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Breathless

Breathless(1961)

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Home Video Reviews

The best special editions in the Criterion Collection maximize the experience of rediscovering a remarkable motion picture. Reading a book about Jean-Luc Godard is one thing, but viewing prime source research material for a lightning-strikes-once picture like Breathless (À bout de souffle) is something else again, especially when participants take the time, decades later, to speak out about the filmmaking process. In 1959 a maverick producer gambled on a film French critic eager to try out his radical filmmaking ideas. Jean-Luc Godard is quoted as saying that as a critic, he already considered himself a filmmaker, and when he made films, he continued being a critic.

Synopsis: After stealing a car and shooting a policeman, aimless crook Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) spends a chaotic couple of days avoiding Parisian cops while chasing down Antonio Berrutti (Henri-Jacques Huet), who owes him money. Michel swipes cash from a couple of girlfriends but spends most of his time reacquainting himself with young Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a free-spirit New Yorker intent on making good on a new job as a newspaper reporter. The two grow closer together until Patricia realizes that Michel is a wanted murderer, with the police close on his heels.

Interviewed a couple of years after the success of Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard admitted that he thought he was making Scarface when his natural inclination was toward Alice in Wonderland. An admirer of American auteur directors like Howard Hawks, Godard realized that he wasn't as interested in narrative as he was in his own ideas about cinema. Breathless did indeed alter the direction of film language. It started as an homage to American noir similar to Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and ended up causing a major movie-world sensation. Although Godard signed the talked-about star Jean Seberg, the media fuss for once centered on the movie itself.

Godard's style would soon reject straight narrative in favor of a personal mix of spontaneous improvisation, inter-title signage and personal references to obscure movie lore. A Woman is a Woman celebrated (or mocked) the appeal of MGM musicals, while Alphaville subverted the conventions of super-spy fantasies. Breathless is peppered with references to French and American crime pictures, some of which only a studious film historian could pick out. He name-drops a character from Bob le flambeur, and then later casts that film's director as an author holding court at a news interview.

Breathless is saved from insider-joke limbo by Godard's assured direction of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Seberg may have been available because she was no longer a hot name after her flops with Otto Preminger. Belmondo had already made a short subject with Godard (included on the disc). The actors' unforced natural chemistry carries an episode in a hotel room for a full twenty minutes without losing energy. Michel is an 'honest cad', an amoral arrested-adolescent who accepts most of fate's surprises with a Bogart-like shrug. The intelligent and graceful Patricia carefully guards her secrets. Godard doesn't stray from the noir formula -- "men seduce and women betray", as one commentator explains -- but his directing style liberates his characters from the rigid confines of a script.

But Godard's best break came when producer Georges de Beauregard insisted that the first-time director work with a cameraman he had never met. Ex- docu lensman Raoul Coutard used fast film manufactured for still cameras, pushing the developing to achieve an ASA higher than 400 without excessive grain. This accounts for the film's luminous dusk and nighttime photography. Coutard achieves full detail on the nighttime Champs-Elyseés without under-cranking his camera.

Much more controversial was Godard's antithetical editorial technique, that rejects many givens of professional filmmaking, especially the notion of invisible cutting. Actors address the camera with their eyes, and even speak to it, directly acknowledging the presence of the audience. Intentional jump-cuts punctuate a drive through the Paris streets, a now-familiar effect that initially elicited charges of incompetence, if not directorial heresy. Some of these scenes now seem a bit forced, a way to ratchet up the pace. One café conversation between Patricia and her boss simply snips out the gaps between his sentences, leading us to suspect that the editor has simply edited out footage of Godard feeding the actor his lines. No wonder Godard was able to knock off some scenes in fifteen minutes. Working at that pace, the performers couldn't possibly become stale.

Jean-Paul Belmondo imitates Humphrey Bogart by self-consciously stroking his lip with his thumb; he stands outside a theater to regard a photo of the American star. It's reasonable to surmise that the Bogart cult that started on mid-60s college campuses might have been triggered by the New Wave directors' adulation of American noir pictures, way before the term 'film noir' was known in America. We've been told repeatedly that American filmmakers were eager to 'borrow' the spirit of the New Wave. As Clyde Barrow in Bonnie & Clyde, Warren Beatty tilts his head back, taps his hat forward and flicks a matchstick between his lips. After seeing Breathless, it's obvious that he's imitating Belmondo's Michel.

Criterion's 2-disc DVD of Breathless holds a bounty of discoveries for those curious about the origins of Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave. The handsome flat 1.33 transfer allows us to appreciate image subtleties that old 16mm prints couldn't replicate. Improved subtitle translations make it easier to follow the figures of speech in the French dialogue.

Disc producers Abbey Lustgarten and Alexandre Mabilon have assembled a flawless set of extras. An eighty-page booklet contains an essay by Dudley Andrew, a selection of Godard quotes, François Truffaut's treatment for the film and Godard's longer scenario. Disc one resurrects old TV interviews with Godard, Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Seberg. Seberg graciously fends off a woman interviewer's aggressive focus on the actress's divorce and emotional problems. The original French trailer is as audacious as the film itself.

Disc two has excellent new interviews with cameraman Coutard, assistant director Pierre Rissient and docu filmmaker Donn Pennebaker. Mark Rappaport's short docu Jean Seberg shows clips of the actress's initial screen test for Otto Preminger and her frightening experience almost burning on the set of St. Joan, and charts her unhappy demise after being hounded by the F.B.I..

In the new featurette Breathless as Criticism Jonathan Rosenbaum identifies the film's insider references as if revealing the answers to a pop quiz. The feature-length French TV docu Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suède visits the film's locations, interviewing Jean-Paul Belmondo and other surviving participants. The filmmaker found the film's key hotel room location just a week before the entire building was demolished.

Finishing off the extras is Jean-Luc Godard's short film Charlotte et son Jules, a one-joke skit. Jean-Paul Belmondo attempts to seduce the lady of the title by spouting a ceaseless monologue of insults. When she doesn't respond, Belmondo alters his strategy until he reaches the point of pleading for mercy. The film is an amusing critique of casual lovemaking arrogance.

For more information about Breathless, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Breathless, go to TCM Shopping.

by Pablo Kjolseth