À bout de souffle (‘Breathless’) came as something of an inevitable explosion in the world of French cinema. Before the release of Breathless in 1960, and of other nouvelle vague pictures such as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour in 1959, there had been a growing dissatisfaction among French critics and directors. In the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, critics like André Bazin, as well as Truffaut and Godard, cemented a new theory of filmmaking called La politique des auteurs, or, as English speakers know it today, ‘auteur theory’. The New Wave wanted films to be imprinted with the mark of their maker, to express emotions and ideas in the same way that a novelist creates with their pen—so-called caméra-stylo. There was admiration from these French critics for the non-conformist streaks in Renoir and Vigo. Beyond France, they established an admiration for American auteurs like Welles and Hitchcock in many ways before the Americans did. Breathless was one of the ground-breaking outcomes from those decades of discontent—“We barged into the cinema like cavemen into the Versailles of Louis XV”, as Godard put it.
Breathless is loose and fluid; it is full of tracking shots and quite jarring jump cuts—most of which are there because Godard removed parts and didn’t feel it necessary to patch up the remains. The New Wave was not a movement, Truffaut said, it was “a quality”. If the movie comes off as impromptu, that’s because it is; as Richard Balducci said: “Shooting ranged from 15 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how many ideas Godard had that day”.
While I have no time for the modern Godard movies like Le Livre d’image or Film Socialisme—which mask their lack of vision with flourishes and needless abstractions—Breathless is different. Although it is not a film I deeply cherish, it would be disingenuous of me to downplay its authenticity and its impact on cinema. 60 years on, modern directors have still not squeezed Breathless of all its nourishment, its technique, or its flair. [If you can find it, there’s a new 4K restoration out now to celebrate its anniversary.]