Informers Inform, Burglars Burgle, Murderers Murder, Lovers Love: Breathless (1960)

I am once again in the throes of a blogathon, this time hosted by the excellent blogs Once upon a screen... and Classic Movie Hub Blog.  The topic: "Dynamic Duos in Classic Film."  I was a bit late to the sign-up for this blogathon, so missed the chance to jump on some of the real classic duos, both in terms of romance and comedy, which is fine, because I have read the work of many of the bloggers involved and I am certain that they will more than do justice to the topics.  As such, I decided a bit of creativity could not hurt in the endeavor and I began to think of a dynamic duo within the context of classic film, pre-1970, that managed to hearken back to an earlier period, while still remaining within the confines of "classic."  I realize that this may have seemed like an absurd endeavor, but considering that the collective of the sixties were a watershed moment in history, it by extension assumes that the same rings true for movies as well.  With that in mind, I realized that I had the perfect offering for this blogathon with what may well be the most important work to come out of the 1960's in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.  The now well-established classic was by many accounts, the premier film in the French New Wave movement and invariably changed the language one uses to describe cinema.  This masterwork in European filmmaking, is a rare treasure that offers many varied and legitimate critical levels, while also proving and fresh and unique viewing experience.  Trust me, I have seen the film countless times and it only proves more engaging, the more my cinematic language and consumption matures.  In fact, the current Criterion bluray available only helps to add layers to the film's conceptual framework.  I say all this to set up how it is very much a work that exists within the important film's involving dynamic duos.  Part romantic comedy, part crime thriller there is, excluding Tarantino, perhaps not a more cinematically referential work than Godard's 1960 breakout hit and one of its many points of reference come in the duos of classic noir thrillers, wherein Godard borrows the dynamism of the genre and its gendered duos, using its tropes to push his hip, wild and fast-paced narrative, while also completely calling attention to the frailty of the structure of such an assumedly dynamic pairing.  If some of the other works mentioned during this blogathon embrace the lasting nature of the romantic dynamic duo, it is fair to say that Breathless makes viewers aware of both the performance involved in such duality, while also suggesting that at some point the differences in the duo will result in a collision of fatal proportions.

While the film is about a romantic coupling to a degree, it does begin focusing primarily on the film's "protagonist" Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) a part-time thief and full-time woman admirer, who is constantly on a quest to make money, while spouting his own frustrations and problems with the opposite sex.  Indeed, Michel makes it quite clear that women, in his eyes, are incapable of functioning on any legitimate societal level, taking particular disdain in their always being broke and their being terrible drivers, never mind that he himself is constantly without money and certainly is not the most sane or logical of automobile operators.  When an auto theft goes awry and Michel murders a cop to save his own life, he moves into a constant state of paranoia and flight from authorities, which seems to be fine, until he runs into Patricia (Jean Seberg) an American living in Paris while working as a correspondent/salesperson for the European branch of The New York Herald-Tribune.  While the narrative does not outright express it as fact, it is assumed that Patricia and Michel have had some intimate past together, indeed, Michel admits to returning to visit her, almost entirely on a desire to have sex.  Patricia who is initially dismissive of Michel due to his one-track mind and his flippant attitude towards her and most women, nonetheless, agrees to spend time with him, when he seeks shelter from the authorities in her apartment.  At this point the two spend an entire afternoon, evening and morning discussing the ethics of love, lust and humanity, while engaging in intercourse.  In the process, the two become more romantically entwined than before, admitting their deep affection for one another and while they would enjoy the possibility of staying in the moment, Patricia must return to work, while Michel must accrue the necessary funds to flee from his imminent arrest.  It is while Patricia is at work that French police approach her with information regarding Michel, threatening her livelihood and visa status should she not help their investigation.  At first, Patricia is committed to her affections for Michel and stays by his side, yet when it becomes clear that he is still occupied with his criminal life, Patricia breaks down and reports his location to the police, an act she clearly regrets immediately.  Irony arises when the two are driving and the police finally catch up with Michel, only moments after he obtains the money he as been seeking since the onset of the film.  Realizing the futility of the entire endeavor he flees down the street, only to be gunned down by officers.  Patricia distraught runs to Michel's aide and stares at him as he slowly fades into death.  Michel simply dismisses her and her foolishness, claiming that her betrayal makes him want to puke, although a language barrier causes Patricia, in the closing moments of the film, to wonder exactly what "puke" means.

