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26. A Bout de Souffle
Breathless

 

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Breathless (French: À bout de souffle; literally "at breath's end") is a 1960 French drama film directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Godard's first feature-length film is among the inaugural films of the French New Wave. It was derived from a scenario by fellow New Wave director, François Truffaut. The film was released the year after Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Together the three films brought international acclaim to the nouvelle vague. At the time, Breathless attracted much attention for its bold visual style and the innovative editing use of jump cuts.

Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young petty criminal who models himself on the film persona of Humphrey Bogart. After stealing a car in Marseille, Michel shoots a policeman who has followed him onto a country road. Penniless and on the run from the police, he turns to his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), a student and aspiring journalist, who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris. The ambivalent Patricia unwittingly hides him while they dally in her apartment as he simultaneously tries to seduce her and call in a loan to fund their escape to Italy. At one point, Patricia says she is pregnant with Michel's child. She learns that Michel is on the run when questioned by the police. Eventually, she betrays him, but before the police arrive, she tells Michel what she did. He is somewhat resigned to a life in prison, and does not try to escape at first. The police shoot him in the street and, after a protracted death run, he dies.
[edit]Closing dialogue
Michel's death scene is one of the most iconic scenes in the film, but the film's final lines of dialogue are the source of some confusion for English-speaking audiences. In some translations, it is unclear whether Michel is condemning Patricia, or alternatively condemning the world in general.
As Patricia and Detective Vital catch up with the dying Michel, there is the following exchange, according to the transcript published in Dudley Andrew's book on the film:
MICHEL: C'est vraiment dégueulasse.
PATRICIA: Qu'est ce qu'il a dit?
VITAL: Il a dit que vous êtes vraiment "une dégueulasse".
PATRICIA: Qu'est ce que c'est "dégueulasse"?
In his book, Andrew translates the dialogue thus:
MICHEL: That's really disgusting.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said, "You are really a bitch."
PATRICIA: What is "déguelasse" [bitch]?
Andrew's translation obscures the subtlety of Vital's misquotation of Michel; in the original French, it is not clear whether Vital misquotes him deliberately, or simply mishears. Other translations have made the possibility that Vital mishears Michel more apparent. In the English captioning of the 2001 Fox-Lorber Region One DVD, "déguelasse" is translated as "scumbag", producing the following dialogue:
MICHEL: It's a real scumbag.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said, "You're a real scumbag".
PATRICIA: What's a scumbag?
The 2007 Criterion Collection Region One DVD uses a less literal translation that renders the French into a familiar American colloquialism:
MICHEL: Makes me want to puke.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said you make him want to puke.
PATRICIA: What's that mean, "puke"?
[edit]Production

Jean-Paul Belmondo had already appeared in a few feature films prior to Breathless, but he had no name recognition outside of France at the time Godard was planning the film. In order to broaden the film's commercial appeal, Godard sought out a prominent leading lady who would be willing to work in his low-budget film. He came to Jean Seberg through her then-husband, Francois Moreuil, with whom he had been acquainted. During the production, Seberg privately questioned Godard's style and wondered if the film would be commercially viable. After the film's success, she collaborated with Godard again on the short Le grand escroc, which revived her Breathless character.

Godard envisaged Breathless as a reportage (documentary), and tasked cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot the entire movie on a handheld camera, with next to no lighting. The production was filmed on location in Paris during the months of August and September in 1959, using an Eclair Cameflex. Almost the whole film had to be dubbed in postproduction because of the noisiness of the Cameflex camera.

