A French Toast

One could refer to the directors and writers of the French New Wave as the original anti-Doris Day contingent. Dedicated to telling tales of misfits, adulterers, bandits, and single, promiscuous women during the era when the queen of squeaky-clean was making goofy love, American style, in kooky Technicolor classics such as Pillow Talk and Please Don't Eat the Daisies, the French, led by the likes of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, rejected the bright-eyed feel-good froth of Hollywood. In fact they gave the perpetual foo-foo, à la Française, to the elaborate MGM machine, decades before the rise of indie film producers.

"Film lovers are sick people," Truffaut suggested.

"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun," Godard was quoted as saying.

Godard used this simple formula and a sleek cinematic style to great success in his debut film, Breathless (1960). Not only does Godard feature a fabulous, fully sexual woman, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), as the lead, but he tells the tale of her flirtation with a small-time crook turned cop killer, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a lowlife living in a Humphrey Bogart delusion.

Much of Seberg and Belmondo's relationship is played out in bed, where Belmondo hides from police while trying to convince Seberg to sleep with him. Or else they ride around Paris in stolen cars. In the process, the characters reveal how many lovers each has been with, and to further scandalize the early-Sixties American audiences, Seberg divulges that she's pregnant while puffing on a Lucky Strike.

What sacrilege.

Godard's fast-cut style of narrative and jumpy camera work, thought to be revolutionary then, helped make the film famous. Moreover Breathless is radical in its très French portrayal of sexual roles in modern society and critique of American thinking. "You Americans are dumb," Belmondo tells Seberg. "You admire Lafayette and Maurice Chevalier. They're the dumbest of all Frenchmen."

If the social commentary is bothersome, the breezy summer-in-Paris fashion and cityscapes circa 1960 make seeing Breathless worthwhile. Seberg's gamin haircut and thick eyeliner is sexy and glamorous without too much of an effort. Her waifish look is complemented by Belmondo's heavy eyelids and lusty frog lips, which ultimately seduced untold numbers of adventure-seeking movie fans and turned him into a big-time star.

Breathless is featured along with three other films in the Wolfsonian-FIU's (1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach) summer French New Wave Cinema series. Each week the museum screens a different film from the genre. The other films include Claude Chabrol's 1958 Le Beau Serge; Truffaut's 1959 masterpiece, The 400 Blows; and Eric Rohmer's 1969 dark comedy, My Night at Maud's.

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