Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film available on streaming. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
In November of 1959, moviegoing audiences in the United States got their first taste of what would become the French New Wave style of filmmaking. The 400 Blows was unlike anything movie fans had seen before. The film follows the adventures of Antoine Doinel, a young boy growing up in Paris who is misunderstood by his parents and peers. A detailed character study, the movie sought to highlight the harsh treatment of juvenile defenders in France at the time. Perhaps most famously, The 400 Blows marked the arrival of an amazing new talent in cinema, François Truffaut.
Formerly a film critic, Francois Truffaut decided to try his hand at making films in the late ’50s. Truffaut devised and championed auteur theory, the thought that a film reflects the personal creative vision of its director. The success of The 400 Blows brought this theory and the French New Wave into the spotlight. It also allowed for filmmakers to collaborate and experiment with the medium. In particular, one friendship would develop out of this camaraderie that would change cinema forever: the one between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
Godard started off as a fellow critic for the highly influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Eventually, he began to create and garner attention for his own short films. Truffaut and Godard became good friends, even developing a story together in 1956. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, Godard sought Truffaut’s permission to turn the outline into his first feature, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless).
In contrast to Truffaut’s meticulously-written scripts, Godard preferred to improvise the dialogue entirely. Breathless cinematographer Raoul Coutard remarked to The Guardian on the film’s 50th anniversary, “There was the original press article on which Truffaut had based his story outline, but every day Jean-Luc would just turn up with his little exercise book and scribble some notes and some dialogue and we would rehearse maybe a couple of times so I knew where to point the camera vaguely.” Godard took the conventional rules of moviemaking, threw them out, and did what he felt was appropriate.
Breathless is a simple story at its core, told in a hyperactive, roaming style. The plot concerns Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a Humphrey Bogart-loving thief who shoots and kills a policeman while stealing a car. Poiccard escapes to Paris and turns to help from one of his many love interests, young American girl Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). She attempts to hide Michel from the cops while he calls in favors for a loan that would let him escape to Italy. The film has many classic themes found in cinema such as love, betrayal, sadness, and greed. What makes Breathless an influential classic is the innovative ways the film chose to tell this simple tale.
The use of jump cuts (an abrupt transition from one spot to another) throughout the movie was remarkable for the time. These cuts kept the film at a shorter running time, but more importantly trimmed the “fat” from the story. This technique allows audiences to stay focused on the essential parts of the plot. Decades later, this style can be seen all over from MTV to Michael Bay movies. Additionally, the roaming, hyperactive style in which the camera follows the two lead characters was also unheard of at the time. Aided by the jazz score of the movie, Breathless feels urgent, energetic, and spontaneous.
A look at the use of jump cuts in Breathless.
Lastly, the two main characters of the movie are worth nothing. Jean Seberg’s role as Patricia is one of the great movie heroines of all-time. She’s not only independent and strong, but also not afraid to be sexual and confident. Seberg’s appearance – her short-haired pixie cut, ballet flats, and schoolgirl dresses – were a deliberate contrast to other bombshell actresses of the time like Marilyn Monroe. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s suave hero was also unconventional for the time. Sporting a classic Humphrey Bogart look, Michel had a sense of tension and apathetic passivity to him. He was a hero who didn’t care if he lived or died, but he was going to do either with a sense of style and intensity. A look at the work of directors including Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino shows the wide influence Godard’s masterpiece has had on cinema.
During production, Godard could not afford a dolly for the camera which would allow for long, steady shots. Instead, he pushed around cinematographer Raoul Coutard in a wheelchair while filming many scenes.
The entire film had to be dubbed in post-production because the Cameflex Camera used during filming was so noisy and incapable of synchronizing sound and picture.
There are two cameos in the film that cinephiles should take note of. Famed director Jean-Pierre Melville makes an appearance towards the end as Parvulesco, the subject of the press interview. Melville is known as the “Godfather of the New Wave” in French cinema. Jean-Luc Godard also has a small cameo in Breathless near the end of the movie as a bystander reading the paper who recognizes Michel and runs off to tell the police.
Breathless is currently available to stream on TCM On Demand (until 8/6) and Hulu as part of The Criterion Collection.
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