This film hasn’t aged at all. The Paris exteriors, the cafés along the Boulevard Saint-Germain: you feel as if you’re right there, having a drink at the next table. Or driving fast in a stolen cadillac, the young Jean-Paul Belmondo at the wheel. He’s doing that sexy thing where he runs a thumb over his lips, not looking at you or the road, looking at himself in the rearview mirror. Talking to himself, posturing like Humphrey Bogart, pointing a gun out the window and pretending to shoot.
How did Godard get that intimate feel, and sustain it over an entire picture? You’re in Jean Seberg’s rather cramped hotel room, in bed with Belmondo. It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re just hanging around, bored. One minute you’re watching him boxing in his underwear, the next he’s telling you his all-or-nothing philosophy of life, which is only half-cooked, or half-true—you don’t know which half—like everything he tells you.
But you keep watching anyhow, not because he’s Belmondo… Okay, you keep watching because he’s Belmondo, but also because you’ve been let in on his character’s private thoughts. You and the rest of the audience, but it’s as if you alone are witnessing the day unfold as naturally as a day in your own life. That’s what makes “Breathless” so great. It feels fresh, original, even fifty years on, and after repeated viewings.
You’re watching Belmondo run from the cops. He’s been shot in the back and he’s zig-zagging down the street, clutching his wound. He falls just as he reaches the crosswalk. Jean Seberg’s trailing behind and she’s there in time to hear his last words: “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.”
She didn’t catch them, or she doesn’t understand what he meant. Isn’t life like that?
(8 January 2011)