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Film noir ... French style
on 9 July 2005
Dedicated to the Hollywood gangster movies of the 30's and 40's, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a small time crook with a penchant for Bogart and the illusory glamour of a film noir mobster. "Un Bout de Souffle" demonstrates how a simple narrative can be shaped into a thoroughly absorbing and charismatic film.
Belmondo has a face which looks like it was carved out of granite. It's a disreputable mug, complete with fat, crumpled cigarette constantly adhering to his lip. The image is iconic. He steals a car, discovers a gun in its glove compartment, and suddenly his transformation to matinee idol is complete. In an ensuing police chase, he guns down a copper.
He continues his flight to Paris, where he hopes to collect some money he's owed and make an escape to Italy. But his fantasy world begins to implode as he exposes himself to the encroaching claustrophobia of reality. Paris is no longer a big enough city. This is a small time crook whose limitations are circumscribed by his own rigid thought processes and inability to cope with frustration. Director Godard delivers a lesson in criminology in this hero-come-villain's inability to think ahead or plan, his vulnerability to spontaneity and immediate gratification, his chaotic vision, his blind optimism that something will turn up and that he won't get caught.
Jean Seberg plays Belmondo's girlfriend, an American journalism student. She becomes his sole link with the reality of a law-abiding world. He wants everything done his way, wants things to happen now, shows little awareness of consequences. But the net is tightening and he begins to recognise emotions. But falling for a woman is even more oppressive than the imploding lifestyle. If you trust someone, you expose yourself to abuse.
This is a fast-paced film, despite its introspective moments and long central scene in Seberg's bedroom, one in which Godard creates a very real sense of claustrophobia and breathless anticipation of what will go wrong next. There are echoes of Fellini's 8½ as Seberg interviews a famous artist. He suggests Belmondo has one chance at personal fulfilment - the petty crook can become an iconic image, a body on a street after a shoot-out with the law.
A wonderful blend of Belmondo's rugged testosterone-rich masculinity and Seberg's cool charm and sophistication, this is a tightly directed and focussed film which both celebrates the film noir and highlights some of the absurdities and pretensions of crime fiction and cinema.