Everything in “Breathless” is easy to follow, but impossible to understand. A young crook, Michel, murders a policeman, flees to Paris, begs his lover (the gamine American Patricia) to abscond with him to Italy and attempts to elude capture. Michel idolizes and frequently references film characters played by Humphrey Bogart, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. At first, this homage seems to characterize Michel as cool and confident. But through stylized acting by Jean-Paul Belmondo, the film gradually reveals Michel’s nature to be a charade. His composure under pressure is a construct. By living as a borrowed character, the viewer must wonder whether Michel has ever expressed his true self. Yet, despite his existence as a pastiche of film noir heroes, Michel emerges as an engaging and original character. His underlying diffidence evokes sympathy from the audience, especially during the final scene.
The audience never knows its relation to the characters or even to “Breathless” in general. For example, Michel addresses the screen frequently, as if he sees a camera. Jean-Luc Goddard, the director, never declares whether the audience should watch “Breathless” as a documentary, a recorded play or a more traditional movie. Goddard revels in this ambiguity, which gives the film a postmodern flavor. For instance, in his cameo, Goddard informs the French police of Michel’s location. The city of Paris participates in the ensuing pursuit, with signs and radio bulletins alerting the audience of Michel’s imminent arrest. The city evolves from a setting to the status of a character. Goddard thus rejects earlier axioms of film, in which characters, setting and filmmakers were discrete elements. “Breathless” blurs the line between subject and artist, thereby stranding the audience in an uncertain position.
Perhaps the most noticeable, and thus most memorable, aspects of “Breathless” are Goddard’s choices behind the camera. In particular, “Breathless” pioneered the use of jump cuts. Repeatedly throughout the film, the editors break continuity by removing several frames. The jerky result, akin to a record or CD skipping, accelerates action and emphasizes certain points. For example, the film never shows Michel shooting his victim; Goddard omits the murder to subtly remind the audience that “Breathless” concerns characters, not action. In another scene, Michel compliments Patricia while driving through Paris. As he jumps from one of her features to the next, the editors follow suit, adding a visual staccato that artistically complements the preceding jazz riff. The jump cuts of “Breathless” help to make it one of the most important films of the French New Wave.
In summarizing his objective for the movie, Goddard asserted that “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.” The layers beneath these elements, though, have a permanent residence in my memory. I’ll forget the spinning top in “Inception” long before Michel and Patricia’s stroll on the Champs-Élysées. Paris has never since looked so beautiful and alive on film. If nothing else, though, go to “Breathless” for 90 minutes of one of the best jazz soundtracks ever heard.