It’s especially impressive how completely Jean Seberg owns Breathless considering what she’s up against.
Not only is there the boys-and-their-toys screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard, from a story by Francois Truffaut (it’s all brimmed hats, sleek cars and dangerous guns). She also has to contend with the preening rooster performance of Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel, a petty criminal who’s on the run after killing a traffic cop (not that this prevents him from aggressively wooing Seberg’s American girl in Paris).
On top of all of this is the considerable sexism of Godard himself, making his directorial debut. Godard may have helped reinvent the cinema with Breathless – the jump cuts, free-wheeling camera and air of reckless amorality were integral to the French New Wave – but in attitude it’s almost prehistoric. The movie has the mentality, though not the crude brushstrokes, of a cave man.
At least it does until Seberg’s scenes, where the sexual politics become knotty in a way that predicts the social revolutions of the next two decades. Michel claims that men are interested in women, while women are only interested in money. But Seberg’s Patricia – always in charge and endearingly aloof – has a less possessive opinion of the subject. She works, she says, to “be independent of men.”
The circular tete-a-tete between Michel and Patricia – especially during a famously elongated bedroom scene – is a mélange of flirting and social debate, and to be fair some of this romantic prickliness should be credited to Godard. I’m suspicious, though, because even if the movie allows room for feminism, it never seems to believe in it.
Instead, Breathless believes in Humphrey Bogart. Michel even pauses at a film poster at one point to worshipfully gaze at Bogart’s image. This was one of the first movies about movies – or at least the cool of movies, rather than the business of Hollywood (A Star is Born) or the glamour of its players (Sunset Boulevard). Like Pulp Fiction, Breathless runs on pure movie love, even as its heedless editing and bursts of jazz were redefining the art form. If the picture feels slight for a masterpiece, that’s because Breathless is primarily about itself.