The Everlasting Style of the French New Wave Heroine: Jean Seberg in “Breathless”

A preppy in Paris.

After her debut in Hollywood, with her first role, at age nineteen, in Otto Preminger’s 1957 Saint Joan, and another Preminger movie a year later, Bonjour Tristesse, this one filmed in France (both poorly received), Iowa-born Jean Seberg appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s directorial debut, À bout de souffle (1960). Breathless came after the first films of other three emerging New Wave film-makers, Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), Claude Chabrol’s Le beau serge (1958) and François Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959), but, with Truffaut as screenwriter and Chabrol as technical advisor, it was Godard’s film that marked the definitive breakthrough towards a new language of cinema, one that went against any cinematic conventions, and brought in a new aesthetic, innovative techniques, bold and vigorous narrative, improvised dialogue, leading us through the streets of Paris, mingling actors with passers-by, in a frenetic and realistic pace similar to that of a modern day reporter. A Paris where two lovers are overwhelmed by fate and where the image of Jean Seberg as Patricia Franchini strolling down the Champs-Elysées in The New York Herald Tribune t-shirt became an everlasting style headline and the star of the French New Wave. Breathless would have an impact on fashion and beguile international audiences to this day. The French New Wave films exquisitely captured the life of the young in France and especially in Paris, the fashion, the urban professional life, the ideological struggles, the carefree minds, the spirit of youth.

Raymond Cauchetier, also known as the photographer of the New Wave, captured through his lens enduring moments that Godard’s shoot only implied. There is a scene on the Champs-Élysées, filmed in long shot and from overhead, in which Godard has Seberg give Belmondo a sweet peck on the cheek. Cauchetier brought the actors together to reproduce the scene in a close-up, which became one of the movie’s iconic images despite not existing in the film at all. Cauchetier caught the film’s immediacy and free-form style, as well as the star power, ease and effervescence of Seberg and Belmondo throughout the shoot.

That ease is spoken through their costumes, too. The film does not credit any costume designer for the wardrobes. It is very likely that Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg made their own sartorial choices or even wore their own clothes on set – the late ’60s, only a few years later, would mark the beginning of the reign of the stylists in film wardrobes, choosing rather than designing the outfits. Belmondo set the standard for smoky French sex appeal, and Seberg, with her infusion of French chic into her American sporty, preppy style (just like Seberg in real life), finally made a big entrance on screen and would be admired and copied by the worldwide public for generations to come, creating the stereotype of the French gamine. She is all light and cool and mischief. Patricia Franchini, an American student working for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune in Paris, made style news with her pixie haircut, black eyeliner and an effortless, natural, carefree, fresh wardrobe packed with sailor stripes, oversized men’s shirts, ballet slippers, loafers, trench coat, skinny pants and Trilby hat borrowed from Jean-Paul Belmondo/Michel.

In a rare interview talking about the movie, taken just before shooting a scene in À bout de souffle, Jean, dressed in the striped dress that Patricia wears in the film, said that Godard described her character as “the one in Bonjour Tristesse two years later”. Godard was a cinephile and when he went from the front of the camera as editor of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, to behind the camera as a film-maker, he frequently made allusions to his director peers whom he admired. There are many “film in film” sequences in Breathless, such as the one when Patricia hides in a cinema, the famous Le Mac Mahon, from the police, and the show that they are announcing next is Preminger’s very own Whirlpool (1949).

Further discussing her character, Seberg depicted her as “a very franchised American girl, a very sophisticated American girl, I suppose what some would call a very liberated American girl” and further concluded that she was one of the first Americans to speak French in a French movie. Belmondo was one of the anti-heroes of La nouvelle vague and she was the anti-heroine of this new cinema that had new life in it, that questioned the establishment, that wanted to experiment in new ways with everything.


Images: screen stills, Classiq Journal. Credit: Les Films Impéria / Les Productions Georges de Beauregard / Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

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