Dir. by Jean Luc Godard
Au Bout de Souffle, better known as Breathless, is where classic film noir and le nouvelle vague part company. Jean-Luc Godard established a trend that endures to this day. His minimalist approach to film and unique sense of style, or perhaps anti-style defined a generation of filmmaking.
The story is simple, Michel (Jena-Paul Belmondo) is a car thief. He sponges off various women when he’s not stealing cars. But one theft goes badly wrong, and Michel shoots a gendarme. He knows that time is running out on him, but he needs money. He wants an American expat named Patricia (Jean Seberg) to accompany him to Italy, perhaps as much for her monetary support as for the consuming lust he has for her. All Michel has to do is get enough cash together to make his run before les flics close in.
What makes this film so compelling is less the mechanics of the plot, than the amazing performances of Belmondo and Seberg. Belmondo plays Michel with an aggressive vulnerability that occasionally descends into pleading, but with a core of ruthlessness. Michel is not so much a conscienceless sociopath, as a self-centered jerk. True, he wastes little time regretting the policeman he shot in cold blood, and he is a brutal and efficient mugger. He just doesn’t seem to think too much about what he does, he’s too dumb to understand consequences. Michel is a beautiful animal who wants to sate his desire with Patricia. But underneath his pushy lust, there is a core of love (albeit a bit warped) for Patricia, that almost, but not quite redeems him. It’s this willingness to make Michel so unappealing, neither gloriously awful or truly redeemed, that shows just how daring Godard and Belmondo were.
Seberg’s portrayal of Patricia is scintillating. She is a wide-eyed innocent with a streak of selfishness. She is a young woman who isn’t entirely sure who or what she is. Just as we never really know why Michel shoots the cop, we can’t be quite sure why Patricia makes her final, fateful choice about Michel. But her last gesture on screen leaves us in no doubt that she is paying the price for her choices.
Godard’s guerilla approach to film uses the streets of Paris as his sets giving the movie a feel of a newsreel at times (did Pres. Eisenhower really visit Paris during the filming?). Godard also makes more “conventional” set-pieces (if satirizing Romanian playwrights is conventional), in one scene Jean-Pierre Melville plays a celebrity who pontificates on the nature of women.
Au Bout de Souffle may seems like an odd-ball on Fire & Sword, it is a long way from the hard-boiled heist films like Asphalt Jungle or Le Cercle Rouge. What Godard did was to pick up the noir style of James Cain and Cornell Woolrich and give it a new lease on life. Au Bout de Souffle is a classic crime movie, a minimalist grandfather of masterpieces like Straight Time and True Romance. But don’t watch it for film history, watch it to enjoy some of the finest acting ever seen.