A little bit of historical context is needed to fully appreciate Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. This has been my third viewing of the film and, thanks to the fact that it is also one of the most celebrated products of the French New Wave, I am now more equipped to see the film beyond the literal sense.
One thing that bothered me the first time I saw it was the brush-the-lip gesture Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo) kept doing all throughout the movie. Apparently it was a nod to Hollywood actor Humphrey Bogart who is vital to the development of the protagonist’s character. Michel, a man on the run for shooting a police officer, is trying to emulate the charisma and bad-assery of Bogart known for his roles in iconic movies such as Casablanca.
Humphrey Bogart | Screenshot
Without recognizing who Bogart is and the fact that he’s American while Michel is obviously French, one could get easily lost in the cultural significance of Breathless. It was made following a pact between France and the US which opened the French market for American products including cultural creations such as movies. Breathless, then, becomes not only a demonstration of technical innovation in film-making but also an exploration of a nation’s identity during the early stages of American cultural imperialism.
The other character, Michel’s female interest Patricia (Jean Seberg), is a full-blooded American. Unlike Michel whose impulsive hoodlum aspirations could be easily read, Patricia is not as easy to decipher. She seems like someone who calculates her every step and every decision but also bases them on individualistic impulse. After ratting on Michel towards the end of the movie, we learn that it was merely a personal test for her to know whether she loves him or not.
Halfway through the movie, Michel also asks her why she writes for a newspaper and she says it’s to have money and to not rely on men. She prides herself for her independence multiple times throughout the movie.
Yet Patricia’s place in the film is hinged on other men. We see her ask Michel for a new dress and a ride to work. She gets her writing gigs from a man who isn’t very subtle about his sexual interest in her. And during a press conference, an American writer falls victim to her charm and is obviously smitten.
“Do women have a role to play in society?” she asks the writer Mr. Parvulesco.
“Only if she’s charming and wears a striped dress and dark glasses,” he answers.
Londeh! | Screenshot
Patricia is complex, and so is the film’s feminist undertones. As Michel constantly prods Patricia into joining him to Italy, she comes up with various reasons to decline no matter how irrational they may be. Some critics may also interpret her seemingly hip and free Parisian lifestyle as female independence. However, her reliance on her parents to pay for her Sorbonne tuition and her dependence on other men to be able to live the way she does are both indicators that the woman isn’t entirely as free and as empowered as she claims.
But these contrasting elements—of Hollywood’s big budget versus New Wave ingenuity, of jumpcuts versus tracking shots, of empowerment versus submission—are what makes Breathless truly striking. It aims to both imitate and break Hollywood conventions while in the process, we the audience get to witness an endearing and thought-provoking story set in the idyllic streets of Paris.