Happy 50th birthday, Breathless

Filmmakers, critics and curators pay tribute to Godard's groundbreaking feature debut. Interviewed by David Fear, Joshua Rothkopf and Keith Uhlich

“Those aesthetic hiccups, the way it moves along, the sheer coolness of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo—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.”
—Olivier Assayas, director, Summer Hours

“It seemed like a combination of jazz and philosophy—in its content, its style, its attitudes. It was also the first film I had ever seen that got its essence from the cool rebel anarchy of youth, and made filmmaking the art of the age; smart, creative young people suddenly wanted to direct the great movie the way that they’d previously wanted to write the great novel. For many of us, the movie also had an effect similar to the one it had on Godard himself—we suddenly thought of movies as a uniquely intellectual pursuit. Breathless was my primordial experience of cinema; it instantly made the art form my life.”
—Richard Brody, author of Everything Is Cinema

Breathless may not necessarily be the best of the French New Wave, but it undeniably seems to capture the movement’s spirit better than anything else. Seeing Godard cannibalize his love for genre even as he deconstructs it (as in Belmondo’s exquisitely ludicrous death-run finale) is an inspirational flame unto itself. And Jean Seberg? Incomparable.”
—Jonathan Demme, director, The Silence of the Lambs

“I remember people thinking it was just a piece of 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 stock from other productions. That’s why the cuts were so quick. Every drawback became a style that we could adapt. Look at something like Paranormal Activity. That’s definitely one of the grandchildren of Godard, where the camera becomes a participant. Once Godard went toward Marxism, he lost it completely. But here, he’s making magic.”
—William Friedkin, director, The French Connection

“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 entirely 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, then Breathless may be the most intelligent movie ever made.”
—James Gray, filmmaker, Two Lovers

“When Breathless was finally released where I grew up in Ottawa, admission was restricted to 18 and older...which I wasn’t. So I took the train to Montreal to see the film without English subtitles, and my memory of it is so strongly sexual—a girl in a T-shirt and a guy in undershorts, both in bed—that I resisted revisiting it for many years. When I finally did, however, I understood I was not made “breathless” by the film’s casual eroticism, but by how everything coalesced into one glorious, organic movie—from its propulsive ellipses to its exuberant embrace of gender difference.”
—Laurence Kardish, senior film curator at MoMA

“My older brother would let me tag along to his college film classes; I either saw it there or on our local PBS station’s Friday night foreign-film series. Godard’s movies didn’t directly influence my work the way that, say, Eric Rohmer’s films did, but this is one of those movies that’s just so enjoyable to watch; I’d put it up there against The Wizard of Oz or North by Northwest. 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.”
—Neil LaBute, filmmaker, In the Company of Men

“Like all landmark films, Jean-Luc Godard’s 50-year-old Breathless returns us to the newly vibrant past of Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower, Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, and, in a cameo role, the illustrious anti--nouvelle vague eminence, Jean-Pierre Melville. The cinema has long since absorbed the jump cuts of the filmmaker and his gifted location cinematographer, Raoul Cotard, but the lasting mood of youthful fatalism remains eternally timely.”
—Andrew Sarris, critic

Breathless is the fulcrum of film history.”
—Paul Schrader, director, Blue Collar

Read our review of Breathless

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