The 1960s kicked off with a shout, and it was in French: Breathless, the debut feature from the impishly brilliant young Franco-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard, changed the landscape of filmmaking forever by mining Hollywood tradition, specifically the classic genre of gangster films. Jean-Paul Belmondo is a suave small-time thief who goes on the lam after killing a motorcycle cop. Jean Seberg is his femme fatale, a seemingly guileless young American whose pixie cut is by itself an emblem of youthful freedom. Their adventure—shot using brashly inventive low-budget techniques that would later become part of nearly every filmmaker’s bag of tricks—is both exhilarating and tragic, and more than 60 years on, it still feels disarmingly fresh. For younger audiences today, this is the training-wheels Godard, the first work by this sometimes inscrutable genius seen by most moviegoers. For older movie fans—either those who saw it upon its initial release, or those who, like me, first fell for it when it showed up as part of a series of French films shown on PBS in the early 1970s—it is often a kind of touchstone. We can’t imagine what our lives would have been like without it.
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