A fully restored version of the film was released in the U.S. for its 50th anniversary in May 2010. When originally released in France, the film attracted over 2 million viewers.
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a youthful criminal who is intrigued with the film persona of Humphrey Bogart. After stealing a car in Marseille, Michel shoots and kills a policeman who has followed him onto a country road. Penniless and on the run from the police, he turns to an American love interest Patricia (Jean Seberg), a student and aspiring journalist, who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris. The ambivalent Patricia unwittingly hides him in her apartment as he simultaneously tries to seduce her and call in a loan to fund their escape to Italy. Patricia says she is pregnant, probably with Michel's child. She learns that Michel is on the run when questioned by the police. Eventually she betrays him, but before the police arrive she tells Michel what she has done. He is somewhat resigned to a life in prison, and does not try to escape at first. The police shoot him in the street and, after a prolonged death run, he dies “à bout de souffle” (out of breath).
Michel's death scene is one of the most iconic scenes in the film, but the film's final lines of dialogue are the source of some confusion for English-speaking audiences. In some translations, it is unclear whether Michel is condemning Patricia, or alternatively condemning the world in general.
As Patricia and Detective Vital catch up with the dying Michel, they have the following dialogue:
MICHEL: C'est vraiment dégueulasse.
PATRICIA: Qu'est-ce qu'il a dit?
VITAL: Il a dit que vous êtes vraiment "une dégueulasse".
PATRICIA: Qu'est-ce que c'est "dégueulasse"?
In the English captioning of the 2001 Fox-Lorber Region One DVD, "dégueulasse" is translated as "scumbag", producing the following dialogue:
MICHEL: It's disgusting, really.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said, "You're a real scumbag".
PATRICIA: What's a scumbag?
The 2007 Criterion Collection Region One DVD uses a less literal translation:
MICHEL: Makes me want to puke.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said you make him want to puke.
PATRICIA: What's that mean, "puke"?
This translation also was used for the 2010 restoration print.Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel Poiccard
Jean Seberg as Patricia Franchini
Daniel Boulanger as Police Inspector Vital
Henri-Jacques Huet as Antonio Berruti
Roger Hanin as Carl Zumbach
Van Doude as Van Doude
Liliane David as Lilane
Michel Fabre as the other Inspector
Jean-Pierre Melville as Parvulesco
Claude Mansard as the used car salesman
Jean-Luc Godard as an informer
Richard Balducci as Tolmachoff
Philippe de Broca as an extra
Jean Domarchi as an extra
Jean Douchet as an extra
Jean Herman as an extra
Andre S. Labarthe as an extra
Jacques Rivette as the body of the man hit by a car
Breathless was loosely based on a newspaper article that François Truffaut read in The News in Brief. The character of Michel Poiccard is based on real-life Michel Portail and his American girlfriend and journalist Beverly Lynette. In November 1952 Portail stole a car to visit his sick mother in Le Havre and ended up killing a motorcycle cop named Grimberg.
Truffaut worked on a treatment for the story with Claude Chabrol, but they ended up dropping the idea when they could not agree on the story structure. Godard had read and liked the treatment and wanted to make the film. While working as a Press Agent at 20th Century Fox, Godard met producer Georges de Beauregard and told him that his latest film was not any good. De Beauregard hired Godard to work on the script for Pêcheur d'Islande. After six weeks Godard became bored with the script and suggested making Breathless instead. Chabrol and Truffaut agreed to give Godard their treatment and wrote de Beauregard a letter from the Cannes Film Festival in May 1959 agreeing to work on the film if Godard directed it. Truffaut and Chabrol had recently become star directors and their names secured financing for the film. Truffaut was credited as the original writer and Chabrol as the technical adviser. Chabrol later claimed that he only visited the set twice and Truffaut's biggest contribution was persuading Godard to cast Liliane David in a minor role. Fellow New Wave director Jacques Rivette appears in a cameo as the dead body of a man hit by a car in the street.
