Why 'Breathless' still shines at fifty

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Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Breathless’ is 50 years old – so we asked a range of experts, from Jonathan Demme to Mike Leigh, to talk about why it’s been so influential.

Mike Leigh, director

‘Before I arrived in London, I’d never seen a subtitled film, so suddenly I had this massive discovery of what we now call “world cinema”. With “Breathless”, it was the real, fundamental, anarchic, status quo-challenging, breathing-real-air aspect of it that resonated with me. It keyed into an aspiration I’d had for some time that you could have a film where the people were real and the film was like real life.’

Ginette Vincendeau, professor of film studies at King’s College London

‘“Breathless” is the perfect manifesto for the new wave because it combines a documentary vision (we are on the streets of Paris) with modernist narrative. Godard’s violent attack on the cinéma de papa gave modern cinema new cultural legitimacy. His other stroke of genius was to fashion Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as the new romantic couple: desperate, amoral, nonchalant and so cool.’

Olivier Assayas, director

‘Those aesthetic hiccups, the way it moves along – “Breathless” doesn’t feel like a movie about youth; it feels like youth itself! Godard thought he was a filmmaker, but he’s really a poet, and this work opened the breach. Freedom rushed in after that.’

Richard Brody, biographer of Godard

‘It seemed like a combination of jazz and philosophy – in its content, its style, its attitudes. It made filmmaking the art of the age; smart, creative young people suddenly wanted to direct the great movie the way they’d wanted to write the great novel. “Breathless” was my primordial experience of cinema; it instantly made the art form my life.’

Jonathan Demme, director

‘ “Breathless” may not necessarily be the best of the French new wave, but it captures the movement’s spirit better than anything else. Seeing Godard cannibalise his love for genre even as he deconstructs it (as in Belmondo’s exquisitely ludicrous death-run finale) is an inspirational flame unto itself.’ 

William Friedkin, director

‘I remember people thinking it was rubbish. They didn’t see the revolution coming. The camera could go anywhere, do anything. Godard was manic out of necessity; he was using leftover film – that’s why the cuts were so quick. Every drawback became a style we could adapt. Look at a film like “Paranormal Activity”. That’s one of the grandchildren of Godard, where the camera becomes a participant. Once Godard went toward Marxism, he lost it. But here, he’s making magic.’

Suzy Gillett, London Film School

‘I first saw “Breathless” in my teens at the Scala in King’s Cross, got my haircut á la Seberg and headed to Paris to work in film. My first job was for the parade for the bicentenary of the French Revolution – so I found myself walking up and down the Champs-Élysées with 400 Malians dressed as Senegalese tirailleurs, not selling the Herald Tribune but as close as I ever got… “Breathless” can make you understand how utterly amazing cinema can be.’

James Gray, filmmaker

‘It’s stylistically raw, as if it was made in some kind of feverish delirium, yet it’s a picture of rare beauty. It’s remarkably ironic but also completely true to itself. It’s unsentimental and, at the same time, the ultimate romantic story. If the definition of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind without difficulty, “Breathless” may be the most intelligent movie ever made.’

Neil LaBute, filmmaker

‘Godard didn’t directly influence my work the way that, say, Eric Rohmer did, but this is one of those movies that’s just so enjoyable to watch. No director has ever danced to his own drummer longer, stronger or more relentlessly. “Breathless” is what made me want to go down that rabbit hole with him.’ Read our review of 'Breathless' here

Author: Time Out



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