Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel Poiccard, petty thief and killer on the run
Paris, August 1959
(French title: À bout de souffle)
Release Date: March 16, 1960
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard from an original treatment by François Truffaut, À bout de souffle (or Breathless to us Americans) marked a defining moment in the evolution of French New Wave cinema. The lanky, youthful, and energetic Jean-Paul Belmondo shot to cinematic stardom as he became the new face of French New Wave, a term to which he charmingly admitted his own ignorance to P.E. Schneider of New York Times Magazine.
In that 1961 piece, Schneider was profiling Belmondo for a piece called “A Punk With Charm,” referring to the actor’s role in Breathless as the Bogart-idolizing Michel Poiccard, a swaggering and sociopathic walking id.
More than five decades later, Breathless remains a crucial touchstone of modern cinema with Belmondo’s performance praised alongside that of Jean Seberg as his stylish American girlfriend, an ingénue in appearance if not practice. Despite its lasting impact, Breathless takes itself about as seriously as its lead character (dare I call him the protagonist?), who floats from crime to crime and lover to lover in a series of jump cuts punctuated by Martial Solal’s jumpy jazz score.
Ella Taylor wrote in L.A. Weekly for the film’s 50th anniversary release in May 2010: “For those old enough to have cut their teeth on Godard’s first effort at messing with French film orthodoxy while blowing an ambivalent kiss to American gangster movies, the film comes as a thrilling reminder of how playful the master could be even when building a movie around a two-bit car thief and cop killer tooling around Paris, arguing love and existence with his American squeeze as he runs from the police. Perpetually in motion, raffish and cheap in his fedora and ill-fitting jacket, at once majestic and pathetic in his self-aggrandizing identification with Humphrey Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel oozes pugnacity to authority and a double-edged promise of seduction and betrayal to Jean Seberg’s Patricia, whose angel face will prove to contain its own multitudes.” (link)
Later that year, Sarah Kaufman expanded on this theme for the Washington Post (link):
We don’t see a lot of male grace in films nowadays – built-up bulk and a punchier, more robust aesthetic have taken its place. Go back to the 1950s and, particularly in the art films, there’s a subtler, more detailed attention to the male form and its ability to express emotion. Belmondo may not be as polished as a Cary Grant, nor as sensuously sculpted as a Marlon Brando. His character in Breathless is perfectly hateful – a petty thief who sees himself as a classy tough even as he’s robbing and insulting his girlfriends. But what’s fascinating is that the way he carries himself tells us something entirely different.
We fall in love with this lowlife not because of his lines or his story but because of his moves. He bursts with an endearing, boyish energy, light-footed and carefree, fed by the restless motor of a dreamer. The jacked-up optimism in the way Belmondo moves tells us his character has heart, wit, and promise, even if his words convey the opposite.
Belmondo plays Michel, who heads to Paris from Marseille in a stolen car to a) retrieve money he is owed and b) lure his sometime girlfriend Patricia (Seberg) into running away with him to Rome. A romantic with a psychopathic streak, he ends up killing a policeman in a highway stop. Fugitive status only energizes him; once he reaches Paris, Michel is in open pursuit of Patricia, the guy who owes him the cash, and his own notion of noirish glamour.
What’d He Wear?
Jean-Paul Belmondo has been well-explored as a style icon in his own right with his own carefree sense of style, a degree of sprezzatura less studied in its genuine nonchalance than the term itself implies. In Breathless, Belmondo’s Michel takes this a step further, dressing “with the same carefree thoughtlessness as he lives: a cacophony of stripes and checks and stubby ties and a jacket that’s way too big for him,” as Richard James Savile Row wrote in its online tribute.
Michel begins the film in a chaotically large-scaled herringbone tweed jacket, both too big for him and too warm for the Marseilles summer climate. He impulsively ditches that tweed jacket after an equally impulsive roadside murder, sprinting into Paris where he finds relative safety in a new set of duds: a striped shirt, checked tie, and soft oversized sportcoat.
The gray-scale film and lack of available color photos from the production means I can only speculate about the color and some of the details of Michel’s clothing. Based on the texture, weight, and styling of his light-colored single-breasted jacket, I deduce that it is tan camelhair, an unseasonably warm choice consistent with the odd choices Michel makes when determining his wardrobe.
Ever the rulebreaker, Michael typically wears both of the two front buttons fastened. Both the blade and the tail of his tie often flop out through the opening over the first button, a clear mismatch of a too-short tie with a low button stance.
The jacket’s soft natural shoulders emphasize the oversized fit as the roped, shirred sleeveheads visibly fall below each shoulder.
Despite its excessive fit through his chest and shoulders, Michel’s sport jacket is still considerably short for 1960. The jacket has short double vents, an indication of the increasingly seen trend of side vents of suit jackets and sport jackets through the middle of the 20th century.
The breast pocket is welted but the hip pockets are sportier, casual patch pockets. There are three buttons on the cuff of each sleeve.
Think Michel limits his unconventional fashion to just his jacket? Au contraire!
Michael’s shirt, white with bold dark pinstripe, has a sport collar that curves away at the neck and clearly not meant to be worn with a tie. This button-less collar has the effect of a natural wide spread that Michel banks on keeping together by the strength of his tie knot. The collar is similar to the “unique Italian collar design” that Anto Beverly Hills offers its bespoke customers seeking a sport shirt to be worn sans tie.
