Telling the story of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young car thief who accidentally kills a policeman and then holes up with American ex-lover Patricia (Jean Seberg), the film uses ahead-of-its-time camerawork and editing to form the crux of the narrative. There is more than one nouvelle vague filmmaker at work here (the late Claude Chabrol acted as artistic and technical director) but the work is clearly Godard's - one of the films most famous scenes, an extended conversation between Michel and Patricia, would be homaged in Godard's later masterpiece Le mépris (Contempt, 1963) and the central themes of crime and relationships would reoccur throughout his entire career. Shot in a beautiful black and white (Raoul Coutard, whose best work for regular collaborator Godard would be on the underrated Une femme est une femme, A Woman Is A Woman, 1961) the story has a tremendous pace largely due to the films innovative editing style. Jump cuts allowed Godard to move the story forward without need of an explanation. Many at the time argued that it was a matter of style over substance; indeed the edit was merely 'cool' when Godard did it. The jump cut wouldn't be considered an artful technique until Kubrick did it in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). À bout de souffle (literally translated as 'at breath's end') did it better however, by making the audience think for themselves about what was happening between the gaps in the narrative. Godard threw continuity editing out of the window in favour of a more energized style of cinema.
And Godard's style behind the camera was more than matched by the style in front of it. Literally, of course, I'm talking about the coupling of Belmondo and Seberg, each showcasing head-to-toe cool, striking sparks as ex-lovers. Belmondo; suited, smoldering and rarely without shades, exudes a confidence as the sociopathic Michel - we're not meant to like him, but he's dangerously engaging. Seberg (also wonderful in the little seen Lilith, Robert Rossen, 1964) plays Patricia with a grounded independence, seemingly the only character in the film who can resist the charms of Michel. With short hair, glasses and stripy tops, she redefines style. Each character could warrant their own film but together, especially in the aforementioned conversation scene, they're perfect. There is a third character however, equally as stylish, who takes up every frame. The character is Paris. Godard shows a real love for the city, but never in an obvious or promotional way. There are no establishing shots or lingering on landmarks (except for a beautiful shot of the Eiffel Tower). The focus on architecture is subtle, but incredibly pleasing - the city is vibrantly alive with bustling streets, trendy café's and cool cars. The landscape is epic and modern; grand in design and scope.
Also employing voiceovers, handheld cameras, tracking shots and existentialism, Godard formed a new language in cinema with À bout de souffle. It's to the films credit that it looks like it could have been made yesterday, but we probably won't see anything so adventurous for decades...
DVD Extras: Short film Je t'aime John Wayne (Toby MacDonald, 2000), Godard BBC interview, Jean Seberg featurette, Jefferson Hack appreciation.