Breathless (1960)

4,5/5

À Bout de Souffle

France; Jean-Luc Godard

 

All Audiences

 

 

Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young small-time thief, thinks of himself as a Humphrey Bogart-like male idol. When he impulsively kills a policeman while driving a stolen vehicle, he flees to Paris in an attempt to raise some getaway money. He contacts an underworld friend who owes him money and tries to persuade a hip American girl (Jean Seberg), Patricia, whom he met some times ago in Nice, to flee and hide with him in Italy. With the police closing in, his reckless ride becomes a race against the clock, but all this devil-may-care antihero wants is to motor through life like a luxury speedboat, at its own pace.

 

Godard’s first feature film is neither elegant, nor stylish – at least not in a conventional way - but nevertheless managed to become a milestone in modern cinema. Modern films begin here and now. More ambitious than Truffaut’s contemporary Les 400 Coups, À Bout de Souffle offers much more than a renewal of the arsenal of cinematic tricks and arabesque. Its daring, collage-like visual style is just one facet, and maybe the less relevant, of a much more profoundly innovative work of art. Well buried within its lighthearted joviality and cool detachment lies an affecting human tragedy and an acerb condemnation of our superficial, attitude-laden society. It is Vanity Fair with a sideline in wry absurdity and testosterone-fuelled über-cool bravado.

 

À Bout de Souffle follows two narcissist, egocentric lovers, tragic metaphor of the fundamental emptiness of our modern society, as they roam the streets of Paris and have fun, regardless of the danger. At first Patricia is just attracted by Michel’s gangster, tough-guy persona; Michel needs someone to flatter his alpha-male vanity. But as the film progresses, a real bound, a heartfelt tenderness develops. The famous bedroom scene emanates a warmth and immediacy unparalleled ever since: watching it only points out how alarmingly leeched out of life and mechanical, soulless sex scenes are often nowadays. Both Belmondo and Seberg deliver splendid, thin-skinned performances. Patricia Franquini, a mesmerizing bland of gamine vim and feline playfulness, splendidly portrayed by Jean Seberg, is the film’s fictional revelation and one of the most emblematic woman in cinematic history.  Women are always beautiful in Godard’s films, and the camera lingers teasingly, sensually, but never obscenely, on them. This is particularly true of À Bout de Souffle, and the light behind Seberg's eyes also illuminates this postmodern Romeo and Juliet fairytale-with-a-twist.

 

Tonally, À Bout de Souffle is completely devoid of that pervading feeling of existential dread one might expect from such a deeply pessimistic work: À Bout de Souffle is fizzy, colorful, irreverent and cool as an arctic cucumber. Most of all, it is irrigated by an unstoppable apetite for life that transcends the screen.

 

Halfway between an experimental art flick and a pop artifact, this is undoubtedly a trail-brazing achievement.

 

    

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