The Criterion Corner: Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless

We can’t really look at Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless with fresh eyes, any more than we can see Citizen Kane or Sunrise for the first time.

Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless on Criterion
Photo: Janus Films

We can’t really look at Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless with fresh eyes, any more than we can see Citizen Kane or Sunrise for the first time. The jump cuts are no longer startling, though they still work in a visceral, jazzy but somehow gentle way. No one since has used these snippy quick cuts with such fluid style, and all the sunny Parisian natural light makes us hungry for vanished late afternoons in the Hôtel de Suède, where Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg spend the whole center of Breathless talking.

They are playing Michel, a French hood, and Patricia, a 20 year-old American student, but Godard has no patience with characterization, even in his first almost-narrative film, where he actually lets Martial Solal’s magnificent score play without once cutting it off, an alienation effect that he would favor in every film he made thereafter. “I want to know what’s behind your face,” Seberg says to Belmondo. She shuts her eyes and says she wants everything to go black, but light keeps creeping in, whereas Belmondo kisses her with his eyes open, trying to reconcile her image, created by Otto Preminger, with her face and body. Preminger also created the Seberg we see here: hurt, wary, smart, maybe lacking a central, animating component, which makes her wistful.

Belmondo spends the whole Hôtel de Suède scene in white boxer shorts, while Seberg stays covered up. His hangdog sexiness is still appealing, if not as unusual as it was in 1960 (very few men had abs then, as he does). He keeps calling her a coward, and she tenderly pokes fun at the French, but the scene deepens and becomes despairing as Godard holds his camera on Seberg, who is asked to carry the entirety of the film’s existential burden, which she does with real grace under pressure. Belmondo keeps up an endless stream of talk about girls that only lets us know his lack of real experience with them, a central theme in Godard’s work that will take on gut-wrenching connotations in his later films with Anna Karina. Michel is something of a self-portrait; he blithely steals money, as Godard often did in his youth. Later, when Godard turns up as the man who identifies Michel to police, we can only feel that he is, as always, pointing the finger at himself and his own failings. “After all, I’m an asshole,” is Michel’s first line, and no one can say Godard didn’t put his cards on the table for us right from the beginning.

The Hôtel de Suède sequence is the heart of the film, and Godard returned to and intensified it in Contempt, where Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot try to connect for at least a half hour. This man/woman battle is really completed, though, in Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour Fou, which brings the struggle to it logical, May of 1968 destruction (it has been rumored that Rivette based his hotel nightmare with Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kalfon on an actual incident between Godard and Karina toward the end of their relationship). The scenes before and after this long hotel sequence have nimble charms, especially the press conference with Jean-Pierre Melville’s famous writer, where Godard seems to be sending up a certain kind of nonsensical French discourse based in paradoxes that he will later serve up straight, along with his maddening propensity for random quotation, which is blessedly absent from Breathless. In the last half-hour, though, Godard isn’t interested in police chasing Michel; no suspense is created, and things get thin, especially in the penultimate scene between Michel and Patricia, which is a bit of a mess. Belmondo and Seberg keep looking straight into the camera, him playfully, she with increasing anxiety, until that last, mysterious final close-up of Patricia, where Seberg suggests a half-dozen different emotions from behind her hard, robot-like beauty. Godard wanted Seberg to go through her lover’s pockets looking for money, but the actress refused. If Breathless is maybe his most human movie, surely it is due to Seberg and what she brought to the camera.


The high-definition digital transfer was supervised by the cinematographer, Raoul Cotard, and it’s as beautifully sun-drenched as you’d expect, while the Mono sound is no doubt as clean as it can be. The most interesting special feature is Godard’s short film Charlotte et son Jules, where Belmondo hurls a stream of invective at his girl, who remains cheerful and silent, even when he roughly pushes her down on a bed. The nastier Belmondo gets with her, the more vulnerable he seems, and this feels more honest than the somewhat glamorous portrait of male vanity in Breathless. There’s a featurette about Jean Seberg by Mark Rappaport, nice, but no substitute for his superb From the Journals of Jean Seberg feature with Mary Beth Hurt. The most irritating special feature is an eighty-minute documentary called Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suède, where the filmmaker looks at old Breathless locations and annoys Godard by calling him twice on the phone to ask questions; during the second call, Godard has never sounded wearier as he says he needs to get back to work. What is he doing? Writing a prickly text about the war in Iraq, or staring at photos of Anna Karina, Louise Brooks, Falconetti…

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Dan Callahan

Dan Callahan’s books include The Camera Lies: Acting for Hitchcock , Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, and Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave. He has written about film for Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Nylon, The Village Voice, and more.

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