Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature heralded the French New Wave movement and inspired generations of rule breakers who followed in his footsteps to bend the conventions of cinematic storytelling.
There’s not much to say about Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless that hasn’t already been said, such is its status as one of the most important films ever made. Written and directed by Godard, it manages to pay homage to Hollywood crime thrillers popular during the period while also subverting the rules of the genre to birth something entirely new. It follows criminal-on-the-run Michel (played by French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo in his breakthrough performance) as he attempts to hide at the apartment of his American lover Patricia (Jean Seberg).
It’s a doomed love affair, of course, but Godard wants the audience to be less focused on the plot mechanics and more interested in how he’s telling the story and why. It’s one of Seberg’s early film roles and she’s perfectly matched by Belmondo, with the combined superficiality of the characters fascinating to watch unfold against the backdrop of Godard’s more naturalistic filmmaking. Leaning hard into the mantra of necessity being the mother of invention, Godard did away with manufactured sets in favour of shooting the film’s action in and around real-world Paris. This meant the deployment of handheld cameras, a smaller crew, and adopting techniques more commonly associated with field journalism at the time.
A former film critic, Godard loved and admired the work of Alfred Hitchcock, which meant he had all the tools at his disposal when it came to subverting the genre with Breathless. From the then unconventional use of jump cuts to the unique visual style, it intentionally broke rules in order to make them. The spirit of his early work like Breathless would find loyal disciples among the American independent cinema movement of the late eighties and early nineties with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronofsky and Quentin Tarantino who said, “Godard is the one who taught me the fun and the freedom and the joy of breaking rules.”