starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Today at the Brattle Theatre
The ingredients of a classic come together almost perfectly in "Breathless." Sex, crime, cops, money, Paris, beautiful heroine, daring hero--they're all here; but the best thing about the film is that it doesn't fit into the "classic" category. Screenwriter Francois Truffaut pioneered French new Wave film, and "Breathless" exemplifies the genre. Actor Jean-Paul Belmondo fleshes out the New Wave hero flawlessly by shattering the image of the typical leading man. One scene shows Belmondo's character, the fugitive Michel Poiccard, staring at a poster of Humphrey Bogart for minutes on end. But Poiccard's unglamorous criminal record's appetite for sex and apathy for everything else render him the opposite of the tough-but-noble Bogart-esque hero.
The plot of "Breathless" is almost completely unimportant, which is fortunate, because it makes very little sense. But it is only at the end that its insignificance becomes clear- you do not need to understand what's happening, but only to whom it is happening. The relationship between Poiccard and the beautiful American reporter Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) energizes the film, the rest of the plot (basically, Poiccard running from the law) exists only to keep the characters moving from place to place.
The relationship, however, more than adequately substitues for an intricate plot line. The dialogue and the camera delve into the personalities of Michel and Patricia, giving us a close look at two intense characters. The audience sees every aspect of them-which was undoudtedly shocking in 1960. One scene shows, Patricia making faces at herself in the mirror, as if no one's watching her. In another, Michel and Patricia are in bed together, talking about sex.
Some scenes defy all movie conventions-doing nothing whatsoever to further the plot-and exist only as a forum for hearing the characters' philosophies of life. The first five minutes or so show Poiccard driving through Paris, talking to himself about nothing in particular, but giving us insight into how his mind works. Another scene shows an author's press conference that Patricia covers for her news-paper. Its total irrelevance to the plot doesn't make it less interesting-it provides an opportunity to hear the Truffaut rattle off dozens of maxims about love. Other shots try to make sense of the flawed plot; a sign in the middle of the city reads, "The dragnet is being drawn about Michel Poiccard!". It's not a great tactic for police trying to sneak up on a criminal, but a sure-fire way to let the audience know what's going on.
Although the film challenges the definition of the typical crime-and-love movie, the last scene is as much of tear-jerker as the end of any "classic." In this scene, Michel staggers down the street, chased by the police (who have just shot him in the back) and Patricia, who just turned him in because she wasn't sure she loved him. He falls, with just enough life in him to speak his last words to Patricia. But, as we might expect from such a film, these last words are not those of a noble hero.
"Breathless" is a classic because it breaks from the tradition of classics. Although the plot is confusing and unimportant, the character carry the film, and will leave you wondering why anyone ever thought that the good guys were fun to watch.