Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard, Written by: François Truffaut
“What does <dégueulasse> mean?” is the final line of new wave classic Breathless. I won’t say more about the line’s context, in the hopes that you’ll forget it and appreciate it anew when you watch the film. However I will tell you that dégueulasse is the French word for vomit. That’s right, a film you’ll probably watch with an air of pretentiousness ends with the line “what is vomit?”
One of Breathless’s trademarks is its plethora of “What does _ mean?” lines. The film stars two characters Michel Poicard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the ant-hero protagonist and Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) his love interest who speaks French with a heavy American accent. Patrica’s “What does __ mean?” lines are of course comic, but they also get at one of Breathless’ deeper ideas.
Atypical, a dramedy about a teenage autistic boy, features an episode in which his girlfriend tells him she loves him. The boy, however, is unable to reciprocate without coming up with a precise definition of “feeling love” and determining if he meets the criteria. The implication of the episode is that neuro-typical people aren’t faced with such dilemmas, as they are able and happy to understand emotional concepts on an instinctive level. Of course, the neuro-typical/atypical binary is not absolute, and the desire to break down the human experience into component parts can exist in all sorts of minds. Breathless is interesting because it is not, at least not explicitly, a film about neuro-diversity. Nonetheless, its two characters question everything from what love means to what crime means to what vomit means. This questioning does not render them emotionless robots: Michel displays a regular playful joie de vivre, and Patricia displays ambition, frustration and guilt. It does, however, give their emotions an uncanny, misplaced quality to say the least.
Breathless, one could say is a stylized film. It is a noir with protagonists who hide behind dark sunglasses and clouds of cigarette smoke. The scenes are shot in front of a range of interesting backgrounds, including some dystopia-lite neon in its final moments. Nonetheless, Breathless’ undeniable aesthetic character does not mean its dialogue should be written off as empty, unrealistic filler. Rather, what Truffaut’s script seems to do is take extreme, but relatable human impulses (romantic indecisiveness, poor sense of priorities, escaping darkness through playfulness, and the desire to question everything) and bring them all out at once.
Another important line in the film comes when an author, in a great press-scrum-scene, states his ambition is “to become immortal and then die.” Put differently, the author’s ambition is to escape reality and return to it once more. This is in a way, what Breathless’ viewers are exposed to: a world that is a bit too-rule free to be realistic, but is still recognizable. Breathless may not allow viewers to acquire immortality, but it provides a plausible idea of what it could feel like.
Rife with references to classical music, literature and philosophical questions, in the midst of a existentalist story, Breathless is an archetype of what many of outsiders think of as French art, and an entertaining one at that. It offers viewers a chance to see the writing of one of France’s leading auteurs, and the direction of another (a glimpse at his skills before his works became more niche). It’s by no means a safe recommendation for all viewers, but if you’re looking to make a casual film fan more adventurous it’s a great gateway drug.