It is precisely this closing moment of Patricia being "lost in translation" as it were, that speaks to the particular dynamism of the duo of Michel and Patricia.  Language being the first obvious difference between the two, lays out a duality of difference that is often challenged, ignored and undermined in the hopes that the two can create some degree of a lasting and meaningful romance together.  Many of the classic Hollywood comedic duos play upon this difference, while, ultimately, noting that the pair can overcome adversity and find a powerful force in love, and Breathless, certainly borrows from that tradition.  However, Godard has over the years been very expressive of the major influence the genre of film noir had on his works, particularly this and Alphaville.  In as much, Michel and Patricia are as much a hapless hero and femme fatale, as they are a romantic comedic pairing.  However, even this is revisionist to a heavy degree, because Michel, while misogynist and a criminal, does not exude the same hardboiled chiseled nature of his idol Humphrey Bogart, in fact, when his absurdly effeminate mugshot appears in the papers, one cannot help but laugh at how non-threatening he looks, despite having committed a murder earlier in the film.  He is not the traditional masculine figure of the genre, just as Patricia is not truly a femme fatale.  Sure it is her betrayal that causes his downfall, but there is not the sense of remorselessness that comes with a Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.  The duo is not a pair of drifting individuals who come together for a fleeting moment, but instead to opposing forces, that find themselves so magnetically drawn to each other that their cohesion factors heavily into the film.  The hotel room scene, where they consummate their love for one another, lasts roughly thirty plus minutes, nearly constituting half of the film, which is deservedly so, because what happens prior is their movement at a high speed towards one another, while the post-apartment moments represent the aftermath of their collision, which has a very fatal result for Michel.  The ignorance of Patricia at the films closing could be read as demeaning to her character, but I think it simply speaks to a larger issue of duality in love, where ideologies never truly mesh and because of such inherent miscommunication one partner is always far less aware of the damage done to the other, so while it is literal in the film, it plays into a much larger metaphorical statement.  In the end, Godard is clearly claiming that love can arise between even the most unusual of duos, and while it can certainly burst through barriers of language, ideology and personal desire, doing so also runs the risk of one or both of the people involved being trampled in the process, or in the case of this film being shot in the streets of Paris.

Key Scene:  While it is quite an extended bit to consider a scene, I do thing the entirety of the dialogue and interactions occurring within the apartment, might be the single greatest moment in modern cinema.

Criterion Bluray.  Buy it...for your health.


  1. I saw this film for the first time about a month or so ago, and I must admit that I did not enjoy it -- I didn't know what was going on half the time, and I didn't care. I did, however, enjoy your write-up on the film, and appreciate your analysis and explanation -- I've come away understanding much more about this movie than I did after I saw it!

  2. That is actually quite understandable, it exists as a work that rejected much of the style and narrative structure of classic Hollywood, and to be fair my appreciation for the film was not as great as it is now, during my first, or even second viewing of the film. It is a bit of a chaotic storyline for sure, but Godard originally had a 2 1/2 hour movie composed, only to be told he had to cut an hour away, which might explain its seeming choppiness. Of course, how he chose to edit said cuts, led to a complete revolution in the language of cinema. Should you ever decide to revisit the film, I would suggest watching a couple of the classic film noir romantic pairings Double Indemnity and particularly The Maltese Falcon. It will help to shed some light on where Godard was going, at least conceptually, with this film.