many cinematic feats in its rather short runtime of about 90 minutes. It takes a simple plot, and creates a story that intertwines crime and love, as cinema has done for generations; slowly building up and absorbing our interest, as both the emotional and situational stakes held by each character are raised as the film progresses.

The film does not waste anytime introducing us to the plot and the protagonist. Right away, we hear Michel’s voice speaking — admitting that he’s an “asshole,” which is demonstrated and proven to be a correct character description of him through his interactions with others throughout the film, primarily through his interactions with Patricia, the woman he claims to love. What we also get the sense of very early on, is that Michel is extremely suave and calm in his actions, as he continuously breaks the law, but avoids getting caught. Although he has a calm and collected demeanor about him, the plot begins to take shape when he panics after getting caught, ultimately shooting and murdering a police officer. In avoidance from the law, he flees to Paris, where he hides out, staying with his recent girlfriend Patricia, a young aspiring journalist from New York. He opts not to tell her about his predicament, but continuously insists on the two of them to head to Rome, which prompts Patricia to begin contemplating her feelings for Michel. She begins to question if she truly loves him, and if his proclaimed love for her is genuine and real, or just fabricated and deluded; whether his feelings for her are based upon true love, or merely lust.

Perhaps the most substantial stretch of the film comes about thirty minutes in, when Patricia comes home to find Michel waiting in her apartment. For the next twenty minutes or so, the film seems to slow down, allowing us to get to know the two characters, their relationship, and each of their perspectives on the situation that they find themselves in. Although not as inherently philosophical, this twenty minute stretch of the film is in many ways comparative to a famously deep stretch in another French filmmaker, Eric Rohmer’s, 1969 film My Night at Maud’s, where a man and a woman, who slowly fall for each other, find themselves alone in an apartment, speaking about life, love and more. These two stretches of film are similar insofar as their effect on both the story’s progression and the film’s pace, in both instances. One of the most revealing exchanges during this extended scene comes when Patricia recites the last sentence of a book that she read:

“Listen. The last sentence is beautiful. ‘Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.’ … Which would you choose?”

Patricia

To which Michel responds;

“Grief’s stupid, l’d choose nothing. It’s no better, but grief’s a compromise. l want all or nothing.”

Michel

This mindset dictates much of Michel’s approach to his circumstances throughout the film, and surfaces as the grand theme of his decision in the film’s ending. From the beginning of the film, Michel holds the position that he could not live without Patricia — we learn that perhaps he could; but what becomes clear, is that he is unwilling to. In the end, when Patricia informs him that she does not love him back, that she does not want to run away to Rome with him; he refuses to go on with his plan without her, choosing not to run from the authorities any longer. He chose nothing. He refused to compromise. He wanted all, which comprised of freedom, life and love. He could not have love, so he gave up the other two as well.

As exemplified above, Michel approaches life with a certain simplicity. While Patricia spends much of the film debating with her inner thoughts and emotions, trying hard to figure out if what she felt for him was real love, Michel seems to know that he was in love. He doesn’t think there is anything to debate. His simplicity in this regard, and in others, is apparent in a line of dialogue that he says to Patricia:

“Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.”

Michel

One thing that Michel comes to realize is that, even he cannot simplify love. The ending of the film serves as a sort of meditation on love; what it is to be in love, what love insinuates, and love’s impermanence and fleeting nature. After hearing that Patricia does not love him, Michel reflects on his regrets;

“I just talked about myself, and you about yourself. You should’ve talked about me and me about you” 

Michel

Here, Michel is expressing his realization that love is a reciprocative ordeal, that love must always be a selfless act. When you are in love, truly; ego vanishes, making room for what love entails, an uninterrupted interest in the other person and a diminishing focus on yourself and your own problems.

While at times, one can love incorrectly; at other times, loving all together can be wrong. Patricia expresses at the end, that she doesn’t want to love him. She wanted to prove to herself that she didn’t love Michel; so, she informs the authorities on him. She says to Michel after doing so:

“I don’t want to be in love with you… I stayed with you to make sure I was in love with you. Or that I wasn’t. And since I’m being mean to you, it proves I’m not in love with you.” 

Patricia

Sometimes you can’t help but fall in love; even if that person is someone you don’t want to necessarily be in love with. You know that it doesn’t make sense, that it wouldn’t work, or that the person who’ve fallen in love with is “bad” for you; yet love is unpredictable. Due to its unpredictability, it is also difficult to know when your feelings are genuine and when they may be deluded. Breathless shows us just how complicated love can be, through the incorporated themes of crime, honesty and independence, that influence both Michel and Patricia in various ways. The story shows how rare real love can be, and how perfect the circumstances have to be, subjectively for both of the individuals involved. The film’s entire ending is adherent to the classic expectation that you might have for a romantic-crime thriller. There is emotion, honesty, anticipation and of course, tragedy.

The film’s production is magnificent. Godard’s first contribution to the French New Wave and to cinema all together, was nothing short of spectacular. The camera shots and overall cinematography of Breathless — excuse the wordplay — will leave you breathless, especially considering the time. The fluidity of the various scenes, the way that they transition and blend into each other, compliments the pace and mood of the story very well. Amongst the most memorable elements of the cinematography is the “in-car” POV shots. Additionally, the film’s use of music to compliment scenes, set moods, and at times intensify scenes, helps create an absorbing aura around many parts of the story as well.

Breathless is thrilling, yet also romantic and poetic. Through a median of crime and love, Godard tells a story made up of several cleverly comedic moments, exciting moments, as well as deep ones. It balances being fast paced at times, with slower, indulging scenes that pull you further into the story. You will find yourself slowly investing into the characters as you get to know them better. Every element of the film mentioned above, leads to an ending scene that embraces all of them: It’s thrilling, comedic, and both heartwarming and heartbreaking. After informing the authorities of his location and dumping him, the last thing Patricia sees Michel do is “make a face” to her, in reference to an inside joke shared between the two earlier in the film. It is the perfect ending to the story.

RATING /4

Rating: 4 out of 4.

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