It can be difficult to locate the interest in the film itself with Breathless, seeing as almost everything that makes it important is outside or about the film; how influential it is, why it was such a landmark, all its allusions to other films, etc. This is why it took me a while to gear up to watching it, and why I was so exasperated with it 20 minutes in, feeling like "Okay, I get the technique… now do I really have to sit through the rest?" It was actually—call me a philistine—watching the 1983 American remake that clued me into the emotional content of the story and got me interested in going back to review the original film.
The film begins with a shot of a scantily-clad young girl in a newspaper, held by Michel, who smokes blithely while wearing a suit and a fedora. He steals a car, declining the request of the woman who helped him to come along, and drives, talking to himself all the while. He finds a gun in the glove compartment. He is pulled over for speeding, and shoots the cop—only you'd be forgiven for not really understanding what happened, as the murder if just a blur of jump-cuts that don't exactly make sense, continuity-wise. We see the cop right behind Michel, then the cop, now at a distance, fall, then Michel running across a field. We'll get back to this.
He arrives in Paris, where he meets up with an old girlfriend, who kicks him out when he asks for money. He steals some anyway. He then meets up with another woman, Patricia, played by Jean Seberg. We find out that he had only spent three nights with her previously… they're just acquaintances. They chat, and he makes a date with her that evening. She is also trying to make it as a journalist, and has several appointments, each of which make Michel very jealous. He gets into her apartment and holes up there, sometimes with Patricia. They have long, meandering conversations. SPOILERS > > > Patricia doesn't realize that Michel is a wanted man; when she finds out, and figures out that she is becoming implicated, she calls and turns him in. She tells him she called them, they show up, and after a halfhearted attempt at escape, he is shot. < < < SPOILERS END
Okay! This was Godard's first film, financed in part because of the success of Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Truffaut thought of the story and wrote a treatment, but much of the film's dialogue is improvised. The literal translation of the French title is "Out of Breath," while implies more desperation than "Breathless" in English, which implies a sort of thrilled excitement. Jean-Pierre Melville says that he suggested Godard cut everything that is not action. Instead, Godard made arbitrary cuts here and there, resulting in the influential jump cuts that make the film seem so postmodern. There are a great deal of references to movies, several in the film such as pictures of Humphrey Bogart, who Michel idolizes [the rubbing of his lips is supposedly a reference to Bogart], several movie posters, and the presence of several directors in the film, such as Melville, Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard himself. The hand-held camera and documentary-style of naturalistic shooting, as well as the jarring editing and self-reflexiveness of the movie are part of what makes this one of the most important films of the French New Wave. There are a few different translations of the final exchange of dialogue, which you can read about in detail here.
So that's a little primer on what's so influential about this movie. But aside from that, is it worth watching? You know, as a movie? As I said, I found it incredibly tedious the first time. It's very difficult to get into—for one, because of the jump cuts, you're often just trying to catch up with what is happening at a plot level. Which sort of works, because you're feeling the same confusion the characters are, but can be very distancing—in addition to the distance the cultural difference already causes—from the emotional states the characters are going through. And then that can become quite tedious during the 20-minute conversations and such.
As I said, I became re-interested in watching the movie, and enjoyed it immensely more, after watching the American remake. The remake gets a bad reputation just for having the gall to remake such a revered movie—and such a one-of-a-kind movie, that can never possibly be recreated—but this is to miss the point of the remake, which is precisely to focus on the instability of the main character and the attraction of that on the woman he ensnares in his mess. This gave me a way to look at the characters in the original film, which gave me the hook in I needed to make the 20-minute conversations interesting. Not to say that this IS the way the character should be viewed, I'm just saying that this view gave me a way to get ahold of these characters and establish an emotional connection to them. I was relieved to later read that Michel is known as a particularly difficult character to get a hold on.
So is this one of those movies it is better to have seen than to see? To an extent. You do kind of have to see it at least once, but I would read a little about it first, so you know what to look for. You could do worse than to watch the remake first, although I got a lot of pleasure out of seeing what touches the makers of the remake retained, and even reproduced exactly, which requires familiarity with the original. I leave it to you.
Yes, you kind of have to watch it.
BREATHLESS  obviously isn't an influential film of the French New Wave, and doesn't try to be. It focuses more on the instability of the main character and how that appeals to his girlfriend, and is quite a worthy remake.