Great Movies: 'Breathless' and the French New Wave

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Breathless (French: Àbout de souffle; literally "at breath's end") (1960) was directed by Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), his first feature film. It was one of the first and most influential films of the French New Wave. At the time, the film attracted much attention for its bold visual style and the innovative use of jump cuts.

Breathless, together with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour, both released a year earlier, brought international acclaim to the French nouvelle vague.

A recently restored 35mm print of Breathless was screened by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills  in conjunction with the opening of the Academy’s new exhibition “Photos de Cinéma: Images of the French New Wave by Raymond Cauchetier.” Cauchetier was the set photographer for this and many other key titles of the French New Wave movement.

Breathless launched a global passion for "La Nouvelle Vague" (“The New Wave”) and made actors Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo international stars. The film also became an inspiration for a generation of legendary French film-making talent.

François Truffaut conceived the story, Claude Chabrol served as the artistic supervisor, and director Jean-Pierre Melville appears in the role of the writer, Parvulesco.

The film’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, supervised the creation of this new print in 2010, for the 50th anniversary of the original French release date.

Since Breathless impressed audiences and filmmakers alike with its jazzy take on the American crime film, Godard has continued to write and direct challenging and sometimes controversial films, cementing his reputation as one of the seminal modernists in the history of cinema. He is credited with having influenced numerous contemporary directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Godard received an Honorary Award from the Academy in 2010, inscribed "For passion. For confrontation. For a new kind of cinema."

“Photos de Cinéma: Images of the French New Wave by Raymond Cauchetier,” which includes production photographs from Breathless, is the first exhibition outside of Europe to showcase Cauchetier’s motion picture work. On view at the Academy's headquarters  are 125 newly made, black-and-white prints from Cauchetier’s own 35mm negatives. The printing was personally overseen by Cauchetier, now in his 90s, at his preferred lab in Paris. Other films represented in the exhibition include Adieu Philippine, Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses), Jules et Jim, Lola and La peau douce (The Soft Skin).

“Photos de Cinéma” is open to the public through June 24 in the Academy’s Grand Lobby Gallery in Beverly Hills. Regular viewing hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends, noon to 6 p.m. Admission to the gallery is free.

Poster for BreathlessIn Breathless, 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 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 prolonged death run, he dies “à bout de souffle” (at breath's end).

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 connected with  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 envisioned Breathless as a reportage (documentary), and asked cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot the entire film on a hand-held 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 post-production because of the noisiness of the Cameflex camera.

Coutard has also stated that the film was virtually improvised on the spot, with Godard writing lines of dialogue in an exercise book, giving the lines to Belmondo and Seberg, having a few brief rehearsals on scenes involved, then filming them. No permission was received to shoot the film in its various locations (mainly the side streets and boulevards of Paris) either, adding to the spontaneous feel that Godard was aiming for.

About the Photo Exhibit “Photos de Cinéma: Images of the French New Wave by Raymond Cauchetier.”

While serving in the French Air Force’s press corps in Indochina in the early 1950s, Raymond Cauchetier began photographing his unit’s activities, and thus began his amazing career as a photojournalist. A chance meeting in 1957 at Angkor Wat with director Marcel Camus led to Cauchetier’s decade-long career detour as a set photographer.

Throughout the 1960s, Cauchetier was the favored set photographer of many directors who came to comprise the newly christened New Wave. His images, from films by François Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Pierre Melville, Agnès Varda, Marcel Ophüls, Jacques Rozier, Claude Berri and Pierre Schoendoerffer, have been described as "central works" of the New Wave.

In 1968, Cauchetier returned to his career in journalism, but his on-set and candid shots document the birth of an artistic movement – and the emergence of a group of artists – that still impacts filmmakers today.

The Academy's exhibition is first outside of Europe to showcase Cauchetier's motion picture work. On view will be 125 newly made, black-and-white prints from Cauchetier's own 35mm negatives. The printing was personally overseen by Cauchetier, now in his 90s, at his preferred lab in Paris. Film titles represented in the exhibition include Adieu Philippine, Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses), Jules et Jim, Lola and La peau douce (The Soft Skin). Also on view will be candid shots of such stars as Jean Seberg, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anouk Aimée, Jeanne Moreau and Anna Karina, as well as photos of directors and their crews.

Learn more about the work of Raymond Cauchetier.

Check out this exclusive interview with Cauchetier from the American Society of Cinematographers to learn more about the stories behind these photos and his career.


Visit your local library for these resources:

Films by Jean-Luc Godard on DVD

Breathless : Jean-Luc Godard, director
Dudley Andrew, Jean-Luc Godard

Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard
Richard  Brody, (2008).

For Ever Godard
Michael Temple,  James S. Witt, Michael Williams, editors, (2007).

The Future(s) of Film. Three Interviews 2000/01,
 Jean-Luc Godard, (2002).

The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci
Yosefa  Loshitzky,

Speaking About Godard
Kaja  Silverman and  Harun Farocki, (1998).

The Cinema alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard 1985–2000
Michael Temple, and  James S. Williams, editors, (2000).


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