Godard wrote the script as he went along. As well as the real-life Michel Portail, Godard based the main character on screenwriter Paul Gégauff, who was known as a swaggering seducer of women. Godard also named several characters after people he had known earlier in his life when he lived in Geneva. The film includes a couple of in-jokes as well: the young woman selling Cahiers du Cinéma on the street (Godard had written for the magazine), and Michel's occasional alias of László Kovács, the Hungarian-American cinematographer who would become famous for Five Easy Pieces and other films.
Jean-Paul Belmondo had already appeared in a few feature films prior to Breathless, but he had no name recognition outside France at the time Godard was planning the film. In order to broaden the film's commercial appeal, Godard sought out a prominent leading lady who would be willing to work in his low-budget film. He came to Jean Seberg through her then-husband, Francois Moreuil, with whom he had been acquainted. Seberg agreed to appear in the film on June 8, 1959, for $15,000, which was one-sixth of the film's budget. Godard ended up giving Seberg's husband a small part in the film. During the production, Seberg privately questioned Godard's style and wondered if the film would be commercially viable. After the film's success, she collaborated with Godard again on the short Le Grand Escroc, which revived her Breathless character.
Godard had initially wanted cinematographer Michel Latouche to shoot the film after having worked with him on his first short films. De Beauregard hired Raoul Coutard instead, who was under contract to him.
Godard envisaged Breathless as a reportage (documentary), and tasked cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot the entire film on a hand-held camera, with next to no lighting. In order to shoot under low light levels, Coutard had to use Ilford HPS film, which was not available as motion picture film stock at the time. He therefore took 18-metre lengths of HPS film sold for 35mm still cameras and spliced them together to 120-metre rolls. During development he pushed the negative one stop from 400 ASA to 800 ASA. The size of the sprocket holes in the photographic film was different from the sprocket holes for motion picture film, and the Cameflex camera was the only camera that would work for the film used.
The production was filmed on location in Paris during the months of August and September in 1959, using an Eclair Cameflex. Almost the whole film had to be dubbed in post-production because of the noisiness of the Cameflex camera and because the Cameflex was incapable of synchronized sound.
Filming began on August 17, 1959. Godard met his crew at the Café Notre Dame near the Hôtel de Suède and shot for two hours until he ran out of ideas. Coutard has stated that the film was virtually improvised on the spot, with Godard writing lines of dialogue in an exercise book that no one else was allowed to look at. Godard would give the lines to Belmondo and Seberg while having a few brief rehearsals on scenes involved, then filming them. No permission was received to shoot the film in its various locations (mainly the side streets and boulevards of Paris) either, adding to the spontaneous feel that Godard was aiming for. However, all locations were picked out before shooting began and assistant director Pierre Rissient has described the shoot as very organized. Actor Richard Balducci has stated that shooting days ranged from 15 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how many ideas Godard had that day. Producer Georges de Beauregard wrote a letter to the entire crew complaining about the erratic shooting schedule. Coutard says that on a day that Godard had called in sick de Beauregard bumped into the director at a cafe and the two got into a fist fight.
Godard shot most of the film chronologically, with the exception of the first sequence, which was shot towards the end of the shoot. Filming at the Hôtel de Suède for the lengthy bedroom scene between Michel and Patricia included a minimal crew and no lights. This location was difficult to secure, but Godard was determined to shoot there after having lived at the hotel after returning from South America in the early 1950s. Instead of renting a dolly with complicated and time-consuming tracks to lay, Godard and Coutard rented a wheelchair for the film that Godard often pushed himself. For certain street scenes Coutard would hide in a postal cart with a hole in it for the lens and stamped packages piled on top of him. Shooting lasted for 23 days and ended on September 12, 1959. The final scene where Michel is shot in the street was filmed on the rue Campagne-Première in Paris.
Writing for Combat Magazine in 1960, Pierre Marcabru observed, "It seems that, if we had footage of Godard shooting his film, we would discover a sort of accord between the dramatized world in front of the camera (Belmondo and Seberg playing a scene) and the working world behind it (Godard and Raoul Coutard shooting the scene), as if the wall between the real and projected worlds had been torn down."
Breathless was processed and edited at GTC Labs in Joinville with lead editor Cécile Decugis and assistant editor Lila Herman. Decugis has said that the film had a bad reputation before its premiere as the worst film of the year.
