- Spoiler warning: this article gives away plot details
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) broke apart cinema as we knew it. With its jump cuts turning reality into an exciting blaze of imagery, Godard’s film confirmed the critics-turned-filmmakers of the French New Wave as a force to be reckoned with.
Breathless follows the misfortunes of a car thief, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who flees to Paris having shot a policeman after stealing a car in Marseilles. He’s there to try and convince his previous lover, Patricia (Jean Seberg), to come to Rome with him, though it’s not long before the police are on his tail.
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As with many of his peers from the New Wave, from François Truffaut to Jacques Rivette, Godard’s canvas is the city of Paris. While the editing style of Breathless is fragmentary, its Paris is relatively logical and continuous. Many of the streets and locations are genuinely where they are supposed to be within the film – unlike, for example, when Michelangelo Antonioni broke London apart and pieced it back together for his own purposes in Blowup (1966).
This real relationship to the city may be down to the constrained shoot, the lack of script and the constant improvisation during filming. With all of these elements in flux, Paris is the one solid constant, only occasionally bowing to Godard’s needs in the edit (often during the film’s many car journeys).
I began my search for the Breathless locations on the Champs-Élysées, home to many iconic scenes from the film. First stop was just off it, on the rue de Berri, opposite the Hotel California. This was the site of the office for the New York Herald Tribune, which employs Patricia. Various scenes, including Godard’s own cameo, occur here, though the road has now changed dramatically and the building is now a blank office bordered by construction work.
Heading back to the Champs-Élysées, it took some time to figure out exactly where the film’s most famous scene – our introduction to Seberg, as she’s advertising the newspaper – was shot. The road layout has changed dramatically, with the car park spaces now underground and the old spaces pedestrianised for access to the many high-fashion boutiques and cinemas. However, I found roughly the place, not far from avenue Georges V.
Michel wanders down avenue George V after his rendezvous with Patricia, reading a paper and bumping into a seller of Cahiers du Cinéma: “Do you support the youth?” The office for this film journal was at 146 avenue des Champs-Élysées and as an employee Godard naturally knew this territory – the film set was on his doorstep for work. The small road where Jacques Rivette is run over by a car is rue Vernet and has little changed. The travel agency where Michel tries to get his money was also opposite this road.
Much greater change was evident nearby when I went looking for the restaurant where Patricia meets her editor. This is the building on the corner of avenue George V. What was the Quick Elysées restaurant is now the main Louis Vuitton store in Paris, where the combination of many doormen and Black Friday queues put me off going inside, though the window still clearly has the same view judging from outside.
Next to this is the George V Métro, the stairs of which Michel uses to casually lose his tailing police officers. It’s difficult to gauge the stairs given the huge changes to the road, but the constant of the Arc de Triomphe shows where the location roughly is.
The Arc was a pivot from which to explore other locations, with Godard’s lack of budget meaning I never had to go too far to understand how the sites fitted together. The first location near the Arc was on avenue de la Grande-Armée. This is where the pair go to Cinéma Napoleon on the corner, though it’s now a Lexus dealer.
Following the Arc around again, I found a cinema from the film that does still survive today: Cinéma Mac-Mahon, where Patricia loses her own tailing cop, is running on avenue Mac-Mahon. It was hosting a retrospective of Pépé le Moko (1937) director Julien Duvivier at the time of my visit.
After taking the Métro again, I headed in the direction of Opéra, to the boulevard des Italiens, where Michel and Patricia are seen walking and arguing surrounded by people. The street was empty on the early morning of my visit, the bars now replaced with McDonalds and other chains.
Another quick journey on the Métro took me to Pont-Neuf. The first shot of Paris after Michel’s botched escape from the police is of Notre-Dame from Pont Saint-Michel, and so I walked along the Seine to find it.
Halfway through Breathless, the film seals itself off in a hotel room. This is a room in the Hotel de Suede and was the base for the film’s production. The hotel was later torn apart in the 1990s and refurbished as Les Rives de Notre-Dame.
The roads around the hotel are returned to later on when Michel needs to steal yet another car. He leaves Jean at the Café Notre-Dame on the corner and ventures to rue de la Bûcherie, in front of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop.
He then follows the owner of a car down rue Lagrange and into the man’s building on rue Dante until he is sure that he’s in his flat.
The shot of Michel driving away provides a view of Notre-Dame itself.
I continued in the opposite direction down rue Dante onto boulevard Saint-Germain and followed it all of the way down to number 149. This was the site of the café where Michel gets a coffee and then runs out of to steal some money. The café is now an Emporio Armani shop, though the view out to the street that Godard captured is largely intact.
Also in this maze of roads is the building where we later see the lights telling of Michel’s expected capture: “Michel Pioccard Arrest Immanent.”
Heading further south, I found myself on boulevard du Montparnasse, one of the film’s main night-time locations. The boulevard is famed for its array of extravagant bistros, bars and restaurants, some of which make an appearance in the film. The chief example is Le Select, though La Rotonde, where Ernest Hemingway used to sit growling in the corner, and Le Dôme are also seen in the film.
Michel drives along the boulevard in search of his friend, whose apartment he then hides in. Appropriately, a huge sign outside one of the shops today advertises “GODARD”, though the name is now selling foie gras.
In reality, the apartment is only round the corner on rue Campagne-Première, the final location for the film. The flat was number 11 and is now a second-hand book shop. Slightly further along is the bar where Patricia finally informs on Michel to the police. In memory of the film, the bar is now called À bout de souffle. Sadly, it was closed when I visited.
Other shots as Michel goes to make his getaway were filmed opposite the bar before his final run down the street after he has been shot: “I’m tired, I want to sleep.”
The street has barely changed, though trying to recreate the scene is far more dangerous due to the increase in traffic and, as I found out, inadvisable.
As a mark of respect, I wandered after this to cimetière du Montparnasse around the corner. Many of the great French directors are buried here, including Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy and Claude Sautet.
But the grave I came to see was Jean Seberg’s, who was taken from us far before her time and under the most tragic of circumstances.
She is buried mere metres away from the site of the film’s stunning final shot, in which a drag of the thumb across her lips and a dramatic turn from camera cements her, Belmondo and Godard not just into the history of film, but forever into the history of Paris itself.
- Breathless 60th anniversary 4K UHD Blu-ray collector’s edition is released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital on 9 November 2020
- This article was originally published in March 2018