Fifty years later, ‘Breathless’ hasn’t entered its dotage yet: it remains a film whose know-it-all front you want to sneer at as much as you want to sigh at Seberg and Belmondo’s style and run along with their sexually frank chat and epigrams about life and love. That ‘Breathless’ still comes across as modern and confrontational is a sign of how much it’s been copied and how radical it was for a young French filmmaker to pour plaster containing his peculiar concerns about cinema, morality, romance and much else into the tatty mould of the Hollywood gangster B-movie.
There are times when it feels like Godard’s first film is designed to be loathed. Look carefully and you’ll spot Godard himself, 28 at the time and already an iconoclastic critic for Cahiers du Cinéma. He’s the guy in the suit we see snitching on murderous anti-hero Michel Poiccard, pointing him out to the police while pretending to read the paper outside the offices of France Soir. What a rat. But that’s Godard all over. He’s always been an uningratiating, utterly wilful filmmaker – an artist who invites us into his world and never the other way round.
To watch ‘Breathless’, a film by a young cinephile hopped up on movies and ideas of what they should be, is to walk into the bedroom of the coolest student in town and discover a giant pinboard of loves, hates, inspirations and thoughts, all moving at 24 frames per second. However, Godard makes the whole thing feel uncommonly speedy and disjointed by employing a frenetic package of stylistic tics: his actors’ walking and talking; his cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s handheld location shooting; Martial Solal’s ceaseless jazz score that moves and changes direction so fast it almost trips over itself; and his editors’ jump cuts, which were radical at the time but so common now that we barely notice them.
If you’ve never seen ‘Breathless’, see it now – but don’t expect an easy ride. If you haven’t seen it for ages, see it again and be surprised at the fresh reactions it provokes. Afterwards, you can talk about modernism, you can talk about Godard’s dismissal of the cinéma de papa, you can talk about the documentary flavour of the whole thing mixed with the corny template of the cheap noir… But there’s one element that it’s hard to deconstruct or sound intelligent about – the fact that it’s so damn cool.