A Bout De Souffle (Breathless) | 1959
One of the groundbreaking films to escape the confines of the studio, A Bout de Souffle was shot (apart from the opening scene of petty crook Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) hotwiring a car in the Vieux Port of Marseille) on location on the streets of Paris.
Basically an American B-picture (it’s dedicated to United Artists’ bargain basement, Monogram Pictures) shot through with movie references and Gallic existentialism, the jagged jump-cutting and cool, retro-chic style save Jean-Luc Godard’s first full-length feature from mere historical worthiness as vanguard of the French New Wave.
Cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s restless camera, trundled about on a wheelchair or hidden in a post-office cart, forsakes the cliché of cutely angled toits looming out of the mist for a hard-edged picture of darkly glittering nights around the bars of St.-Germain and bustling days on the Champs Elysées. After all these years, the film remains the epitome of Rive Gauche cool and the director is an acknowledged influence on Quentin Tarantino.
The Left Bank hotel of Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), the riverfront Hotel de Suede – as it was in 1959 – lies in the shadow of Notre Dame cathedral, and was used as a make-do studio for most of the film’s interiors. One of the film’s sites that’s been given a substantial revamp and, with an eye to its location, a change of name, Les Rives de Notre Dame, 15 quai St Michel can be found at the junction of rue Xavier Privas (metro: St Michel).
The café, where Michel orders a breakfast he can’t afford, is now a drugstore. It was Le Royale St Germain, at the intersection of the boulevard St Germain and the rue de Rennes opposite the St Germain des Pres metro station.
Wannabe-journalist Patricia is out selling the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysées, where Michel catches up with her. The old office of the Trib, out of which Patricia works, has undergone a major facelift (it now houses a pensions company), but the brass plaque to the left of the doorway still records that from 1930 to 1978 this was the paper’s home. In front of the office, Director Godard himself puts in a cameo appearance as the weaselly snitch who tips off the law. You can see the new frontage just off the Arc de Triomphe end of the Champs, at 21 rue de Berri (metro: George V).
Much of the subsequent action centres around the Champs Elysées. The entrances to the George V Métro station itself are where Michel gives the slip to the detectives before striking poses in front of Humphrey Bogart stills in a movie house lobby. The much-modernised cinema is the Cinema Normandie, 116 bis Champs Elysées, next to the Lido de Paris.
At the top of the Champs stood the Pergola, the spacious first floor café where Patricia meets journalist Van Doude, and southwest is the avenue Montaigne, home of Paris’ swishest designer stores. Here, in front of the Christian Dior store, 30 avenue Montaigne, Patricia dreams of posh frocks while Michel shows off his savvy, knowing that this was the place to make phone calls for free.
Briefly leaving the city centre, Patricia interviews novelist M Parvulesco on the terrace of what was, in 1959, Paris’ main airport, Orly, about 45 minutes south of the city. ‘Parvulesco’, incidentally, is another director’s cameo, by Jean-Pierre Melville who made the excellent Alain Delon thriller Le Samourai (which shares some of this film’s locations).
Back on the Champs, it’s Patricia’s turn to be tailed, through crowds watching a (real) visit of General de Gaulle and President Eisenhower to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe.
Like Michel, Patricia’s evasive action also ends, unsurprisingly, in a movie house. She leaves the cops flummoxed, ducking through the Cinema Mac-Mahon, 5 avenue Mac-Mahon, just off L’Étoile, which is still very much in business, though sporting a slightly spruced-up frontage.
The night scenes shift south of the Seine to the pseud’s paradise that was the Left Bank. Michel and Patricia take off for St-Germain in a stolen car, taking time to admire the sparkling lights of Place de la Concorde en route.
They end up further south in the midst of the clutch of famously arty hangouts on the boulevard Montparnasse at its junction with boulevard Raspail (metro: Vavin). Of the two bars used as backdrop to the scene, The Kosmos, which stood at 101 boulevard Montparnasse, has closed, but Le Select, 99 boulevard Montparnasse, is still packing them in, as is La Rotonde, which the couple drive past on the way to the haven of Zumbach’s girlfriend’s place.
This is the photographer’s apartment where the pair spend their last night, only a couple of blocks south of boulevard Montparnasse, at 11 rue Campagne Première. Running northeast from boulevard Raspail, the quiet sidestreet has long been a magnet for artists. Modigliani, Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Giacometti and Kandinsky have all, at some time, called it home.
Michel makes his doomed attempt to outrun a police bullet down the centre of the red-brick road, ending up – literally breathless – at the southern T-junction of rue Campagne-Première with boulevard Raspail (metro: Raspail).