Michel is a small-time thief who shoots a police officer. Wanted by the authorities, he nevertheless begins a relationship with an American student in Paris, hoping to convince her to join him as he makes his escape to Italy.
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A definitive example of the French New Wave, directed by one of the movement’s most popular directors, Á Bout de Souffle (better known by its English title of Breathless) is, for want of a better description, a very French film. The narrative is lackadaisical; the main characters are laid back and oh so very cool. It is a film in which it seems nothing happens, yet when the final scene fades to black the viewer is never left frustrated, wondering where the last ninety minutes of their life went.
This may be because the film succeeds in capturing a period in time, and the mentality of a generation growing ever more dissatisfied with their lot in life. By the end of the 1960s Paris would be torn apart by widespread rioting that instigated a move away from old conservative beliefs to freer, more liberal ideologies; the French New Wave was a spark that would set off this explosion, and Á Bout de Souffle is one of its most enduring pieces.
The story is a simple one of a no-good hoodlum on the run from the police, using and seducing a young woman while he tries to make his escape. Michel, played by a sly and sardonic Jean-Paul Belmondo, models himself after Humphrey Bogart and has a great love for classic American film noir. It’s really no surprise that he should fall for Patricia, an American studying in Paris who sells copies of the New York Herald Tribune and who gives off the air of a devilish pixie with her short blond hair and seductive eyes. Here are two people who seem to float through life, unaware or (more likely) uncaring of the dangers closing in on them. For Michel, especially, life is lived within the moment; he is too busy indulging in American cinema or philosophising with Patricia to worry about the police inspector closing in on him.
Á Bout de Souffle is full of the idiosyncrasies that would become clichés of the French New Wave. Dialogue feels surreal, precious, almost preposterous (“What is your greatest ambition in life?” “To become immortal... and then die.”) The editing is erratic, relying on jump cuts to play around with the passage of time and the development of the characters. When the camera gets the chance to move, it does so with great enthusiasm, walking up and down the street with our protagonists as Patricia tries to hawk newspapers, or capturing the intoxicating energy of a car theft. This was Godard’s first feature length film, and like many of his contemporaries he sought to lash out against the restrictive rules of filmmaking laid down by the last generation. The result was a vibrant, exciting movement that took the teachings of Italian neo-realism and introduced them to new audiences.
The influence of Á Bout de Souffle is still seen today in everything from American indie cinema to Anime. While it helped create the clichés that everyone else used to make jokes at the expense of French films, it is still a bold, exciting feature. It keeps a relaxed grip on narrative, preferring to examine the character of Michel, the precursor of the Angry Young Man, the rebel without a cause and less of a clue. It manages to be sexy without being explicit, remarkably intelligent while mystifyingly silly, and most certainly very, very French.