Michel’s shirt has a plain front, breast pocket, and mitred barrel cuffs with two buttons to close.
Labels are visible for both the shirt and tie, but I’m not well-versed enough in late ’50s French menswear branding to definitively identify either garment.
Michel’s necktie is patterned in a wide-scaled check resembling houndstooth.
The two-color tie is almost certainly black and white like this similar but less stylized tie available from Amazon.
Below the belt, Michel retains all the same clothing he had been wearing for the opening scene and the Marseilles murder. His dark wool trousers have double forward pleats with a small flapped coin pocket perfectly bridging both pleats on the right side. The trousers also have slanted side pockets and two back pockets which each close with a pointed flap. They are cut straight through the legs to the plain-hemmed bottoms.
Like his jacket, the trousers are oversized – likely even more generously fitting due to the double pleats – unattractively bunching up over the fly when Michel fastens them tight around his waist with a simple dark leather belt.
Michel’s shoes are probably the most conventional aspect of his attire. He wears dark leather three-eyelet derby shoes with a cap toe.
…although Michel wouldn’t be Michel if his footwear was totally conventional. His white socks boldly contrast with his shoes and trousers as he strides through the streets, unlike a more appropriate pair of trouser-matching dark socks.
Michel also wears a pair of white cotton boxer shorts with a short two-button adjustor tab on the front of the elastic waistband.
Michel wears two thin necklaces with a short dropped pendant on each. One of the pendants appears to be etched with a monogram.
On his right wrist, Michel wears a chain-link ID bracelet that is also etched. In fact, close-ups of the bracelet appear to include the initials “J.P…” which would undoubtedly stand for Jean-Paul, indicating yet another piece of jewelry that may be one of Belmondo’s own personal items.
With each of his three outfits, Michel wears a different hat. Idolizing Humphrey Bogart as he does, Michel naturally opts to wear a fedora with his first two outfits; the dark fedora from the opening scene is replaced by a lighter felt fedora with this outfit.
Michel’s hat has a high pinched crown and a narrow black grosgrain band, certainly narrower than the typical bands of Bogie’s day.
After mugging a random man in a public restroom, Michel joins Patricia for a walk through the streets, holding his hat and revealing the inner leather hatband with a hatmaker’s insignia visible. More eagle-eyed or knowledgeable BAMFs out there may be able to ID Michel’s hat based on this angle.
French New Wave hero that he is, Michel adds an extra layer of cool to his image by sporting a pair of semi-rimmed sunglasses with dark lenses and a metal “cat eye”-shaped browline frame, very evocative of the Jet Age but thus far unidentified.
The shape recalls Dior’s classic 2150 frame, but Belmondo’s sunglasses also share some cosmetic similarities with the vintage gold half-rimmed Nylor sunglasses worn by Brad Pitt in Allied (link).
In Cool Shades: The History and Meaning of Sunglasses, author Vanessa Brown comments on the scene when “the two ambivalent lovers lay kissing, both in their sunglasses – negating the conventional notion that this act requires either an intensely emotional mutual gaze or eyes closed. Kissing in sunglasses is not easy – they are physically cool to be able to do it without clumsiness – but equally the sunglasses imply vanity, insincerity, a different kind of “devil in the flesh.”
In effect, all of Michel’s wears from his shirt collar to his socks is wrong. (We’ll excuse the sunglasses, shoes, and hat!)
And yet… here we are discussing it nearly sixty years later. What’s the secret?
How to Get the Look
..and once you get it, you can put your own spin on it. Michel Poiccard cares about his appearance but not enough to pay attention to his actual clothes. You can emulate his style without making his same mistakes.
Adam Fox wrote for AskMen.com: “Clad in trim trousers, a blazer and a fedora while dangling a never-ending cigarette from his mouth, he epitomized French street style in every possible way. It’s a look that, when worn today, is completely carefree while still being fashion conscious. At its heart is a feeling of adventure that comes from looking like you didn’t try too hard. Belmondo, in a way, has come to represent a style that is perfectly imperfect.”
- Tan camelhair single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with notch lapels, soft natural shoulders with shirred sleeveheads, welted breast pocket, patch hip pockets, short double vents, and 3-button cuffs
- White pinstripe sport shirt with casual spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and two-button mitred cuffs
- Black-and-white large-scaled houndstooth check tie
- Dark wool double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, flapped right-side coin pocket, slanted side pockets, flapped back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark leather belt with a small squared single-prong buckle
- Dark leather three-eyelet cap-toe bluchers/derby shoes
- White socks
- White cotton boxers with elastic waistband and front button-tab
- Light felt fedora with high, pinched crown and narrow black grosgrain ribbon
- Metal semi-framed browline “cat eye” sunglasses
- Two thin necklaces with engraved pendants
- Chain-link ID bracelet
If it’s too hot for Belmondo’s heavy layered getup, you could also channel Jean Seberg’s New York Herald Tribune shirt with this custom t-shirt from Society6 that will wink at other Breathless fans and baffle anyone else who may be wondering why you’re championing a newspaper that shuttered more than a half-century ago.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Grief’s stupid, I’d choose nothing. It’s no better, but grief’s a compromise. I want all or nothing.