We are not in the tour guide business although Frank thinks the much-traveled Joe would make an excellent one.
But with summer approaching and visits to Paris in the offing (lucky stiffs!), we thought you might find it instructive to catalog exactly where French director Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal “nouvelle vague” (New Wave) gem Breathless was actually photographed 56 years ago.
Yes, yes, anyone the least bit familiar with the picture knows that it was shot in Paris. But where in Paris?
Godard photographed the picture entirely outside studio confines, a daring thing to do at the time, and employed French-speaking American actress Jean Seberg in the central role of “Patricia Franchini,” the very pretty, not-so-innocent abroad who betrays her gangster-on-the-run boyfriend portrayed by Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Seberg was an actress who still beguiles international audiences in A bout de souffle, as Breathless was known in France. We are much indebted to The Criterion Collection’s elaborate 50th anniversary DVD re-release of Breathless, which includes an 80-minute French-made documentary about every aspect of the film’s making.
It features TV personality Claude Ventura, who obsessively revisited all its Paris locations. Ventura made his documentary in the early 1990’s after digging through three boxes of archival material based on the records of Breathless producer, Georges de Beauregard.
Breathless began shooting during the gorgeous summer of 1959, specifically on Aug. 17 when most Parisians were off on holiday, and was completed on Sept. 12. Ventura discovered that after all these years, “in black and white, Paris still looks like it did in New Wave films.” (The film was commercially released in 1960.)
Breathless stills and one-sheet posters most often show Seberg (hawking copies of the New York Herald Tribune’s European edition) and a raffish looking Belmondo strolling down Paris’ most famous boulevard.
As Ventura puts it, “The American girl’s voice still echoes on the Champs-Elysees.” Some other sites in the movie:
— Located off the Champs-Elysees, at 53 Rue Pierre Charron, was the La Belle Ferroniere restaurant where Godard got into a fist fight with his de Beauregard. The Breathless director drove the Breathless producer “nuts” because of Godard’s erratic shooting methods. Things came to a head at the eatery although waiters separated the two before damaging blows could be landed.
— Many of the film’s interiors were shot in Room 12 in the Hotel de Suede at 15 Quai Saint Michel in Paris’ 5th arrondissement, near the Ile de la Cite in the area and not far from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Godard and his small crew set up their cameras in the tiny room situated in a tight third floor alcove. Unfortunately, the Hotel has since been torn down.
— A short distance from the Hotel de Suede was the Terrace Of The Notre Dame cafe where Godard each morning would write that day’s dialogue, and would meet with his production crew. After only two hours of work on the opening day of shooting, the director said he had “run out of ideas” and proceeded to let his crew go. (No wonder that restaurant encounter with producer de Beauregard turned nasty.)
— Several scenes late in Breathless, as Seberg is preparing to betray her lover Belmondo, were shot outside The Herald Tribune office in Paris, situated at that time at 21 Rue de Berri, a main thoroughfare off the Champs-Elysees. (The newspaper is now owned by The New York Times and known as The International New York Times.)
— The film’s final, memorable scene — in which the betrayed Belmondo is shot by police in the back, and sent staggering down the length of a long street (followed closely by cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s camera) — actually took place on Rue Campagne Premiere. Running from Blvd. du Montparnasse to Blvd. Raspail, Rue Campagne Premiere is in the heart of the Montparnasse quarter in Paris’ 14th arrondissement.
Some closing tidbits. Breathless’ production budget in 1959 totalled $90,000, about $700,000 in today’s dollars. Seberg’s fee for the picture was $15,000 then, equivalent to $114,000 now.
She disliked making the picture, and thought it was sure to be a box office bomb. That view was shared by Godard himself who declared it “was bound to be a flop.”
Breathless, as it turned out, was anything but.