Thanks to movies, we’ll always have Paris. Not the Hollywood back-lot version brought to us by “Casablanca,” but the true city, captured in jazzy, post-war recovery of the late 1950s in films like “The Red Balloon,” “Elevator to the Gallows” and that breath of fresh air, “Breathless.” Restored this year by Studio Canal, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 experiment is largely seen as the movie that represented the French New Wave. But it stands apart from other films of the movement, a distinct, weird, lovely beast.
To be fair, Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958) was one of the first surges of the New Wave. Some of its elements are even echoed or repurposed in “Breathless”: gunplay, murder, star-crossed lovers, long scenes shot on actual Parisian streets and a jazz soundtrack. But if Malle’s thriller, with its sublime Miles Davis score, was a tense, relatively straightforward film noir, “Breathless” is more a playful deconstruction of the noir genre, and a gleeful demolition of the mainstream vocabulary of moviemaking.
With a crumpled fedora on his head and a fuming cigarette glued to his lips, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, the most charming, amiably immature thug you could ever hope to meet. He models himself on tough guys of the cinema, Humphrey Bogart in particular. He steals cars daily, and — oops — shoots a cop to death with a boyish breeziness. (Godard depicts the policeman’s death in a swift, fragmented way that basically equates murder with carjacking in the scale of things.)
American actress Jean Seberg (speaking French with a dire, la-plume-de-ma-tante accent) plays Patricia, Michel’s pertly amoral, accidental moll. A neophyte journalist, she sells copies of The New York Herald Tribune along the sidewalks of the Champs Elysees and tries to decide whether she should enroll in classes at the Sorbonne, and whether she actually has feelings for Michel.
“Breathless” was probably surprisingly frank (even if it is a French film) in its casual depiction of sexual freedom. There’s no dirty talk or heaving sex scenes, but Michel and Patricia are presented as people who’ve slept with each other several times, and with other people, and they like it. The centerpiece of the film unfolds in Patricia’s cramped bedroom, where Michel lolls shirtless, smoking, in bed. She tries discussing “Wild Palms” by Faulkner (an ex-boyfriend, Michel initially assumes), when all he wants to do is get her to take her clothes off. The long scene is bracing in the way it simply brings a temporary halt to the film-noir mechanics of the plot, just so we can laze about in bed with its main couple.
I first saw “Breathless” as a student at UNC (this was way back, when universities still programmed interesting, art-house, foreign and classic movies, not just last year’s Zach Galifiankis flick). I remember being thrown by the edgy, quick cutting of the scenes, the tissue-thin plot, the roundabout conversations that veered from pretentious to mundane. This was not what a movie was supposed to be — something with clear heroes and villains, a defined dramatic arc and a conclusion that wrapped things up with moral rectitude. No, this was Godard’s (and co-screenwriter François Truffaut’s) big raspberry to the business-as-usual structure of studio films.
Mind you, they loved and studied studio films, if only to rearrange them to their own liking. Working on the fly, writing the script as he (and Truffaut) went along, Godard shot “Breathless” without permits on the busy streets of Paris, planting his cameraman in a wheelchair because he couldn’t afford dolly tracks. (Notice how pedestrians passing Belmondo and Seberg on the sidewalks crane around to stare curiously into the lens.) The movie takes place in cars wheeling past landmarks (the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower). And it changes mood from moment to moment — in the same way that both Michel and Patricia live their lives, play-acting different possible selves as they try to define who they truly are and what they feel.
Since this was a Paris very much in thrall to Jean-Paul Sartre, Patricia at one point sighs, “I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy.” Heavy, man. But that’s very much not the main feel of the movie, which can give you a contact buzz from the clear delight the director and his actors got from breaking rules, mixing things up and making a movie on the spot. They were young and clever, and Paris was beautiful — and how could anybody even think about being unhappy?
“Breathless.” With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. In French and English with subtitles. 90 minutes. Unrated. At Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.