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On 6 September 2021, Jean-Paul Belmondo sadly passed away at the age of 88. Earlier in the year, in celebration of the 65th anniversary of 'Breathless', we a wrote about the French actor's legendary impact on film and style.
Back in a time when riots and chain smoking in bed were cool, Jean-Paul Belmondo raced through the crisp countryside surrounding Marseille in a stolen ’56 Thunderbird coupe, his French mumble breaking the fourth wall, clipped further still by a cigarette that was perched and puffed on by two full lips: "If you don't like the sea, or the mountains, or the big city, then get stuffed." Which sounds really quite aggressive. But, in the world of Breathless, it is lazy, and nonchalant; a bellicose yawn that is so wildly French that we still almost expect this behaviour in Paris.
Is it really like Breathless across the Channel? Of course it isn't. Frenchmen don't barrel around the country picking up American girlfriends, picking off policemen and pretending that they're not all that bothered when The Law exacts its revenge. But, on its 61st birthday (many happy returns!), director Jean-Luc Godard's seminal film looks better than ever. Its fantasy of a mythical, semi-real France is something that fashion, and music, and cinema still clings to – and one that sparked the New Wave era of French filmmaking, spawning dozens of great works, and hundreds of wannabes, with its experimental techniques and acute self-awareness.
It is so influential because it is a great film, of course. Breathless is frequently in the crow's nest of best ever lists. But it's also because Breathless still looks so cool while doing such a good job all these decades later.
Belmondo, an actor approaching 90, is today less a sweetened national treasure in France than he is its roguish, winking uncle. He, along with Godard's consummate filmmaking, is a huge reason for the film's enduring success, and its place in menswear's canon. According to a 2010 retrospective by Vanity Fair, Godard afforded his cast a creative freedom, and "it's likely they were able to make many of their sartorial choices themselves." Which is why a then 26-year-old Belmondo fills the battered Oxfords of Michel Poiccard so well, because they're perhaps his own battered Oxfords.
In Breathless, Belmondo's affable but aimless former boxer has a tough time negotiating adulthood. Instead, he plays dress-up as Humphrey Bogart in suits that are a little too baggy, and shirts that are a little too loose; a reflection of his inability to stay within the lines. The result is an unkemptness that becomes covetable, a criminal we genuinely yearn to be. Because, ultimately, Michel couldn't really care less about his own misdeeds, or his own misdirection. Effortlessness apparently means an open shirt matched with open disregard for authority – and effortlessness (or the illusion of it) is usually the key ingredient in Very Good Outfits.
You can't help but like him. And despite the police officer he killed, and the general malaise that is supposedly so deeply unattractive in a 21st century of ambition and 'self-improvement', you can't help but want to be him. Somehow, Belmondo's Michel is even cooler than his own hero, the late Mr Bogart, because he eschews the very mould of what a hero is supposed to be.
The reality of going on the run in Paris is, obviously, much less romantic than Breathless would suggest. Though like Godard, we can always dream, and we can always aspire to care as little as the napping lions of French cinema – those who possess the potential for great danger, but so rarely the energy to put it to actual use. Even at the film's close, when Michel falls victim to a traitorous girlfriend, he meets his demise with an ambiguous shrug of the shoulders in a scene that has been pored over by countless film critics torn asunder by the various translations on offer. But perhaps the most convincing as he lays dying? "Makes me want to puke."
Watch Breathless at bfi.org.uk online
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