Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) was the first foreign language film I ever saw. At the time, I was just discovering independent film and was impressed with the motor-mouthed swagger of Reservoir Dogs (1992). What I liked about Breathless was I could plainly see what Tarantino's wise-cracking gangsters owed to the film's stylish main character, right down to the white business shirt and thin black tie.
Breathless tells the tale of car thief Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who shoots a policeman and tries to convince beautiful, hip New Yorker Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) to leave for Rome with him. The pair spends much of their time walking the streets of Paris or holed up in a cramped hotel room casually talking about love, life and music, as the police net slowly closes around Michel.
Breathless is a French film with a love of Americana. The soundtrack sizzles with cool jazz and the dapper Hollywood style of the late '50s. Michel is obsessed with Humphrey Bogart and mimics his trademark idiosyncrasies – fedora hat, ever-present cigarette, the running of a thumb across his lips – while his back-and-forth banter with Patricia lovingly nods at Hollywood romantic comedies.
The film is the directorial debut of the now legendary Jean-Luc Godard, who wrote the script from a story by the equally celebrated François Truffaut, director of such important entries in cinema history as The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962)
Shot on location in Paris, many scenes in the film were improvised by Godard, Belmondo and Seberg, such as the street parade held to mark US President Eisenhower's visit. This kind of chaos gives the film an impressive realism – a technique Godard borrowed from the films of Italian neorealism in the late '40s and early '50s, including Vittorio De Sica's classic Bicycle Thieves (1948).
Attempting to trim the film's running length, Godard employed the jump cut technique that many believe inspired the American auteurs of the 1960s and '70s. While the cuts within scenes in Breathless don't always retain continuity, rapid cuts were later used to add pace and a bit of grit to several important US films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Mean Streets (1973).
Breathless' legacy to the crime film genre is its attitude. A post-modern sense of style and detachment, as well as self-absorption by the characters, saturates the film. It was novel then, to sympathise with the bad guy, and Belmondo plays Michel with an easy charm and the viewer often forgives him his actions. Seberg's captivating Patricia is likewise aloof and shallow, but nonetheless irresistible..
Everybody knows somebody who flatly refuses to watch foreign language films. Breathless is the perfect way to lure them over to the other side. Michel and Patricia and their beatnik cool, set to the sounds of jazz in a postcard perfect black and white Paris, is enough to convert even the most stubborn holdout.
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