Jean-Luc Godards's first full-length feature, À bout de souffle, was released as Breathless in the U.S. in 1961. Hitting the theaters a year after François Truffaut's Les 400 Coups and Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it helped launch the French film movement known as La Nouvelle Vague. François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol created the screen treatment, loosely basing the story on a newspaper article that Truffaut read about a man named Michel Portail and his American girlfriend Beverly Lynette. In 1952 Portail had stolen a car in order to be able to visit his ailing mother in Le Havre, killing a motorcycle policeman who tried to stop him. When the film did not work out for Truffaut and Chabrol, they gave it to Godard.
Godard changed the story significantly, reportedly writing the script scene by scene and then feeding the lines to the actors only shortly before each scene was shot, often prompting them as they shot. Seeking the gritty look of a documentary, Godard asked cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot the entire film on a hand-held camera, with next to no lighting. Working on a shoestring budget that made a camera dolly far too expensive, Godard pushed Coutard around in a wheelchair in the tracking shots.
The noisiness of the camera and the sound of Godard's prompting meant that most of the of the dialogue had to be dubbed in post-production, something that non-French speakers often miss because they are reading the subtitles. The interview scene at Orly Airport, featuring Jean Parvulesco (a journalist who had written articles on the Nouvelle Vague early on, played by Jean-Pierre Melville), shows exactly the sort of camera used in the film. Supposedly in response to a demand to shorten the film, Godard cut out many small sections of scenes, leading to an effect known as the jump cut.
The crew filmed entirely on location, instead of in studios as was the practice at the time, mostly on the streets of Paris in August and September 1959. People walking by the characters in crowd scenes are often seen looking back at them, curious about what's going on. Footage of presidential motorcades going down the Boulevard des Champs-Élysées is from the actual visit of President Eisenhower to Paris, where he met with General De Gaulle and spoke to the NATO council that September, a happy coincidence.
Godard shot most of the scenes in chronological order, except for the opening sequence, where Michel steals a car in Marseille and drives along R.N. 7 to Paris, which was shot last. The interior scenes were shot in rooms at the Hôtel de Suède, on the Quai St-Michel in the 5th. One can only assume that he arranged with business owners to have messages about the impending arrest of Michel Poiccard flashing on the news tickers as he shot along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The magical moment, when Michel is standing by the car and the lights come on in the dusk of the Boulevard des Champs-Élysées, must have been carefully timed.
The Orly interview scene is only one of several meta-references in the film. Jean Seberg, an American actress who had lived in France part of her life, got her start in Otto Preminger's Saint Joan a few years before Breathless, when she was not yet 18. It was a flop, but Preminger still cast her in Bonjour, Tristesse, and Godard gave her an even bigger lift with the role of Patricia Franchini in Breathless. When Patricia ducks into a theater, trying to lose a detective tailing her, the movie playing is Otto Preminger's Whirlpool , released in 1950, a film noir about a woman, married to a famous psychoanalyst, who is arrested for shoplifting.
Patricia ditches the detective, and then Michel and Patricia go to another theater to see Westbound together, a Western with Randolph Scott and Virginia Mayo. At one point a young girl tries to get Michel to buy a copy of Cahiers du cinéma, the publication that both Truffaut and Godard started out writing reviews for. La Nouvelle Vague, as one critic put it, is cinema made by cinephiles. Godard even gives himself a significant cameo, as the nosy, pipe-smoking man who recognizes Michel's picture in France Soir and snitches on him to the cops nearby.
Another unseen but iconic aspect to the movie is the jazzy soundtrack by jazz pianist Martial Solal. He was a French citizen born in Algeria, the son of an opera singer and a piano teacher, and it was his only collaboration with Godard. He must be the one we hear furiously practicing tedious Hanon exercises on the piano at one point, something he must have heard a lot at home. Solal got his start playing the piano for American GIs in Morocco during WWII, and he wrote several film scores, this one being the most famous. You can get a feel for his style of improvisation from the clip embedded below, a take on Bronisław Kaper's song On Green Dolphin Street, made famous in a version by Miles Davis.