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The opening salvo of the French New Wave.


Legend has it that much of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was shot from a wheelchair, with cinematographer Raoul Coutard pushed along by the director himself, in lieu of using a dolly they couldn’t afford. That can-do spirit, evident everywhere from Godard’s novel approach to trimming the running time (cut parts of scenes rather than removing them wholesale) to his means of keeping the script spontaneous (giving the actors their lines each morning) ushered in a new school of filmmaking.

Breathless was the first major product of the French New Wave, a clear break from the ornate period pieces then in vogue, and fronted not just by filmmakers but by film critics working for the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma. It’s no surprise, then, that despite all the bold experimentation with cinematic rules of space and time, the film is also steeped in tradition. The biggest tell is when charming no-good criminal Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, a former boxer) admires a portrait of The Maltese Falcon star Humphrey Bogart, then rubs his lips and fixes his own expression in imitation of Bogey’s tough guy mug. Breathless isn’t just a dead ringer for American gangster pictures, though: it’s a study in self-fashioning. Michel, after all, is more cinephile than hardened gangster, a sentimental guy who daydreams of shootouts from his dashboard but doesn’t seem to know his way around an actual gun.

Godard spoke of the film as a documentary of actors Belmondo and Jean Seberg, Michel’s American lover, a novice journalist who pays her way in Paris by selling copies of the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysées. What’s arguably freshest about the film now, after the New Wave itself has been firmly entrenched in cinema culture, is their relationship. Fueled by Martial Solal’s propulsive jazz score and Godard and Coutard’s restless camera, Breathless is never as engaging as when its leads lock their heads in a series of high-stakes games with goofy rhymes and grisly payoffs.