Film Score: Martial Solal Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger and Henri-Jacques Huet
The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), he contributed the story for one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most famous films, Breathless (A bout de soufflé). Like so many New Wave films, it’s difficult for me to see what all the fuss is about. Certainly there is a more documentary feel to the production, but that just reads as amateurish rather than anything inherently innovative. Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard use a hand-held camera exclusively, and while it can be intrusive at times, there are some impressive moments that result. Just one is when Belmodo is leaving the travel agency and Coutard hangs back behind a plant while Belmondo walks on the other side out the glass doors and into the street. Another effect Godard uses is during conversations when he makes small jump cuts between lines of the dialogue. Again, it wears thin at times because it’s used for effect rather than because of any need for it in the story. Toward the end of the film he has both Seberg and Belmondo walking around an apartment and films them turning in a circle from the center, something he would do again in the barnyard scene of Weekend seven years later.
The film begins in Marseilles with Jean-Paul Belmondo reading a paper, waiting for a signal from a female accomplice who helps him steal a car. He heads to the countryside toward Paris without her, planning to get some money and ask American Jean Seberg to run away with him. In the glove box he finds a gun. Too aggressive on the road, a motorcycle cop pulls him over but he shoots the officer and heads off on foot. He catches a ride to the city and steals the key to Seberg’s apartment but doesn’t find any money there, so he goes to see Liliane David at her apartment and steals her money while she’s getting dressed. Then later Belmondo meets Jean Seberg in the street selling newspapers. He buys one and discovers that the police have his fingerprints from the stolen car, so he wants to head to Italy, but Seberg says she won’t go with him. Minutes after he collects some money from his friend at a travel agency, police inspector Daniel Boulanger shows up looking for Belmondo and races out but misses him. That afternoon Belmondo wants to take Seberg to dinner and so he mugs a guy in a restroom to get the money. He’s a small time crook who will do anything and steal from anyone to win the love of Seberg. He even tells her a story about a bus driver who stole millions to get a girl and that she stayed with him acting as his lookout while he burgled, just to see her reaction. But she has an appointment and leaves him again.
Seberg is a writer, working for Dutchman Van Doude, and intimates that she may be pregnant. Meanwhile Belmondo is incessant in his insistence that Seberg sleep with him again, but she still needs time to make up her mind about how she feels about him. Later, after Boulanger tells her that Belmondo has killed the policeman, she loses the tail he’s put on her and embraces a life of crime with Belmondo. Or so it seems. Jean-Paul Belmondo as an actor is loose and rangy, his suit seemingly too big for his thin frame. He has thick, full lips that identify him thoroughly in close up. And though he is a professional actor, his seeming lack of discipline makes him fit right in with the new wave’s emphasis on non-actors. Jean Seberg seems more French than American and personifies the cool, distant blonde that drives men wild. One of the standard features of the New Wave was breaking the fourth wall. And while there are instances that can be interpreted as such, only two seem unambiguously clear. In the opening scene Belmondo looks into the camera when he says he loves France and then looks to the camera to say if others don’t they can get stuffed. And Seberg does it once more in the final shot of the film.
The A List essay by David Sterritt does a nice job of summing up the innovations in the picture and the influences on the New Wave directors without being boring, which is nice. In addition to the emphasis on reality, filming on the streets and in real apartments, Godard reveled in the sheer physicality of filmmaking, pushing Raoul Coutard around in a wheelchair or a mail cart. Critics, of course, were horrified by the liberties taken and not so subtly suggested that this wasn’t really filmmaking at all. And the critics also wrongly attempted to attach politics to Godard’s seemingly anarchist production, though that was never the point. The place that the film really stands out as unique is in its historical context. Where Hollywood was trying all kinds of new methods like 3-D and widescreen in the late fifties to pull viewers away from their television sets, Godard and company were flaunting conventions in both technique and story. In the decades since its release, Sterritt aptly calls it a “scruffy monument to . . . aesthetic freedom.” In terms of entertainment value, one of the things I prize most highly in film, it is certainly less than monumental. In the end, Breathless is much less so that when it was first released, but remains a prime example of a new approach to film that independent filmmakers would take up in the rest of the decade and change Hollywood forever.