Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a small time crook who lives for the moment, and dreams of escaping France to start again in Italy, somewhere in Rome if he's lucky. Today he steals a car and sets off into the countryside, driving far too fast and far too dangerously as well, all the while chatting away to the audience he likes to believe is hanging on his every word and move. Pausing to nearly pick up a couple of hitchhiking women but then deciding against it when he judges them too ugly, he discovers a gun in the glove compartment and is delighted, but it will prove his downfall when he is stopped by a traffic policeman and casually shoots him dead...
Michel's problem, you see, is that he thinks life should be more like the movies, and that's what guides his behaviour in this, perhaps the most famous of the Nouvelle Vague movies to emerge from France in the late fifties and the rest of the sixties. Jean-Luc Godard was the man at the helm, an arrogant figure who nevertheless possessed boundless talent for creating the sort of cinematic magic that his main character here wants to exist in, and he had assistance from fellow New Wave notables François Truffaut (on story duties) and Claude Chabrol (as some kind of creative consultant), marking this out as an ideal synthesis of the movement's pioneers.
À bout de souffle, also called Breathless in English, certainly made waves around the world, but not everyone responded to it, and so it remains today with many proudly proclaiming that it does nothing for them, unaware of its great influence down movie history in works they do like. What always comes up in relation to this was the jump cuts, an editing technique Godard devised as an economical method of keeping the plot moving at a neat ninety minutes, and still conveys a sense of urgency, as if Michel is growing aware his time is limited. But there was more to the appeal of this, as a lot of what makes it so vital was a vivid immediacy: something about its use of locations made it feel as if you were really there in 1959 Paris, with all that potential ahead of you.
Helping were the performances of the central couple. Belmondo was apparently greatly surprised when this was lauded as an instant classic, yet his informal charisma and way with throwing out lines as if he really were Humphrey Bogart, the star Michel idolises, crafted a personality who should have been superficial and repellent (he shows no remorse about his crimes) yet actually came across as a doomed romantic with an almost parodic sense of humour. Meanwhile, Jean Seberg surviving Otto Preminger's career advice as his girlfriend Patricia Franchini was the sort of femme fatale you could well imagine Bogart falling for against his better judgement, an aspiring journalist who currently sells papers on the street, and whose connection to Michel is as shallow as it is necessary: they are a perfect couple in that they are both geared towards setting up the finale.
That finale sums up the irony and tragedy of Michel in that he loves the idea of being in a movie so much that life rejects his starry-eyed dreaming until it has a chance to give him the most fitting movie movie ending to that career. He has just made too many enemies from the cops to his fellow criminals, but the final betrayal comes from someone he thought he could love, with Godard's suspicion of true romance both bitter and oddly romantic in itself. With the sleek black and white photography effortlessly evocative of the time and place, À bout de souffle was an encapsulation of the cool and glamour of the best kind of escapism, all the while acknowledging the popular myths that represented. Later on, Godard would make sure to publically reject the Hollywood product, yet here, in his feature debut, he was dedicating his efforts to Poverty Row studio Monogram and rather slavishly emulating their style. If you ever wanted to walk down a Paris street calling "New York Herald Tribune!" or tell a beautiful woman who asks if she should wear a bra "Az you like eet, beybey!" this was the film for you.