June 19, 2013 by abbyo
The French New Wave is easily the best known of cinema’s new wave movements. It’s a sprawling expanse of classic movies, full of influential and prolific directors who you’ll hear other directors mention a lot, names like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville. The filmmakers of the French New Wave changed modern cinema forever, and made movies that usually get put at the top of “essential viewing” lists by those in the know, movies like “The 400 Blows,” “Jules and Jim” and “Le Samourai.”
But with such a large helping of cultural vegetables to eat, taking on the French New Wave can seem daunting. With such a big catalog, and so many distinctive directors, where is a person supposed to start? There’s also the misconception that French New Wave films are dry affairs meant for people who wear mostly black and spend lots of money on wine. These aren’t movies commonly described as “fun.”
But while these are smart, challenging, multi-layered movies, they don’t have to be dry. Exploring the French New Wave really can be fun! And if you still need convincing, there’s this: These films are packed with eye candy. The French have as much style as Italian neo-realism, with a generous side of sex appeal.
How much sex appeal, you ask? Exhibit A: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” the movement’s most widely-known film. This movie was not only the first of many impressive movies for Godard; it was also the breakout vehicle for an actor who became a fixture of French cinema, Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Take a good, long look, people. This is what cool looks like. And if you want to know the definition of the term “unconventionally handsome,” well, here you go. Belmondo’s got a big nose and a face that’s seen the business end of a boxing glove once or twice. But somehow he still manages to be charmingly attractive. If it seems like I’m smitten, I am. I really really like Jean-Paul Belmondo. If you don’t, you can get stuffed.
And for the fellas, there’s Jean Seberg, who’s cute as a button.
“Breathless” is Godard’s homage to the American crime movies that inspired him. Belmondo plays Michel Poiccard, a car thief, who’s on the run after shooting and killing a cop. Seberg is Patricia Franchini, a New York journalist living in Paris, a former fling of Michel’s who he tries to convince to run away with him to Italy.
This movie oozes style and cool. It’s got a jazzy soundtrack, super-cool cars and two well-dressed leads with smoldering chemistry. Beyond that, though, Michel and Patricia are interesting characters who defy archetypes in surprising ways. Belmondo’s Michel is even more of a bad boy than James Dean, but despite his total lack of regard for the law, he still seems like an okay guy. Sure, he’s a car thief and a cop killer, but all he really wants to do is settle down with his girlfriend. I mean, that’s admirable, right?
Seberg, on the other hand, is a sweet girl in a sticky situation who seems more manic pixie dream girl than femme fatale. However, it turns out she may have a little Barbara Stanwyck in her after all. Even though she pulls one over on Belmondo in a big way, Seberg’s Patricia is sympathetic enough that we can understand her motives.
But what makes “Breathless” such a unique movie for its time is the simple plot. Not much happens apart from the very beginning and very end of the film. Instead, “Breathless” is a very talky movie, made up of quippy one-liners and meaningful looks. The film’s massive success was proof that good dialogue and impeccable style could be more important to a movie than action. It’s a lesson that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson took very much to heart. Without “Breathless,” there would be no “Rushmore,” “Pulp Fiction” or “Before” trilogy.
The influence of “Breathless” on modern cinema is almost impossible to fathom, since there’s a little bit of it in almost every movie that came after it you care to name. If nothing else, “Breathless” is worth seeing in order to better understand why the movies we love today are the way they are. But I’d argue that Jean-Paul Belmondo looking soulfully at the camera is a pretty good reason to watch it, too.
The French New Wave had a big impact on the fashion world, too, an impact that remains to this day. You can find every outfit Jean Seberg wears in this movie (or ones very much like them) in any clothing store today. These costume designers really knew a good thing when they saw it.