Movies That Matter: Breathless (1960)

Breathless screens on Sunday, November 17, 2013, at 1:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., as part of the current season of Movies that Matter.

Former Kansas City Star film critic Robert W. Butler (now a member of the Library’s Public Affairs Department) provides introductory and closing remarks.

How big a game-changer can one movie be?

Pretty darn big.

“There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless,” one critic has observed.

More than any other movie, Breathless drew the world’s attention to the French New Wave, a movement of movies created by young critics-turned-directors. These filmmakers – among them Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and many others – were united not by style or subject matter but by their defiance of the status quo.

The New Wave was a rebellion against the complacency of the French film industry. Instead of aiming for polished, well-made productions, the New Wavers often worked in the streets with skeleton crews, exploring subject matter and attitudes at odds with the official cinema culture.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless wasn’t the first New Wave success – it was preceded by Truffaut’s The 400 Blows – but it was the game changer.

This story – of a charming Parisian thug and the American girl who loves and then betrays him – looked and felt like no other movie up to that time.

Stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg radiated sexuality from the screen – although by today’s standards the film’s depiction of sex is positively chaste.

Godard shot on the streets without permission, often pushing cinematographer Raoul Coutard about in a wheelchair or hiding him beneath boxes in a postal cart. It was true guerrilla moviemaking.

And once he had assembled his footage into a 2.5-hour rough cut, Godard then ruthlessly cut it by 60 minutes, instructing his editor to simply eliminate any footage that seemed boring.

The result was an explosive experience filled with “jump cuts” that jerked the audience along. No smooth transitions between shots. No well-made segues. Watching this movie you’re hanging on for dear life.

No one could have predicted Breathless’ international success or its lingering influence. During the filming Belmondo and Seberg shared the belief that the film would never be released. Crew members who saw the raw footage thought it ugly beyond belief.

But the film triumphed, tapping into the growing youth culture’s anti-establishment views and exuding a cooly hip, practically existential attitude.

So influential was Breathless that filmmaking changed practically overnight. Suddenly it was OK for a film to place immediacy above slickness, to revel in tales of the misbehaving young, to strike a stance that traded conventional narrative for a type of cinematic essay.

Godard’s jarring jump cuts were adapted not only by daring young filmmakers but by the world of advertising. They became one of the visual motifs of the 1960s.

As The New York Times has observed, Breathless is both “a pop artifact and a daring work of art” and is “still cool, still new, still – after all this time! – a bulletin from the future of movies.”

Other films in the series “Movies That Matter: The Sequel”

Sundays at 1:30 p.m. in the Truman Forum at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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