Any mention of French Cinema is incomplete without the mention of its two icons – Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut – who have been known to experiment and come up with some truly ground-breaking films, starting with Breathless. It is a result of not just one, but both of these geniuses at work (although Truffaut didn’t stick till the end). It was a deviation from typically conservative approach back then, with its chutzpah and impulsiveness that is more rebellious than bourgeois. Supposedly one of its kind, it is credited to have initiated the nouvelle French new wave genre, and it’s a dubious salute to the French Cinema's elder sibling, Hollywood.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t truly leave you breathless in terms of its plot and it incorporates elements of offbeat cinema that try to take your breath away but only elicit a sigh.
The plot is fairly straightforward – an eccentric (most French protagonist/antagonist are) steward-turned-crook Michel, is on the run after a murder, scraping enough dough to escape the country. He is in love (?) with a free-spirited American girl, Patricia, staying in Paris, whom he repeatedly tries to convince to accompany him. As expected, he runs into trouble, and succumbs to betrayals of the heart that have become as glutinous to love (especially in films), as an ice cream to a spoon.
The film is reminiscent of typical Hollywood movies starring eccentric but charming criminal protagonist, rushing through the life of love, crime and drama with a desultory motion of a dream (or nightmare). Although it is unique from camera’s point-of-view (with its use of jump-cuts, dialogue improvisation, locational realism), it is not as endowed with the eloquence and substance that is usually synonymous with Godard’s works. The charming Jean-Paul Belmondo, as Michel, does his best to ably step in the shoes of typical oldschool, Hollywood-styled chain-smoking, classy, non-committal, nonchalant, womanizing protagonist who believes that one should “Live life dangerously till the end”.
Belmondo, not good-looking by any standards, appeals with his Bogart-like flamboyance and calculated deception. On the surface, he is as cool-as-a-cucumber, never betraying any anxiety considering the predicament he is in (except for sporadic outbursts at Patricia as she keeps rejecting his lecherous advances). However, that’s just a façade that conceals his innermost fears and insecurities.
Jean Seberg, however, with her contorted, heavily-Americanized French accent coupled with her unfitting tranquility, doesn’t quite do justice to her role as the commitment-phobic wanderer who can’t decide between her attraction for Michel, and her inexplicable obsession with her freedom. She is ordinary in ways, perhaps sans substance even (asking questions like, “tell me something beautiful right now.” - A question probably every woman has asked her man atleast once in her life) and she desperately wants to convince herself that the only commitment she has made is to her freedom, even though her heart is as fickle as her mind is. Her performance isn’t forceful enough to move the viewers in contempt or sympathy – she is just a confused girl at the end of it all.
Michel’s constant endeavors to get her to sleep with him don’t really serve any purpose – they come across more as sexual innuendos than something more intellectual that Godard intended they signify. Even a genius like Godard should realize that every random statement cannot become a quotable quote.
If Godard was putting in some serious efforts to become a ubiquitous influence on international cinema, he may have succeeded with breathless, but he doesn’t strike a resonant chord considering his reputation as a filmmaker. The film doesn’t linger on every character enough to sympathize or empathize with – it goes on rather mechanically, albeit with some innovative cinematography, about the connected, yet incoherent lives of its charismatic but vagabond characters (including Godard who makes an appearance), who amidst their meaningless conversations, sway undecidedly between realities and illusions of love, lust and companionship, allegiance and betrayal. He lets the loose ends dangle conspicuously as if he has forgotten to tie them up for a reason known only to him (or perhaps out of sheer complacence) – pointless philandering with confounding ideologies, ambiguous dialogues, and semi-closed loops. However, that doesn’t undermine the fact that this movie was a pioneer impacting French, and world cinema in ways more than one, and it is even impressive in parts.
If Godard was trying to paint an impressionistic portrait, he ended up making an abstract, albeit refreshingly honest, caricature – an unintentional anomaly with some beautiful brush strokes that struck gold nevertheless.