Cult Movies: Jean-Paul Belmondo's turn in Godard's Breathless still the epitome of cinematic cool

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless
Ralph McLean

RIP Jean-Paul Belmondo

THERE'S cool and then there's 'Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless' cool. Belmondo, who died in Paris last week at the age of 88, elevated and energised many a film with his effortless Gallic charm, but never so effectively as he does in Jean Luc Godard's 1960 classic.

Playing an attractively aloof petty crook with a serious Bogart obsession who slouches around alongside little Jean Seberg with jauntily angled hat perched casually on head and cigarette dangling constantly from lips, he just drips teen rebellion and apparently God-given cool in every single frame he fills.

His turn as the vain but irresistible Michel, on the run after accidentally killing a policeman in Marseilles, is truly remarkable and in it rests the roots of every youthful screen rebel that arrived in its wake. The blueprint for every shades wearing, chain smoking, big screen anti-hero that would follow in his hand-crafted shoes is there for all to see.

Of course, A Bout De Souffle (to give it its original French title) is an extraordinary film for more reasons than just providing a vehicle for Belmondo to cruise past us imperiously in. A super stylised calling card for the so called New Wave of French cinema in the 60s, it was a cinematic game changer in a decade crammed with similarly iconic and influential movies.

Just about every would-be hip indie offering that follows two outsider figures on the run from authority or any film that has sought to tap into the wild restlessness of youth at its most vibrant owes it a considerable debt. Watch the pop culture-friendly leads in any given Tarantino film, for instance, and it's easy to trace the beat of Belmondo.

It also marked out Godard as a radical film maker capable of shaking up the format and making something new out of old traditions. Awash with trailblazing techniques from jarring jump cuts to semi-improvised dialogue and sudden tonal shifts, Breathless was a world apart from its crime movie contemporaries – and all the better for it.

Watching it today in all its crisp black and white glory more than 60 years on from its original release, the film remains a fresh and free-spirited slice of big screen storytelling unfettered by Hollywood structures.

Admittedly, some of the original selling points that set the film apart, such as that famously fragmented format and even the perky jazz score that pushes everything along at such an admirable clip, expose the vintage of the material you're watching and remind you that much of this stuff has been ruthlessly parodied for being wilfully offbeat and difficult down the years – but there's still a sense of modernity and a natural unshackled style and verve about it all that remains hugely impressive.

While Godard, as a first-time director delivering the vision of the project, deserves all the acclaim he gets for the film's undeniably dazzling surface, much of its soul can be traced directly to Belmondo. There's a natural, unforced arrogance in his performance which embodies teenage rebellion.

If you're looking for pure Paris style, delivered by an actor who understood the importance of authenticity and believability in a role, then Belmondo is still your man.

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