Mr. Godard remained best known for “Breathless” and about a dozen films he made in quick succession afterward, ending with “Weekend” in 1967.University audiences identified with the doomed romanticism of Mr. Belmondo’s central character in “Breathless,” a petty criminal who himself identified with the doomed romanticism of the characters played by Humphrey Bogart in the American films that Mr. Godard and his Cahiers colleagues admired.
On one level, “Breathless,” produced on a $70,000 budget, seems to fulfill Mr. Godard’s famously dismissive dictum, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” But the herky-jerky rhythm — with scenes sometimes out of sequence — fascinated and bewildered audiences.
Writing a few years after the film’s release, the cultural critic Susan Sontag likened its impact on cinema to the effect the Cubists had on traditional painting. And covering a 2000 revival screening of “Breathless,” the essayist and novelist Philip Lopate said he felt as exhilarated by the film as when he first saw it 40 years before.
Other great avant-garde films were released about the same time: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” (1960), Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” (1960). “Yet only ‘Breathless’ seemed a revolutionary break with the cinema that had gone before,” Mr. Lopate wrote in The New York Times. “It seemed a new kind of storytelling, with its saucy jump cuts, digressions, quotes, in jokes and addresses to the viewer.”
The film became an international success, one of the bigger commercial hits of Mr. Godard’s career. There would even be an American remake, starring Richard Gere, in 1983.
But rather than repeat the winning formula of “Breathless,” Mr. Godard introduced an element of radical politics into his next film, the gray, somber “Petit Soldat,” criticizing French conduct in the Algerian war for independence. The film was banned from French theaters for three years, during which time Mr. Godard directed a candy-colored, wide-screen homage to the Hollywood musical “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961), starring Ms. Karina, and the stark, Scandinavian-influenced “My Life to Live” (1962), which cast her as a Paris housewife who drifts into a life of prostitution.