The girl was Jean Seberg. The gun was wielded by Jean-Paul Belmondo. And the film was Godard's debut feature, 'Breathless,' first released in France in March, 1960, and being re-released across America throughout this summer, starting Friday in New York and Los Angeles, in a newly-restored print.
The simple lovers-on-the-lam plot of 'Breathless' was true to Godard's maxim. Yet the way he told the story was so astonishing that it launched a revolution in filmmaking whose influence persists to this day. Here's how 'Breathless' rocked the world of movies, and why watching it today still takes our breath away.
•Its Storytelling. Before 'Breathless,' the rhythm of film storytelling -- the way camera movements flowed, the pace of scenes, the structure of a screenplay's plot -- had hardened into a set of conventions. Or so said a group of French film critics, including François Truffaut and Godard. Then they put their money where their mouths were and went out and made movies the way they thought movies should be made. Truffaut made 1959's landmark 'The 400 Blows,' and he wrote the story that became the basis of Godard's screenplay for 'Breathless.' Together, these directors led the movement that became known as the French New Wave, and audiences all over the world took notice.
What was so new about the storytelling rhythms of 'Breathless'? The movie seemed as spontaneous and improvised as the modern jazz on its soundtrack. Shot on the fly, over just four weeks, without permits, 'Breathless' seemed as headlong as its title and as frenetic as the streets of Paris where it was set. The story moved along idiosyncratically, sometimes with great urgency, and sometimes (as with the very long sequence where the lovers hole up in a hotel) with languid indifference. Godard forced viewers to confront their notions of what was really important in a movie: was it the plot, which was fairly standard and rudimentary in 'Breathless,' or was it the characters, with all their philosophizing about love and sex and society, and with their passionate desire to live life to the fullest?
Most innovative about 'Breathless' was its editing, something that didn't call attention to itself in most movies that came before, but which you couldn't help but notice here. 'Breathless' is widely credited with pioneering the jump cut. When he was first assembling the movie, Godard complained to his mentor, French crime-film director Jean-Pierre Melville, that the film seemed sluggish. Melville suggested that Godard cut all the scenes that didn't move the action forward (including Melville's own cameo as a jaded author). Instead, Godard trimmed slow bits from individual scenes, so that the shots progressed in a ragged but energetic flow. The effect was electrifying, and it's largely what makes the movie still seem fresh and vital now. More important, it had a massive influence on filmmakers all over the world. British cinema was revitalized when directors like Tony Richardson and Richard Lester used it in the early '60s, as was American cinema when directors like Arthur Penn took it up later in the decade. You can draw a direct line from 'Breathless' to Lester's 'A Hard Day's Night' to the entire music video playlist of MTV throughout the '80s to the slice-and-dice editing that marks Hollywood's worldwide action blockbusters today.
•Its Heroine. Seberg was an American actress whom Otto Preminger had tried and failed to groom to stardom in two flop movies, but she found her calling as Patricia in 'Breathless.' Her character -- confident, independent, in charge of her sexual destiny and ultimately stronger and less sentimental than her man -- was a type new to French cinema (but which quickly became the norm) and to movies in general. Together, Seberg and Belmondo had a crackling chemistry, and their sexual behavior and talk were so casual and freewheeling that they introduced a new sexual candor to movies that seems mature and sophisticated even by today's standards.
Then there was Seberg's look, as accentuated in some of the most admiring close-ups in movie history. Her gamine appearance -- the pixie haircut, the cat-eye sunglasses, the schoolgirl dresses, the capri pants and ballet flats, even the New York Herald Tribune t-shirt (worn bra-less) -- made her an international style icon, much copied by women on both sides of the Atlantic.
•Its Hero. Belmondo, too, became an international icon of cool in the role of well-dressed petty thief Michel. It wasn't just the fedora and houndstooth sportcoat, or the continuous wreath of cigarette smoke, or the way he rubbed the side of his thumb across his lips. It was the whole package, along with an attitude of blasé fatalism and a hint of coiled tension that might explode into macho violence at any moment. These were traits that would define Belmondo as a movie tough guy and shrugging antihero for the rest of his long career.
•Its Movie Love. Of course, much of Michel's attitude and look were borrowed from older movies, especially from Hollywood movies, and especially from genre movies (pulpy crime thrillers and sordid film noir tales) once thought to be disreputable. The group of critics led by Godard and Truffaut championed Hollywood directors (particularly Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks) as artists in their own right. Their writings launched what became known as the auteur theory, the director-centered school of film criticism that has dominated the way we analyze movies for the last 50 years. It was a movement that prompted reconsideration and rehabilitation of long-forgotten directors and that insisted that there was art to be found in genres and movies once dismissed as disposable.
In 'Breathless,' this is manifest in Michel and Patricia's self-conscious love of movies; they're always trying on poses and styles from old movies and movie characters, as if to see how they measure up, as if film were a guide to how to live and die. The Humphrey Bogart poster that Michel admires and studies takes its place alongside mentions of high-art figures like Picasso and Chopin, as well as the real-life Jean-Pierre Melville. They're all art, the movie says, and as necessary to us as breathing.
Of course, that self-consciousness also distances us somewhat from the characters just as it distances them from themselves. They think of themselves as characters in a movie, forcing us to recognize the artifice of 'Breathless,' to read it not just as a story but as a commentary on other movies. This allusiveness has also been a lasting influence, first on "movie generation" directors like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, who learned to make movies in film school and by watching movies like 'Breathless,' and whose own works are studded with self-conscious references to obscure and classic movies. Later, it spawned filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, whose magpie sensibility seems to regard every movie he's ever seen as art worthy of a shout-out, and whose every frame seems to contain a movie reference. Tarantino's films, with their constant allusions, their narrative shuffling, their sheer drive, and their variations on the girl-and-a-gun theme (usually, in his movies, it's the girl who gets to wield the gun), would be unthinkable without the example of Godard (one of whose films is the inspiration for A Band Apart, the name of Tarantino's production company).
For better or worse, we still live in the world that 'Breathless' made, a world where the director is king, where every movie seems to revolve around a girl and a gun, where winks and nods to older movies are as important as plot, and where relentless, furiously edited action is more important than anything. (Alas, the film's other lessons, about love and sex and art and philosophy and style, seem to have been forgotten.) It's a world Godard himself has long since abandoned.
After he and Truffaut led the New Wave with a remarkable series of now-classic films throughout the 1960s, they parted ways over Godard's growing disenchantment with narrative and his increasingly strident politics. For the last 20 years or so, his films have been largely personal essays, couching philosophical and political points in a cinematic language of forbidding abstraction. The 79-year-old's latest movie, 'Film Socialisme,' scandalized critics at Cannes last week, both for its impenetrability and for its director's refusal to explain its meaning (he backed out of a scheduled appearance at the last minute). Today, Godard is regarded as a prophet with an ever-diminishing cult of followers -- but still, a prophet, and still a filmmaker who achieves his greatest impact in the editing room and who remains unable to express himself without referring to other movies. Like his characters in 'Breathless,' he still sees film as more than just entertainment. It's an addiction. It's a way of life.
*Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.