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Breathless: Remembering Jean Seberg on her birthday

By Mae Brando

À BOUT DE SOUFFLE (Breathless) is Jean Luc-Godard’s 1960 classic that transcended the idea of the era’s new wave of French filmmaking. I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen in it’s 4K restoration inside the PBL theater at the Cleveland Cinematheque.

Breathless is a dizzy descent into debt picture. These two lovers are amidst the chaos and upheaval of society, trying to play off everything serious in their lives with a casual existence stealing cars--and stealing hearts. It’s no doubt that Godard’s film brought about a decade’s inspiration for many of the films that would be released throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood. The jump-cuts are most famously noted, adding to the tension in Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg’s characters. It is a film that doesn’t try to follow the rules, thus the New Wave was born. The cold withdrawal of the film’s tone might be attributed to the arrival of the New Wave in the socio-economic climate of post WWII France. As an audience, we feel disconnected, allowing the harsh cuts to over emphasize the style rather than the narrative content. Seeing this on the big screen, and having seen it two times before, it still surprised me. From the very start, there is an uneasiness with the direction of these character’s lives: Michel wants to be more hardened than he is, as a carjacking criminal. He has a skewed sense of any mortality, where I might argue that Seberg’s Patricia is an American amongst France, selling papers and trying to get started as a writer- as she is aware of her status in some way, apparent when she asks Michel if he ever thinks about death. Another nice bit of her realism is the actress’ own career revival when she attempted to give acting another go in Europe instead of America this time. Without realizing the first time I saw this, the film really glamorizes American cinema, with the obvious connection of Michel’s love for Bogart. And yet Godard’s previous career as a critic he claimed that films should be “modern art”, and Breathless is a staple of that statement. It’s also worth mentioning the French title reads “out of breath”, a more nauseous and realistic approach, whereas the American title “Breathless” ties itself to a more seamless name, something much more daring and romantic.

Much of the connection between characters is shown through their expressions and a cross between the heavily romanticized view of Hollywood films contrasted with the mundaneness of daily life, thus the two find a balance and harmony between one another. Something that makes the film’s gaze so special is the handheld camera following them around. It is shaky and sometimes disorienting. Godard’s language is visible in several sequences: the car rides, Patricia’s adventures throughout town, and particularly the final run from Michel, his exhaustion feeling just as drawn out and real for us. The visual language of the film is not polished by any means, full of questionable lighting choices, a controversial ending, and other nuances. It dances into the territory of documentary filmmaking, while Godard allowed his actors to simply exist organically within the space of the film- something Hollywood films were not set on doing quite yet. In the final frame of the film, Seberg directly gazes into the audience’s eyes and runs a finger across her lips, a trademark gesture between her and her past lover- much like the story of Romeo and Juliet that she mentions back in the apartment, only now it’s playing out for real--the hot-and-cold nature of their relationship has come to an end.

Breathless is available to stream on BFI Player


About the writer

Mae Brando is a lover of all art and spends all of her time viewing and analyzing films, focusing mainly on the Golden Age of Hollywood. She is currently enrolled at Cleveland State University pursuing a double major in Film & Media Arts and English. Lately she’s getting into playwriting and creating content with her podcast: Aspect Radio.

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