Breathless, the Jean-Luc Godard film released in the U.S. on this day in 1960, appears in just about every mention of most stylish films. Factor in actor Jean-Paul Belmondo’s late ‘50s adaptation of Humphrey Bogart’s renegade style, Jean Seberg’s pixie haircut and that unforgettable Herald Tribune sweater, and the “cool” factors hammer you over the head with as much subtlety as the Fonz giving the jukebox his signature punch.
But that may be because despite being a fashion lover’s favorite, Breathless is a filmmaker’s film more than a fashion film. This early entry into French New Wave is carved onto every film buff’s must-see list for its groundbreaking use of cinematography, outsider characters and suspended style of storytelling. Godard breaks from traditional narratives and translates his stream-of-consciousness writing into pictures, creating 90-minutes entirely unlike Hollywood’s standard delivery of story, images and experience. So while the clothing worn by the characters is appealing for its minimalism, the actors move about in frames created with maximum-style filmmaking. For fashion fans, this can be a disturbing dichotomy. If you’re expecting Funny Face, another late-50s film located in Paris, Breathless delivers the antithesis. Where Funny Face treats a catwalk’s worth of Givenchy showstoppers as if the designer is yet another top-billed star, Breathless doesn’t do its wardrobes any such favors, preferring to cast Listless Apathy as the primary supporting character.
Of course, millions of fans will defend Godard’s filmmaking right down to Seberg’s ballet slippers. But Godard wasn’t focused on Seberg’s slippers, and this review is targeted at the fashion, something that purposefully gets brushed past by the director’s heavy hand. Fifty-one years later, French New Wave often comes across as affected, and the characters so tiresome and absurd, that a modern audience will likely feel distracted and bored (at least this audience of one does, all three times I’ve seen it over the past 20 years). Breathless first premiered in Paris in 1959, and follows a boorish car thief who kills a policeman and tries to persuade a young girl to hide out with him in Italy. The handsome anti-hero idolizes Bogart, chain smokes like a champ and is as tiresome as a spoiled child. The clumsy American expat is chic but vapid, a pretty girl with great taste in clothes but little else to offer. There is no wardrobe department credited for the film, so one must assume Seberg had a hand in developing her look along with the filmmaker. Although her cropped blonde hair, pegged black pants and ballet flats followed Audrey Hepburn’s more popularized adaptation of the style by a good five years, her Ye-Ye look of sailor stripes, ribbed T-shirt sweaters and feminized menswear helped craft the American ideal of expatriate style. For his part, Belmondo picks up where Brando left off in the Wild One, though with a decidedly French twist. But the message remains the same: Even thugs can look terribly sharp, even much more so than their square nemeses.
As stated, anyone with an interest in film history and French New Wave Cinema should not miss Breathless. Watch Godard’s originality with an open mind, drink in the cool style and remind yourself why black pegged pants and matching ballet flats should be a wardrobe staple. —Ali Basye
Credits: Images courtesy of mptvimages.com.
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.