It will surprise no one familiar with Jean-Luc Godard and his masterpiece Breathless (À bout de souffle) that the film and its director were invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, months after the movie’s release. Maybe more surprising is that Breathless wasn’t actually screened at the festival at all, but at a theater nearby on the Rue d’Antibes, and it did not win any awards. (The Palme d’Or that year went to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In the interview above, Godard—looking both poised and a little annoyed—fields questions from a slightly obnoxious reporter about the exclusion of Breathless and his reputation as a troublemaker.
Despite the Cannes slight, there was no lack of accolades for the film and its director that year. Breathless won the 1960 Prix Jean Vigo, and Godard was named Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. Developed from a true-crime sketch by Godard’s fellow New Wave director François Truffaut, Breathless revolutionized French film in the 60s, giving rise to French New Wave cinema. And it sparked similar “new waves” internationally, directly inspiring the gritty 70s films by American upstarts Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Dennis Hopper. The film’s lead, Jean-Paul Belmondo, would go on to mega-stardom in French cinema, and he received Cannes’ highest honor for his performance in Breathless more than 50 years after the film’s release. Sadly, Breathless’s female lead Jean Seberg committed suicide in 1979. In a short interview below, also from 1960, she discusses her roles in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan and Godard’s Breathless.
The mercurial Godard—who, now in his eighties, provocatively declares that “film is over”—was initially inspired by radical Marxist politics, and he considered his work an avant-garde reaction against the moribund “Tradition of Quality” in French filmmaking. Breathless was made on a low budget and shot entirely with an Éclair Cameflex hand-held camera to approximate a documentary style—commonplace today in film and television, but in 1960, it made a unique aesthetic statement.
The Criterion Collection edition of Breathless is available for free on hulu.
Breathless did not give rise to French New Wave cinema. That already existed before the film was made (there was even an article published in January 1960 saying that the New Wave was already dead.
Godard was not ‘initially inspired by radical Marxist politics’. If anything he was a right-wing anarchist when he made Breathless.