The movie opens with a title dedicating its creation to Monogram Pictures. Monogram was a low-budget movie studio which figuratively occupied a Hollywood neighborhood known as Poverty Row which was the name given to a selection of unconnected studios composed of varying degrees corporate structure responsible for producing the bulk of what came to be known as the B-movie which informs the narrative and theme of Breathless.
A summary of the events that follow upon the dedication title can only fail to convey the revolutionary impact that the film had on the world of cinema. It is well worth keeping in mind that the real star of the narrative is director Jean-Luc Godard who infuses nearly single shot with much greater important and meaning that is supplied by the textual narrative trajectory. Against a thematic background touching upon everything from the standard issue fashion accessory of the fedora sported by any number of B-movie heroes and villains to the more concrete images of Humphrey Bogart displayed on prominent movie posters, the viewer is introduced to Michel Poiccard. He is a young, disaffected French man with an acute streak of narcissism and no particularly obvious personal history. As for how he affords his clothing which acts as an homage to his favorite B-movie heroes, that is anyone’s guess. At first, that is.
Very quickly, the answer to the lingering question of Michel’s—also occasionally known as Laszlo Kovacs, which will be a familiar name to anyone familiar with cinematography—means of support is answered: when he needs something or sees something that likes, he takes it. While engaging in the time-honored practice of loafing one day, Michel steals a car he happens to admire and heads north from Marseilles. Like so many of the low-life characters from the movies he enjoys, Michel naturally takes a look inside the glove compartment even though he isn’t exactly in any real need of gloves. And what he finds there is like something from a movie: a gun.
It’s not long before the gun comes in handy as he shoots and kills a police officer who threatens to stop his joyride in the stolen vehicle. Once he gets back home to Paris, he uses his extensive charm to ensure a date with Patricia Franchini. Patricia is a young woman from America with incredibly short hair and a certain sort of exuberance most appropriately described by the French phrase je ne sais quoi.
Making his way out of the long arm of the surete once again, but this time without pulling a gun, Michel’s next adventure is mugging an unfortunate soul in the men’s room. This is followed by yet another demonstration of Michel’s lack of respect for all things conventional: he coolly lets himself into Patricia’s apartment. After making love, she confesses to the possibility of pregnancy. Michel’s unexpected response is to suggest they head to Italy. Patricia is a bit more conventional than Michel despite her free-spirited nature, although even within those traditional compromises can be found a bit of headstrong revolt: Italy sounds enticing enough, but not at the cost of giving up her own fiercely guarded independence nor her desire to actually do something with her life: become a journalist.
In the face of impending threat of being finally caught by the police, she agrees to go with Michel to the house of an acquaintance. The question of whether Patricia is the equal or the superior of Michel when it comes to being her own person unconstrained by what is expected of her comes into play when she makes an impulsive decision easy interpreted as a simple betrayal of Michel. Lying beneath that simplistic explanation, however, is the ambiguity that permeates throughout the film: maybe she betrayed him in order to save herself or maybe she betrayed him in order preserve her own sense of self or maybe even what she does cannot even accurately be defined as a betrayal.
Michel remains steadfastly committed to his vision of himself as a tragic hero straight out of the movies he loves. The police arrive and death or prison is certain. He runs down a street paved with cobblestones, choosing death. Patricia runs to him and Michel gazes up at her and, shortly before cursing her, makes the funny face that only they shared.
Then Michel dies and the movie ends.