Big Screen Berkeley: Breathless

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless.

What more is there to be said about Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle)? Probably not a great deal, but there is this: recently restored and re-subtitled, Godard’s loving tribute to Monogram Pictures is getting a theatrical re-release to mark its 50th anniversary. A new print of Breathless is currently playing at the Rialto Cinemas Cerrito in El Cerrito through Thursday July 29.

I first saw Breathless when I was a callow teenager, and after watching it recently for the first time in many years, I’m happy to report that the new print is near flawless, and the subtitles — which replace some of the stilted phrases of old with contemporary colloquialisms and some slightly spicier language — a definite improvement. My only complaint is that, though the use of white subtitles on the film’s black and white background may have been the correct decision artistically, it renders them hard to read during certain scenes.

That’s a minor quibble, however, and anyone who’s ever fallen under the film’s magical spell will definitely want to see the new print, currently unavailable on home video. The story remains as fresh, engaging, and surprising as ever, and is there  a more engaging screen couple than Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg? I respectfully submit that there is not, though Bogie and Bacall come close.

Belmondo, of course, plays Michel, a two-bit car thief who murders a policeman, then tries to collect a debt before fleeing to Italy. Though he’s a cop-killer, a thief, and (as we soon learn) a bit of a male chauvinist pig, Michel remains a sympathetic character who viewers instinctively like thanks to Belmondo’s cheeky, insouciant performance.


Seberg plays American student in Paris Patricia, who gives Michel aid and comfort while trying to decide whether or not to go along for the ride. She’s stunningly beautiful throughout Breathless, and her introductory scene, in which she hawks copies of the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysee, an iconic example of pure cinema. I fell in love with her the first time I saw this film, and my passion remains undimmed almost thirty years later: if only she hadn’t married that rotter Romain Gary and got into trouble with the FBI.

This was Godard’s first feature, and though he would go on to make other great films (Weekend, Tout va bien), Breathless remains the jewel in his directorial crown. In addition to a perfect cast (including Godard himself, as well as familiar faces such as Roger Hanin and Daniel Boulanger), the film was beautifully shot by Raoul Coutard (who also supervised this restoration), while Martial Solal’s simple five-note piano motif is proof positive that sometimes, when it comes to composing for the screen, less is definitely more.

Thousands of words have been written about Breathless: it was the film that introduced the jump cut, was one of the first films in which the ‘fourth wall’ was broken (albeit only during the film’s final scene), and was, of course, one of the standard bearers of the Nouvelle Vague. Those accomplishments aside, however, it’s also a simple and timeless tale of love and death. If you’ve seen it before, see it again — if you’ve never seen it before, don’t miss it now.

Footnote: there’s one very brief scene that has attracted little or no attention in the previous 49 years of Breathless’ existence, but now evokes a groan or chuckle from viewers. If you think you know what I’m referring to, let me know!