Breathless makes numerous references to films. Michel's constant lip-rubbing is a direct homage to Humphrey Bogart, a poster of whom Michel gazes at in one scene and says, "Bogie". Moreover, Patricia comments on Michel's similarity to Bogart when she tells him that he is only an image and should say more about himself.
The film includes additional references to many other films. In one scene, "Bob Montagne" is mentioned, an apparent reference to the proto-New Wave film Bob le Flambeur (1955), the title character of which shares the same name. A few American film posters are seen in the streets, including Humphrey Bogart's The Harder They Fall and Ten Seconds to Hell with Jack Palance (who would later work with Godard on Contempt). Michel and Patricia also attend a screening of Budd Boetticher's Westbound and she sneaks into a theatre showing Preminger's film noir, Whirlpool (1949) with Gene Tierney.
The film also makes reference to Godard's work as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma: a woman (uncredited) attempts to sell a copy of Cahiers to Michel on the street, saying "Monsieur, do you support youth?" He angrily refuses, saying "No, I prefer the old."
According to Barbet Schroeder, Godard's original title for the film was Moi, un blanc ("Me, a white man"). This was in response to a 1958 film by Jean Rouch, entitled Moi, un noir ("Me, a black man").

Allusions and remakes

Godard's own Pierrot le fou stars the same actor (Belmondo) and repeats phrases from Breathless (including "We are all dead men on leave" and "Allons-y, Alonso"). Otherwise the plot is very different.
The film A Woman Is a Woman, which was also directed by Godard and costars Belmondo, includes a reference to Breathless. At one point, Belmondo's character says he needs to get home because Breathless is being shown on TV.
In the film, Trafic by Jacques Tati, a young girl named Maria, who, like Patricia, is also not French, asks "Qu'est-ce que c'est 'dégueulasse'?" in a casual conversation.
In the Youth in Revolt book series, the film is frequently mentioned as is Jean-Paul Belmondo. Subsequently, the film adaption of the novel features multiple references, with film stills decorating Sheeni's bedroom.
Bernardo Bertolucci utilizes a scene from this film in The Dreamers.
A 1976 film by Amos Poe, Unmade Beds, is an homage to and parody of Breathless.
An American remake of the same name was made in 1983, starring Richard Gere and Valérie Kaprisky, directed by Jim McBride. It is set in California, and the nationalities of the protagonists are swapped: the man is American and the woman is French.
In Noah Baumbach's 2005 film The Squid And The Whale, Jeff Daniels' character, Bernard, takes a fall on the street and recalls the last scene of the film to his wife, before being loaded into an ambulance.
In the first scene of the The L Word episode "Luminous", Mia Kirshner's character, Jenny Schecter, speaks French and wears a New York Tribune T-shirt in an allusion to Patricia from Breathless.
The Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up includes a reference to Breathless, when Ben says that instead of playing paintball he would rather see the movie at LACMA.
An episode of the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex lifts several lines from the film, remakes several scenes, and shows a film reel with the French title on it. It also mistranslates the William Faulkner quote from the film and shows a reel of another film by Godard, Alphaville.

Breathless has been available on DVD for several years in the English-speaking world, in editions distributed by Fox Lorber in Region 1 and by Optimum Releasing in Region 2. In both of these releases, the film has a greenish tinge. This was removed for the Region 1 2-disc release by the Criterion Collection in 2007, which features a fully-restored image approved by director of photography, Raoul Coutard. The 2007 Criterion release is illegal for sale in Quebec, Canada because it falls under Bill 101's law that prohibits French films from being released with an English title, although it has brief sequences in English. Criterion did not produce a French cover for the DVD release of Breathless.

Awards

1960 Prix Jean Vigo
1960 Berlin International Film Festival: Silver Bear for Best Director
1961 French Syndicate of Cinema Critics: Critics Award for Best Film
The film came 86th in "The Best Films of All Time" in a Channel 4 vote of 2001.


Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Produced by Georges de Beauregard
Written by Jean-Luc Godard
François Truffaut
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo
Jean Seberg
Music by Martial Solal
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Editing by Cécile Decugis
Lila Herman
Distributed by Films Around the World, Inc.
Release date(s) March 16, 1960 (France)
February 7, 1961 (US)
Running time 87 minutes
Country France
Language French
English
Budget FRF400,000
Gross revenue $67,464

 

Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel Poiccard
Jean Seberg as Patricia Franchini
Daniel Boulanger as Police Inspector Vital
Jean-Pierre Melville as Parvulesco
Jean-Luc Godard as an informer
Roger Hanin as Cal Zombach





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