It’s one of the most memorable scenes in cinema. As Michel Poiccard swaggers down the Champs-Élysées, he spots a picture of Humphrey Bogart displayed outside a cinema screening The Harder They Fall. “Bogie,” he drawls as he rubs his upper lip, channelling the American movie star’s gritty aura while staring at the picture with wide-eyed reverence.
It’s just one of many Hollywood allusions in Breathless, a film dedicated to Monogram Pictures. Today, audiences see Jean-Paul Belmondo’s brusque performance as vintage Parisian sensuality; in 1959, many saw him as just a loutish Yankophile hungry for cars, cash and uprooted individualism. Jean-Luc Godard’s tributes to American cinema, first as a film critic and then as Breathless’ director, was one of the many ways he disregarded tradition – even though France’s cultural Americanisation was well underway.
Michel is the proletarian hero, as typified by ‘30s French star Jean Gabin, but for the post-war generation. He shares with Gabin a rugged appearance and an acceptance of death. In films like Le Jour Se Lève, Gabin’s character is resigned to his looming fate with an almost romantic melancholia; he burns through his cigarettes as if he were continuously resetting a faulty hourglass. Michel may half-tilt his hat and droop his cigarettes but he’s anything but languid. From his hot-wiring of cars to ditching diners without pay, Michel welcomes danger with a youthful spontaneity akin to a jazz age hipster. Michel, like others who came of age during the Fourth Republic, is neither culturally French nor American, but something in between.
And then there’s the casting of Jean Seberg as Michel’s girlfriend, Patricia Franchini. She had already played two French icons before in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. Here, the young American actress plays someone as infatuated with France and high culture as Michel is with American B-movies. Seberg’s performance is also contrastingly deft, her insouciance and daydreaminess making her a sedate counterpart to Michel’s instinctual boor. Nevertheless, with her quirky fashion sense and boyish haircut, Patricia is just as self-assuredly ‘modern’ as Michel in resisting societal expectations.
A good part of Breathless’ endurance is Godard’s tearing up of film grammar; the obtrusive jump-cuts, the handheld camerawork, the street noise which murmurs during scenes of quiet intimacy. All affirm that here is a movie as freewheeling as its protagonists. Godard’s approach was certainly revolutionary, but the cultural references are important too. Le cinema du papa’s literary adaptations and costume dramas (which Godard derided) rarely had interest in how young people were expressing themselves in ‘50s France. Godard’s techniques do mirror his protagonists’ youthful vitality, but he also celebrates their naïve role-playing and affectations, when he could have opted for condescension.
Godard’s affinity for these flighty nonconformists is no better expressed than in the scene where the couple attend a screening of Budd Boetticher’s Westbound. Under the movie projector’s moonlight glow, they share a kiss, and the film’s dialogue is dubbed over with poetry by Apollinaire and Aragon. Michel and Patricia may have as little in common with each other as cinema does with poetry, but the scene remains sincere in its romanticism. For Godard, the characters’ fascination with their respective cultures is not mere modishness, but is fuelled by deep-rooted, ardent desire; and such desire, Breathless shows us, is always worthy of one’s attention.