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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 17.86%
Average: 25%
Pretty Bad: 3.57%
Total Crap: 3.57%

2 reviews, 16 user ratings

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Breathless (1960)
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by MP Bartley

"It's just a little bit too...well, French."
3 stars

There's often a thin line between movies that you can study and write academic essays about, and movies that are just entertainment pure and simple. Sometimes movies can cross that line. 'La Dolce Vita' for example is a three hour examination of the shallowness of the celebrity life-style and questions the importance of film itself. Phew, tough food for thought eh? But it's also funny, entertaining and smart. 'Alien' is a terrific action thriller about a monster with acid for blood, but you can also read it as a fear of male rape and man's fear of his own sexuality (oh yes you can...). But then there's films that you can study for years, but have little entertainment value. 'Breathless' (or 'A Bout De Souffle' for French pedantics) is one such film.

Jean-Paul Delmondo is Michel, a petty thief who would love to live his life like Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney. To achieve that aim he steals a car and murders a traffic cop who pursues him. Michel then hotfoots it to Paris where he hooks up with a casual girlfriend of his, Patricia (Jean Seberg) and hangs out talking about sex, death amongst other things whilst the cops slowly close in on him.

'Breathless' is the type of film that snooty film critics will tell you is one of the best ever made. But they're wrong. It's certainly influential and different, but that doesn't automatically qualify it as one of 'the best ever'. I first saw 'Breathless' as a first year film student and I hated it. I'm now teaching film and have thus had to re-watch it. With the experience of years of film studies now behind me, I now have far greater appreciation of its style and technique - but that doesn't make it anymore entertaining. And ultimately, wasn't that the aim of cinema at its very beginning?

Yes, if you want to introduce yourself to French New Wave, 'Breathless' is the place to start. It has everything a New Wave film should have - jump cuts that mess up the more linear approach to space and time (note to film students: check out the motorway pursuit scene up til the murder of the cop), handheld camera, naturalistic lighting and sound and a vaguely incoherent plot with little character empathy. It's influence is there for all to see: it's clearly in love with American cinema (references abound from 'Citizen Kane' to 'White Heat') which would later be seen in Martin Scorcese's early work which would send love letters to American and European cinema. The camera work and lighting would be taken up by Woody Allen, William Friedkin and Robert Altman amongst others. Tarantino's ear for dialogue about trivia in 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction' is clearly rooted in Godard's time-wasting chat here. For a film about a murderer on the run, there's little reference to that in the plot, which is more concerned with the mating habits of elephants, just as Tarantino was more concerned with the origins of 'Like A Virgin' than the robbery of a jewellery store.

So as an academic pursuit, 'Breathless' gets five out of five every time. It does things with narrative and editing Hollywood had never dreamed off and still wouldn't dare to do today.

But that doesn't mean it gets five out five for entertainment because by good Christ, it's boring. They talk about irrelevancies much like Tarantino's characters but in a much less interesting and amusing fashion. A scene of Michel and Patricia mucking around in a bedroom lasts approximately three days and is as interesting as watching grey paint dry. The jump cuts and pretentious conversation about sex and women in modern city ultimately begin to grate rather than intrigue and characters wander in and out of pointless scenes for no reason other than to give an enigmatic Gallic shrug.

And, yes, part of New Waves aesthetic was to try the patience, but much like Dogme films, once you've achieved that first time round what else is your film good for?

It gives off a faint whiff of French cool but ends up annoying rather than pleasing. Belmondo makes Michel an utter shit, which is an intriguing contrast to your typical Hollywood hero, but also means we don't give a toss about his fate. Likewise Seberg, who is by turns either naive, dull, annoying or all three.

But hey it's French New Wave, it's meant to be like that!

As an influence on some great American film-makers, 'Breathless' has had an incalcuable effect. As an example of strange, daring, different European film-making that breaks the rules it's five out of five. But as an interesting, watchable experience it barely scrapes two stars. A good compromise would be three as it's hard to deny it's place in film history but also hard to warrant it as entertainment. And isn't that what we all want ultimately?

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originally posted: 11/16/04 01:42:13
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User Comments

3/05/15 stanley welles rambling and breathlessly boring 2 stars
1/02/15 last-minute edit from 3 hrs to 1.5 on producer's orders & joy! Catherine H 5 stars
8/17/12 Mark Vanselow Shallow hipsters who strike mannequin poses while puffing cigarettes enjoy this crap. 1 stars
11/06/11 mr.mike Hard to look away from the screen. 4.5 stars. 4 stars
1/07/11 R.W. Welch Has some style to it, but plot is a little thin. 4 stars
8/25/10 Davey Still thrilling fifty years on. 5 stars
1/26/08 proper amateur film critic The first great european movie of the 1960's 5 stars
4/22/07 Dove I like the new look Breathless gave off.Breaking the"rules"def worked out well for Godard. 5 stars
9/13/06 Bitchflaps Repeat viewing reveal more and more how little this film has aged. We need another Godard. 5 stars
5/03/06 The Cinema How can this guy be teaching film; his review is completely condesencing and ignorant 5 stars
11/16/05 Jake Intense and full of energy. A classic piece of cinema as well as cool popcorn flick! 5 stars
10/14/05 Agent Sands Having an influenceda whole new wave of films that changed film 4ever, I'd say it's 4 stars
7/04/04 Daveman Perhaps not as good as 400 Blows, but still brilliant innovative film-making 5 stars
10/30/03 mimi ** 3 stars
4/29/03 mr. Pink Dated in many ways, but still deserves it's reputation in pantheon of influential films. 4 stars
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  07-Feb-1961 (NR)



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