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À bout de souffle (1960)

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À bout de souffle (Breathless), directed by Jean-Luc Godard, is a hard film to review. On one hand, I love it: it’s fluffy, fun, jazzy, and set in Paris. On the other hand, it’s only so-so: jump cuts distract from the almost nonexistent plot, faux-improvised dialogue adds nothing to the story, and there are many pointless scenes. Yet it’s such an iconic film – and the leads are so charismatic – that even though it is a bit overhyped I have to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Godard is a very polarizing director, his personality aside – I’ve found that most people either love him or hate him. Personally, I have yet to form an opinion. He’s a groundbreaking director, there’s no doubt about that, but he almost oozes pretention. À bout de souffle was his first full length feature film, and it’s obvious (my first Godard film was Pierrot le fou, a much more polished film and one of his best). There are hundreds of unprofessional jump cuts in the film, and yes, I know they’re meant to be artsy, but they really distract from the flow of the film and the viewing experience.

À bout de souffle is the story of car thief Michel (think Grand Theft Auto: Paris) who steals a car and accidentally kills a policeman in the act. He travels back to Paris to meet up with Patricia, an American student he met in Nice, and ask her to go to Italy with him. They spend a lot of time talking as he convinces her to go with him, and afterwards, they are confronted by the police.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

The strength and the enjoyment of the film lies with the two leads, Jean-Paul Belmondo (whose abs also play a supporting role) and the American Jean Seberg. While it takes a while to warm up to Belmondo’s Bogart-obsessed, misogynistic Michel, there’s no doubt that Belmondo’s presence keeps the viewers engaged in Michel’s story. And then there’s Seberg as Patricia. She’s dazzling, charming, and cute. I wanted to be Seberg as I watched À bout de souffle. Everything about her was effortless and cool – her hair, her striped ensembles, her voice…really, I could go on and on. It isn’t hard to see why Michel is so captivated by her and why he almost literally orbits around her.

At times, À bout de souffle is ironic and paradoxical. It’s almost overtly sexist with Michel’s treatment of women, yet Patricia is undoubtedly a modern women. She works, lives on her own, seeks out an education,  sleeps with other men, and speaks her mind. She’s a free women on the edge of second-wave feminism. I’m not sure if Patricia’s freedom (and her ability to make her own choices, despite Michel’s wishes) was purposely juxtaposed with Michel’s sexism, but it does add an interesting element to the film.

The soundtrack by Martial Solal is also worth noting. It’s airy and jazzy and really adds to the ambiance of the film. I’ve heard that some people have watched À bout de souffle solely for that soundtrack, and I can see why. It practically embodies the French New Wave and the free, youthful style of 1960s cinema.

À bout de souffle is simply a film that every film lover needs to watch. It’s significant, it’s iconic, it kicked off the French New Wave. Seberg and Belmondo sizzle against the Parisian backdrop. It has one of the best soundtracks of any film I’ve ever seen. It’s not The Best Film Ever. Hell, it’s not even Godard’s best film. But it’s enjoyable and interesting and worth a watch.

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