Why a review of a movie more than six decades old? In this age of living inwardly one gets to view a lot of stuff that would have remained unexplored in a normal time. Jean-Luc Godard (b 1930) was a film critic who decided to practice what he was reviewing. À bout de souffle (Out of breath – 1960) was his first effort as a director. It marked the start of The New Wave Cinema.
The movie and its director have been praised to the moon. Somehow, I never got around to it until now. So how does it look in 2021? In a word – laughable. The jump cuts, absence of plot, bad acting, and a musical score that sounds like it was lifted from a porn movie make the 90 minute picture the longest hour and a half I have endured in recent memory.
This was the movie that made Jean-Paul Belmondo (b 1933) famous. His performance in this film consists of being slim, making faces, and giving a rib-tickling impersonation of a movie tough guy. But he’s Laurence Olivier compared to Jean Seberg (1938-79). The unfortunate Iowa native was plucked from Marshalltown to the sound stage by the dictatorial director Otto Preminger to star in the title role of his dud movie Saint Joan. After another unsuccessful outing Bonjour Tristesse she moved to France where she became a cultural icon. Not because she could act, but seemingly because she had failed in the US. The poor woman was pursued by J Edgar Hoover and the FBI because of her support for the Black Panther Party. She died a suicide at age 40.
In Breathless she sells the International Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris while aspiring to be a writer. She delivers her lines with the blank earnestness that explains her divergent reception in the US and France.
New and good are often confused. This movie consciously departed from the standards of movie making that had prevailed for decades. That its characters were both caricatures and two dimensional made no difference. The same is true for the almost complete absence of a plot. Michele (Belmondo) shoots and kills a cop for no other reason than other than the absence of motive. He’s trying to be a young and Gallic version of Humphrey Bogart, but seems more Emmett Kelley than Bogart.
Most of the film consists of inane conversation that has no point. The virtual complete departure from the verities of story telling likely explains the breathless reception that the film received. That it continues to occupy an exalted position among film intellectuals is easy to explain. Lincoln famously said that you could fool some of the people all of the time.
This movie viewed at a span of more than 60 years seems to occupy the same cultural space as French Grand Opera in the 1830s. Enormously successful then, but struggling for air now. It’s a story (it hardly qualifies as such) that is centered on the two most uninteresting people imaginable. You can stream it on Amazon Prime Video and form your own opinion. Do so on an exercise machine or you may be asleep before the first half hour has passed. Of course, you may still nod off and injure yourself as you fall of the machine. Time is a relentless and unforgiving arbiter. Boredom is forever.