FILM (1960)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 April, 2011, 12:00am


A Bout de Souffle
Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Jean-Luc Godard
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

For a definition of 'French', look no further than the first 60 seconds of Jean-Luc Godard's masterpiece of the Nouvelle Vague, A Bout de Souffle. It literally means 'at breath's end', but was changed to Breathless for the Hollywood remake starring Richard Gere.

Hot jazz plays over bold black and white credits. A voice says, 'After all, I'm an a**hole', over a newspaper image of a sexy woman in lingerie. The newspaper is lowered to reveal Michel Poiccard, played by 27-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo at the height of his crumpled good looks. He is wearing a tilted trilby and smoking a fat Gauloise. Cut to beautiful woman No2, who signals that there's a car to be stolen. Cool - or as the French say, frais.

And if you ever need a definition of 'Paris', you should fast-forward Godard's movie a couple of minutes. Belmondo, now on the run having murdered a policeman, heads for the nation's capital. Passing Notre Dame at high speed, he runs his thumb across his voluptuous lips, smokes another Gauloise and tries to seduce Patricia Franchini, played with elfin calm by Jean Seberg.

In a series of jagged jump cuts, a twitchy Belmondo sets the template for a million Bohemian dreams of the city. He breaks into Franchini's writers' apartment, leans over her typewriter, before dashing nonchalantly out for a coffee. Looking almost comically chic in his white shirt and woollen tie, he visits yet another girl who is impossibly gorgeous despite wearing pyjamas, and robs her, and lights his next Gauloise.

This is a movie that both plays with and reinvents Parisian clich?s. Our first sight of Seberg shows her promenading down a Parisian boulevard, trying to sell The New York Herald Tribune in her deliciously Americanised French. This is Paris, Jean, but not as we've ever known it. As the jazz, clothes and Seberg herself suggest, American gangster movies were vital influences on Godard and Francois Truffaut, who dreamed up A Bout de Souffle's original scenario. In one of the most famous scenes, Belmondo walks out of the M?tro onto the Champs- ?lys?es, and stares at a poster of Humphrey Bogart, imitating his way with a scowl and a smoked cigarette.

Paris looks at once familiar, strange and glorious in the sunshine. Belmondo and Seberg stroll down an avenue, drive up a boulevard, pass the Eiffel Tower, seemingly with all the time in the world. White-socked Seberg leaps from a tram; Belmondo glowers in sunglasses, then steals another car.

Paris looks just as glorious, but definitely more ominous as night descends and the street-lamps flicker on. As the film zooms towards its tragic end, this darkness envelops Godard's luminous stars and city alike. Seberg flees, aptly, into a darkened cinema, but escapes to return to the light. But Belmondo's character is dragged down into Paris' gloomy and violent underworld, as if the weight of his crime is too much to hold his place in the sun. As the cops close in, he flees into the Paris night.

Shot lovingly in black and white, Paris has rarely looked so alluring, sexy, dangerous and - in short - so frais.