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Jean-Luc Godard was an influential filmmaker of the French New Wave movement, beginning in the late 1950s. The New Wave came about as a rejection of the literary period pieces that dominated French cinema and a desire to tell stories relevant to the youth of the time with fast, cheap, guerilla filmmaking. Godard was particularly obsessed with American noir films and wanted to make his own gangster movie set in France. Breathless was his first feature and a landmark film in the New Wave movement, containing all the hallmarks of American noir: criminals, voice-overs, a femme-fatale and lots of smoking.
The main character of Breathless, Michel, is a petty criminal who models his life after various characters of Humphrey Bogart movies. He wears short ties and high-waisted suits, with a fedora pulled low over his eyes and a cigarette sticking out of his emphatically puckered lips. Michel smokes constantly throughout the film, always using the smoldering butt of his last cigarette to light the next. In one scene, he stares longingly at a poster for The Harder They Fall, featuring Humphrey Bogart with a burning cigarette dangling form his lips. Michel wants to be an American gangster and all American gangsters smoke.
New Wave films relied on low-budget, improvised camera techniques with little to no set-up. They often used natural lighting, which had a distinctive effect on cigarette smoke. In American noir films like Casablanca, with their dark colour palettes and dramatic lighting, smoke is distinct and jagged, almost solid as it coils out of cigarettes and slithers off screen. In Breathless, cigarette smoke is murky and indistinct, it instantly blooms and muddles the air. In close, interior scenes, with two smokers in a small room, the screen quickly becomes obscured by the haze of cigarette smoke. This is amplified by Godard’s use of extra long takes.
In American movies, cigarettes have a distinctive insidious look that helps emphasize scenes of danger: the heist, the card game, the confrontation with the femme-fatale. In Breathless, the dangerous scenes are not the ones with the threat of violence, but the ones with an argument between lovers. Michel doesn’t bat an eye when he steals a car and murders a police officer, but he is unhinged and chain-smoking when trying to convince his girlfriend to sleep with him again. Instead of lending an air of menace, smoking makes the characters in Breathless appear weak, needy and desperate.
As much as Godard was inspired by American noir, his films showed the falseness of classic Hollywood narrative. Godard’s characters are wannabe gangsters, who are in reality, hopeless lovers—and in France, all lovers smoke.