Back in the 1950s, Francois Truffaut had written a brief treatment for a crime inspired by a news story, but the project was sidelined while he made "400 Blows." After the surprise success of his debut feature, he began to develop other films and passed his original treatment on to Godard, who decided to use it as the basis for his own debut, "A Bout de Souffle" ("Breathless", 1960). Godard fleshed out Truffaut's treatment, expanding some of the scenes and significantly changing the ending.
The movie begins with a tall man standing in the shadows of Marseilles street reading a paper. Wearing a baggy, crumpled suit, with hat cocked and fag in mouth, Michel Poiccard seems almost American. Within seconds, he has stolen a car and is heading for Paris. En-route to the capital he discovers a handgun in the glove compartment. With his gangster outfit complete, he plays at being a hood, aiming the gun out of the car window. When two policemen appear in his rear view mirror, Michel veers of the road and no longer acts the role. He shoots one of the policemen dead then hotfoots it across the countryside.
Michel reaches Paris and hooks up with Patricia, an American student who sells copies of the New York Herald Tribune. Michel has come to Paris for two reasons: to reclaim some money from an acquaintance and to persuade Patricia to accompany him to Italy. Chain-smoking and determined to live dangerously, his time in the city slowly runs out, as the police catch up with him when he is betrayed by his girlfriend.
Directed by Godard, with 'artistic and technical advice' from Claude Chabrol, "Breathless" is for many the quintessential New Wave film. Famously, Godard made corrections to the script right until the last minute, whispering the lines to the actors. For the tracking shots, he pushed the cameraman around Paris in a wheelchair, in order to save money on customary pieces of equipment. Actor and the protagonist of the movie, Belmondo became the New Wave's king of cool and enjoyed roles in both "A Woman is a Woman" and "Pierrot Goes Wild."
"Breathless" set the mold for the New Wave more than its precedents, not only in terms of its cast and crew, but also in its rebellious style and attitude and its visual and narrative virtuosity. The film captures the New Wave's revolt against traditional forms of cinematic storytelling. Godard refuses to play the game of traditional Hollywood cinema and this is shown right from the start, as he skips the traditional title sequence, opening instead with an extreme close-up.
"Breathless" is as stylistically complex as its plot is simple. All the commonly perceived hallmarks of the New Wave cane be found here: cine-literacy and homage, young and sexy stars, visually arresting jump-cuts, loose hand-held camerawork, quirky humor, dialogue spoken direct to the camera and abrupt changes of pace and mood.
As Truffaut had with "400 Blows", Godard shot the film on the streets he knew. In an 2005 interview he commented that, "One of the things that bothered us in the French tradition of quality films was the complete lack of interest in places, which were neither understood nor looked at. When I put Belmondo and Jean Seberg on the Champs-Elysses, it was because I walked up that avenue every day."
The film's relationship to the crime genre is an interesting one. Godard commented in a interview that when he started out he intended "Breathless" to be realistic slice of film-noir, but when he was finished he thought it was more like "Alice in Wonderland." The truth lies somewhere in-between. Although we were constantly aware that Michel plays the role of a criminal, many of the scenes are nevertheless chilling. Like Michel, who performs his chicaneries with like-able smile, the film also has the power to charm. The thriller plot is left to simmer in a lengthy change-of-pace scene that takes up roughly one third of the film, Patricia and Michel potter around her apartment, play records, muse over the arts and contemplate philosophical theories of freedom.
Like Truffaut's first feature, "Breathless" was instantly revered upon its release. It was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo and the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. The trendsetting nature of the picture ranged from cinema to fashion. Its hard to imagine the history of cinema without "Breathless." An irresistible and essential work, it repays any number of repeated viewings.
Godard's 1960 Interview
Breathless -- Wikipedia
Breathless -- Ebert's List of Great Movies