Breathless (1960) marks the start of French New Wave cinema, and regardless of how one feels about Jean-Luc Godard’s later, less accessible works, it would be hard to find a more audacious debut feature. The problem with it today is that so much of what was fresh and revolutionary in 1960 has been assimilated into the standard vocabulary of filmmaking that the enormity of its accomplishments can be easily lost. And for that matter, some of its innovations had been around for years — jump cuts within a scene were nothing new (musical numbers used them for years) and a film that kept reminding the viewer that he or she was watching a film had long been part and parcel of comedy films. The difference was that Godard was using these devices in the context of a more or less serious film (Breathless is too playful and full of in-jokes to be called purely serious). In many ways, it was a reaction to the standard idea of a well-crafted film.
It’s not just for purposes of referencing B-picture film noir that Godard dedicated his movie to the lowly Monogram Pictures Corporation; it has to do with the collective New Wave realization that a true love for movies encompasses a lot of junk along with “quality” films (something the French recognized before anyone else). The results electrified and changed the world of film — along with making a star of Jean-Paul Belmondo for his portrayal of the cheerfully amoral thief turned murderer, who idolizes and emulates Bogart. (It’s always as much a film about movies and the impact of movies as it is a narrative work.) It’s interesting to look at his ultra-cool performance today, because it now looks less like coolness than like someone desperately trying to be cool, which, I suspect was Godard’s real point all along.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke