Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel Poiccard, small-time car thief
Marseille, France, August 1959
(French title: À bout de souffle)
Release Date: March 16, 1960
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Happy birthday, Bébel! Jean-Paul Belmondo was born 86 years ago today in Neuilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris. Following a brief career as an amateur boxer and his compulsory military service, Belmondo began acting in the mid-1950s and found international stardom after his performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless to English-speaking audiences), a seminal example of the burgeoning French New Wave cinematic movement.
Belmondo brought his fiery Aries energy to the role of Michel, a young and impulsive petty thief who can’t stop obsessing over his Bogie-inspired image long enough to concern himself with how he’s going to get away with his increasingly dangerous crimes.
We first meet Michel in Marseille, where he makes the snap decision to steal an older couple’s Oldsmobile 88 sedan. To his delight, Michel discovers a revolver in the dashboard while making his reckless getaway, continuing his reckless, impulsive streak by using the piece to gun down a police officer investigating the stolen car.
Michel’s next stop? Finding refuge and the chance to make a clean getaway with his American girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg)… as soon as he’s found some money in the purse of his French girlfriend Liliane (Liliane Dreyfus). He’s far from the noir hero he thinks he is, but it’s exciting to watch Belmondo blend both nonchalance and extreme passion as the ultimately doomed romantic thief.
What’d He Wear?
Throughout Breathless, Michel’s oversized wardrobe communicates just how out of his depth the young criminal is, even if he doesn’t know it. As expected for a penniless man on the run, Michel has no wardrobe options other than the clothes on his back, and his style evolves as he gains and loses pieces throughout the story. In fact, Michel loses much of his opening outfit over the course of these first few sequences.
Michel begins the story in a chaotically large-scaled herringbone tweed jacket, too big for him and doubtlessly too warm for the Marseilles summer climate. The pattern of his jacket is a two-color broken twill weave, less neat than the traditional herringbone. To the best of my knowledge, there is no color photography or easily accessible historical record of the specific colors of Michel’s wardrobe, but the sharp contrast of the two colors on his jacket indicate the likelihood of black and white.
The oversized single-breasted jacket with its three-button front, notch lapels, flared cuffs (with three non-functioning buttons), and long double vents is the first of Michel’s wardrobe to go, just enough of a decorum breach in the late ’50s for Liliane to notice it when he makes his larcenous visit…
Liliane: No jacket?
Michel: I left it in my Alfa Romeo.
The hat would follow as the next of Michel’s wardrobe to go, tossed into the Olds as he retrieves the revolver. Given his Humphrey Bogart obsession, it’s no surprise that Michel would choose a fedora, though its slim ribbed grosgrain silk band is more contemporary to the film’s late ’50s production rather than the glory days of Bogie’s noir period decades earlier. Though he would replace it with a lighter-colored hat upon reaching Paris, the dark felt color of Michel’s first fedora indicates his villainous streak, evoking the classic trope of early Westerns; Michel may be the de facto protagonist of the story, but he’s still a murderous criminal.
Finally, Michel also loses his belt somewhere between Marseille and Paris. The slim, dark leather belt struggled enough to hold up his oversized trousers, often slipping above the hidden hook closure of the trouser waistband.
Michel’s first shirt in Breathless is plain white cotton with a slim spread collar, breast pocket, and button cuffs that he rolls up after ditching his jacket. After reaching Paris, he would swap this out for a white shirt with bold stripes and a shaped collar with no button at the neck, worn with a soft camelhair oversized sport jacket and checked tie.
His medium-colored wool knit tie has a flat bottom and is worn in a Windsor knot, confirming Ian Fleming’s instinct not to trust men in Windsor knots as he had written in From Russia With Love three years before the movie was released.
Under and below the belt, Michel wears the same clothing through his adventures in Paris as he had worn in Marseille. The dark wool trousers have double forward pleats with a small flapped coin pocket neatly bridging both pleats on the right side. There are also slanted side pockets and two back pockets that each close with a single button through a pointed flap.
Michel wears plain dark leather derby shoes with a V-shaped front and three-eyelet open lacing. Rather than matching his trousers to his socks, he wears a pair of off-white socks that scream from his ankles under the plain-hemmed bottoms of his trousers.
Best seen as he plays with his newly found revolver, Michel wears an ID bracelet on an oval-chain link bracelet. The actual ID bar plate appears to be etched with the initials “J.P.”, so this is almost certainly Belmondo’s own item.
Unseen under his shirt and tie are Michel’s two thin pendant necklaces.
Michel is thrilled to find a revolver in the glove compartment of his stolen Olds, specifically a Modèle 1892, which served as the standard sidearm for the French military for decades. For some reason, the Mle 1892 has adopted the inaccurate nickname of the “Lebel revolver” despite no apparent connections to Colonel Nicolas Lebel, who had lent his name to the earlier Modèle 1886 service rifle. A more accurate moniker for the weapon is the “Saint-Étienne 8mm” as this double-action revolver was first produced by the state-owned Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Étienne (MAS) and is chambered for the 8mm French Ordnance cartridge, also known as the 8×27 mm R round.
Ubiquitous in France during the early 20th century, more than 350,000 Mle 1892 revolvers were produced from 1892 to 1924. Issued to commissioned officers in the French Ground Army and the French Navy beginning in 1893, the Mle 1892 was fielded in great numbers during World War I. The Mle 1892 also found use with the Gendarmerie nationale as well as many French police officers well into the 1960s.
The Mle 1892 revolver was chambered for the 8×27 mm R cartridge, essentially a proprietary round that only fit the Mle 1892 or inexpensive copies from neighboring nations like Belgium or Spain. This anemic 8mm round—often likened to the stopping power of the .32 ACP semi-automatic pistol cartridge—remains one of the few noted drawbacks to this otherwise durable, accurate, and reliable handgun.
How to Get the Look
A herringbone tweed jacket, white shirt, knit tie, and slacks is a classic look for the gentleman of taste… which Michel Poiccard is decidedly not. Michel’s inability to pull off such an outfit reinforces the importance of fit; you may have the proper clothes, but—unless you’re a French New Wave anti-hero—it’s essential to ensure that they fit properly or you may as well be wearing a burlap sack.
- Black-and-white large-scale herringbone tweed single-breasted 3-button sport jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, double vents
- White cotton shirt with spread collar, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Wool knit tie with flat bottom
- Dark wool double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, flapped right-side coin pocket, slanted side pockets, flapped back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Slim dark leather belt with single-prong buckle
- Dark leather three-eyelet cap-toe derby shoes
- White socks
- White cotton boxers with elastic waistband and front button-tab
- Dark felt fedora with slim ribbed grosgrain silk band
- Two thin necklaces with engraved pendants
- Chain-link ID bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
After all, I’m an asshole. After all, yes, I’ve got to. I’ve got to!