À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960)

<strong class="MovieTitle">À bout de souffle</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Breathless</strong>] (1960)

(Kanopy streaming, September 2018) I’m watching a lot of older movies these days, but it’s hard to predict how I’m going to react to them. I like the Old Hollywood style but I don’t like neo-realism, and I can be frustratingly inconsistent on my reactions to the French New Wave—speaking the language definitely helps, although not as much as you’d think given the Atlantic gap between French dialects. Still, I had a better time than expected watching À bout de souffle for a few reasons. The biggest one, I think is a combination between a then-experimental style and a now-familiar genre story: As our no-good anti-hero kills a cop and spends the rest of the film escaping his inevitable retribution, the film plays with editing in ways rarely seen outside Russia until the late 1960s—jump cuts shorten conversations, speed up the rhythm of the movie and introduce an element of nervousness for a protagonist on the run. (And yet, in a film renowned for its frenetic editing, the most impressive shot is an unbroken sequence in which the camera slowly rotates around a room, showing the introduction of two characters. This tends to support the assertion from some of the filmmakers that the editing was really something that came up during the post-production phase of the film.) Jean-Paul Belmondo is, inevitably, incredibly compelling as the murderous lead character, channelling Bogart cool but transforming it into charisma of his own. Writer/director Jean-Luc Godard’s abilities far outstrip his meagre budget, with the film feeling like a complete artistic vision rather than being hampered by budgetary compromises and guerilla-style filmmaking. Not all of À bout de souffle is good (some of the more philosophical or romantic interludes can feel as incredibly pretentious as some of the worst of the New Wave) but the high points are high, and there’s enough of a plot to sustain the attention of more conventionally driven viewers.

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