Coutard said that "there was a panache in the way it was edited that didn't match at all the way it was shot. The editing gave it a very different tone than the films we were used to seeing." The film's use of jump cuts has been called innovative. Andrew Sarris analyzed it as existentially representing "the meaninglessness of the time interval between moral decisions." Rissient said that the jump cut style was not intended during the film's shooting or the initial stages of editing.
In his biography of Godard, Richard Brody wrote in 2008, "The seminal importance of the film was recognized immediately. In January 1960 — prior to the film's release — Godard won the Jean Vigo Prize, awarded 'to encourage an auteur of the future'... Breathless opened in Paris...not in an art house but at a chain of four commercial theaters, selling 259,046 tickets in four weeks. The eventual profit was substantial, rumored to be fifty times the investment. The film's success with the public corresponded to its generally ardent and astonished critical reception... Breathless, as a result of its extraordinary and calculated congruence with the moment, and of the fusion of its attributes with the story of its production and with the public persona of its director, was singularly identified with the media responses it generated."
New York Times critic A. O. Scott wrote in 2010, 50 years after the release of Breathless, that it is both "a pop artifact and a daring work of art" and even at 50, "still cool, still new, still – after all this time! – a bulletin from the future of movies". Roger Ebert included it in his "Great Movies" list in 2003, writing that, "No debut film since Citizen Kane in 1942 has been as influential", dismissing its jump cuts as the biggest breakthrough, and instead calling revolutionary its "headlong pacing, its cool detachment, its dismissal of authority, and the way its narcissistic young heroes are obsessed with themselves and oblivious to the larger society."
As of 2 April 2017, the film holds a 97% "Certified fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 61 reviews with an average rating of 8.7/10. The site's critical consensus says, "Breathless rewrote the rules of cinema -- and more than 50 years after its arrival, Jean-Luc Godard's paradigm shifting classic remains every bit as vital."1960 Prix Jean Vigo
1960 Berlin International Film Festival: Silver Bear for Best Director
Godard said the success of Breathless was a mistake. He added "there used to be just one way. There was one way you could do things. There were people who protected it like a copyright, a secret cult only for the initiated. That's why I don't regret making Breathless and blowing that all apart." In 1964, Godard described his and his colleagues' impact: "We barged into the cinema like cavemen into the Versailles of Louis XV."
Breathless ranked as the No. 22 best film of all time in the decennial British Film Institute's 1992 Sight and Sound Critics' Poll. In the 2002 poll, it ranked 15th. Ten years later, in 2012, Breathless had crept up to the No. 13 best film of all time in the overall Sight and Sound poll, and as the 11th best film in the concurrent Directors' Poll.The film is frequently referenced in the Youth in Revolt book series, being a favorite of female protagonist Sheeni Saunders, including her dreams of running off to France and her fascination for Jean-Paul Belmondo.
In The Doom Generation, characters play the "smile or I'll choke you" game, and the film's semi-general theme is of a "nihilistic road movie".
The Australian band The Death Set named their album from 2011 after main character Michel Poiccard.
The final scene is mentioned (and later alluded to visually) in The Squid and the Whale.
In the third episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, "Android and I", a 35mm reel of this film can be seen on a table, beneath a reel of Alphaville, as Togusa and Batou are investigating the house of a suspect. Other Godard works are also scattered through the scene. Dialog from this film is recited by two other characters throughout the episode. Themes from this episode parallel themes from both this movie and Godard's complete oeuvre. The climax of the episode hinges on the final lines, including one additional line, from the final scene of the film.
In an episode of Brooklyn Nine Nine, Sergeant Jeffords mentions Breathless when the detectives are discussing their favorite cop movies. Jeffords mistakenly identifies the film as "François Truffaut's Breathless", despite the fact that only the director's name is generally used in such a way. In reference to this error, Jeffords is seen later in the season at a party, defending his statement by saying "it's a writer's film".
In The Dreamers one of the protagonists re-enacts a scene from the film.
The final scene is recreated in Romeo Void's "Never Say Never" video.
In issue #30 of IDW's ongoing comic book series Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye, Whirl votes for repeat showings of the film during the crew's movie night.
The Canadian band The Tragically Hip made a music video for the song "In View" that pays homage to the film.