||Breathless wasn't supposed to change the movies forever, it was supposed to be director Jean-Luc Godard's tribute to Monogram Pictures, the tiny, Poverty Row studio best known for churning out cheapskate thrillers because that was all they could afford to make, with the odd hit series like the latter days of the Charlie Chans to keep them afloat. But somehow the world's youth in 1960 latched onto this, A Bout de Souffle in its original French, as something for them, something to blow away the cobwebs of pop culture in a way that Marlon Brando and James Dean had not quite managed to do, Brando because he aged out of rebelliousness, and Dean because he died.
Here was a French star who suddenly seemed the most vital actor on the planet: Jean-Paul Belmondo. He had made films before Breathless, and was highly sceptical about its potential while he was shooting it, so even he was surprised just how well it took off, as indeed he did, literally, when he became a unique film actor who flitted between the arthouse and the popular, making the most of his newfound fame from then on to show off his prowess as an action star in hits like That Man from Rio. Imagine if Arnold Schwarzenegger had been a regular in the films of Peter Greenaway and you have some idea of the weird career path Belmondo picked up for himself.
Not for nothing did Jackie Chan consider him the greatest action star of all time, but it all started with his immense cool as his petty gangster character emulated another iconic actor, Humphrey Bogart: Belmondo chainsmokes like Bogie, and frequently rubs his mouth with his thumb in a way the Hollywood legend did. Bogart was less than half a decade dead by this point, and this imitator both was not the same kind of performer, yet also had a similar appeal, for neither was conventionally handsome (Belmondo's time as a boxer had distorted his features), but held a magnetic charisma that had you thinking, yes, I want to see what this person will do next.
Jean-Paul was not alone on the screen here, as his co-star was also a cult star, Jean Seberg, though the motives for her fans to seek out her movies were different thanks to a tragic background to their manufacture. She had been the discovery of German Hollywood director Otto Preminger, but the films he placed her in failed to create a new superstar as he had hoped, and by the time she was in Breathless her career was on the verge of floundering. This low budget crime flick would do to keep her working until something better happened along, she thought, but considering the bad time she had making it, nobody was more surprised than her when it became the must-see event it was.
They were a strange couple, this mixture of Hollywood directness and French savoir-faire, but Belmondo's Michel loved Seberg's Patricia just as Godard loved the lack of pretension in those Hollywood B-movies he regarded as the ultimate in cinema, after making his name as a critic deriding the French output, sometimes fairly, others utterly unfairly. That was the key to Breathless, it took place in a universe that cared nothing for you, unless you could manufacture a great, cinematic story for your life, being like the movies was really all that mattered with all the excitement, romance and grand concepts it attracted for the characters it invited us to watch.
This was also the key to Michel: if he were not played by a man with film star qualities, there's no way he would be interesting to accompany, after all he frequently acts like a thug, he is shallow when it comes to his relationships with women, and he lives entirely in the moment, with no responsibilities. Therefore he was like a little boy who had seen Bogart in a matinee gangster item and decided to live his life by this image of cool, and that is why we find ourselves warming to him, since we realise it is silly to devote your existence to a fiction that cannot respond back, yet at the same time it's irresistible because we can see a world like our own but different enough to captivate utterly.
Hence Michel is oddly unreal, larger than life while also threatened by it. Yes, he kills a cop in the first five minutes as if he were a scummy criminal, but just before we have been laughing at his ridiculous monologue as he chatted with us and himself, warming to this absurd, fantasising man who has taken the fictional world too far. When Richard Gere remade this in the nineteen-eighties under Jim McBride's direction, it was The Silver Surfer in comics his Belmondo stand-in idolised, which emphasised the adolescence of his personality but was not really comparable; Gere was always impressed with his stylishness, inviting your admiration, while Belmondo was more self-deprecating, and in that, more endearing as we never quite believe his dilemma exists outside of the pictures. It's cinema in its most perfect incarnation, taking itself as seriously as any artform, yet winking at us in a manner only cinema can.
[Studio Canal release this on a fully restored, 4K 50th Anniversary Blu-ray with these features:
NEW Still not... Breathless - a recent documentary interviewing top French talent about the film,
Room 12, Hotel de Suede - a 1993 TV documentary set in the hotel room part of the film takes place in,
Introduction with Jefferson Hack,
Film Presentation by Colin MacCabe,
Tempo - Godard Episode - the vintage UK arts programme interviews the director in the mid-1960s.]