Breathless and the French New Wave

From jump cuts to improvised dialogue, Jean-Loc Godard’s 1960 film À bout de soufflé (also known as Breathless) is the ideal image of a French New Wave film. Godard’s Breathless followed two other major films of the New Wave movement; they were François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnai’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. The French New Wave films wanted to experiment with visual style, edition and even the overall narrative to break away from the Classical Hollywood Cinema. These low budget films turned out to influence years of great cinema for Europe as well as American Hollywood films. Breathless, though it was a part of three major films of the French New Wave, it is the most influential film of the movement because of its technical characteristics and realistic elements relating to the New Wave as well as its representation of American gangster films.

One key element of the French New Wave is the idea of the long take with frequent panning and tracking. The most noticeable example of this in Godard’s Breathless is scene in which Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Patricia (Jean Seberg) are in her apartment on a Sunday afternoon. The entire time the camera goes from her bed to the bathroom and back again with a lot of tracking of both Michel and Patricia. On the contrast to long takes, Godard uses many jump cuts to present disjunctive editing. Disjunctive editing is using techniques that look to be like “errors” throughout the film. Godard’s jump cuts were so revolutionary for the New Wave and helped break away from the continuity editing of Classical Hollywood Cinema. Another key element of the French New Wave is its “trick” effects such as the iris shot in Breathless. Godard uses many iris shots in the film to show a bit of irony of the situation and continue the plot. Lastly, the documentary techniques are the most important aspects of the New Wave. The use of the handheld camera, shooting on location, using available light and the use of zoom lens all resemble the look of documentaries (Wexman Ch. 12) Godard’s use of location and available light are obvious throughout the film but makes everything including the plot seem more realistic.

One of the realistic elements that is hard to miss in Breathless is the improvised acting. The improvised acting includes rambling and repetitious dialogue which is closer to everyday speech. The overall narrative and plot can be seen as improvised as well. As Mast and Kawin said “Breathless remains the strongest narrative of the Godard films.” It is about a young thug who is on the run but is finally betrayed by the police and his American girlfriend in the end. His thuggish attitude and his small-time criminal ways make this film a tribute to the American gangster film. In American gangster films the criminal always dies in order to comply with the Codes rule on making sure evil does not prevail. This was not hard for Godard seeing as most of his films end in sudden deaths. This gives way to the ultimate downfall of Michel and leading to good prevailing in the end. Another realistic element is the intertextual references to film culture, as Virginia Wexman stated Michel is seen “as a self-conscious tribute to Humphrey Bogart” and there are many other references to American culture.

Breathless will always be one of the first films in the French New Wave movement as well as Godard’s first major feature film. It will be an influence and a reference for years to come. Jean-Loc Godard’s films have inspired generations of filmmakers to break away from the normal continuity editing and use innovative techniques like the jump cuts and improvised acting.

I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy

Jean Seberg, as Patricia Franchini

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