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BREATHLESS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
Director:  Jean-Luc Godard
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  October 23, 2007

“It’s crazy…but I love you.”

Film ***1/2

There are noticeable landmarks along the road of cinema history…tangible signs that signaled to the world that the way we look at movies would be forever changed from that point on.  D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was one, as was Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.  One could even point to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or even George Lucas’ Star Wars as modern examples.  And in 1960, when Jean-Luc Godard first unleashed Breathless upon the world, another turning point had been achieved.

It can only be equated to the arrival of Charlie Parker on the music scene.  In the same manner that Bird opened our ears to new sounds and possibilities in the world of jazz, Godard and the emergence of French New Wave cinema instantly opened our eyes to a new film vocabulary.  Minimalist and direct, free form and startling, Breathless turned a significant corner in the world of film, and its influence is still being felt almost half a century later.

The New Wave movement was largely launched by film critics, such as Godard and Francois Truffaut (who penned the treatment for Breathless), and it’s been said the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.  Breathless radically turned convention upside down.  It forewent the polished, straightforward production of Hollywood’s streamlined offerings.  It was loose and free, yet direct and purposeful, taking bits of influence from film noir and neo-realism, but concocting something as immediate as a live jazz concert, offering the feeling that great art was being concocted out of thin air and right before our unsuspecting eyes. 

It’s driven by character and not plot, with a sketchy story that seems to hang on the whim of the people flickering on the screen.  There’s a French guy, Michel (Belmondo), who seems to model himself after Humphrey Bogart, but whose suit, hat and cigarette all seem too big for him, and an American Girl, Patricia (Seber), who sells a New York newspaper and plans to attend school at the Sorbonne.

Michel is a bad guy, but not a very good one.  He steals cars, and early on, we witness the event that sets the wheels in motion:  he kills a police officer.  Whenever Michel picks up a gun that isn’t his, he always finds trouble. 

He spends the film trying to collect money he’s owed, presumably so he can get away, and romancing the elusive Patricia in the margins.  The film proceeds from juxtapositions that seem random and chaotic, as though a great experiment was unfolding.  They talk about everything and nothing, an obvious future inspiration to the likes of Quentin Tarantino, and they have a love affair that seems more cerebral than passionate.

But the walls are closing in on Michel…can he count on Patricia to stand with him as he tries to remain free?  The answer is surprising, but not as surprising as Patricia’s motives, which seem to be the only possible ones in a movie like this.  The characters are focused on themselves and seem to be taking part in the grand elusive experiment, and only too late does Michel lament that in his time with Patricia, they only ever talked about themselves instead of each other.  The final shot of Patricia is as iconic as they come, and begs the question…which of the two is really the ‘bad guy’?

Much has been made about Godard’s use of jump cuts, which still ring out today in films by Steven Soderbergh and others, but truth be told, it was more of a happy accident than a pre-conceived challenge to the medium.  When Godard realized his final cut was a half hour too long, he chose not to cut entire scenes, but rather, play loose with the scissors and cut around, leaving empty spaces on the editing room floor and making the movie proceed forward at a fast clip that can feel both liberating and disorienting.

The trailer boldly proclaimed Breathless as its year’s best film, and as I mentioned, the ripples in the pond unleashed by Godard’s pebble are still reverberating in our modern world of cinema.  Like many jazz artists, some of Godard’s later works would find experimentation overtaking substance, and not all his endeavors would find critical or popular success.  But few artists can say that a work they crafted marked a real turning point in their field.  From that point on, the world of cinema was divided into before Breathless and after Breathless.

Having seen so many New Wave classics before watching this most seminal one, the overall look and feel wasn’t as surprising to me as to unsuspecting audiences in the 60s.  I kind of wish I could go back in a time machine and make this my first experience with New Wave…sometimes in art, the imitators can rob you just a little bit of your appreciation for the original. 

That’s only marginally the case at best.  I imagine it’s still more than possible for modern movie goers to marvel at Breathless.  Hollywood hasn’t changed a whole lot since then.  But audiences have, and as long as there are restless, dissatisfied customers, there will always be a place for the startling revelation that remains Breathless.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Look for Godard in the film as the informer, and the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville as a novelist.

Video ***

Despite being low-budgeted and shot mostly on the fly, Breathless translates well to DVD, thanks to the loving hands at Criterion.  Some of the footage is purposely grainy…we’re not talking a slick Hollywood offering here.  But the images and contrast of the black and white photography render well, and give modern audiences a chance to experience this film in the same way people did back in 1960.

Audio **

The French mono offering is serviceable…some of the dialogue is noticeably post-dubbed, but still renders clearly.  Not a lot of dynamic range is offered or called for.

Features ***1/2

I wish we could have had a commentary track by one of the noted historians that frequently collaborate with Criterion, but this double disc set offers much to both newbies and cinephiles alike.  The first disc includes the amusing trailer and some archival interviews with Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

The second disc has new video interviews with director of photography Raoul Coutard and assistant director Pierre Rissient, and one with documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker.  There are video essays focusing on Jean Seberg and the criticism aspect of Breathless (mainly how Godard openly referenced other movies in his picture).  An 80 minute documentary from the early 90s returns to the locations of the movie and features cast and crew interviews.  Lastly, “Charlotte et son Jules” is a 1959 Godard short starring Belmondo.

The included book is thick and juicy, filled with essays, writings by Godard, Francois Truffaut’s original treatment and Godard’s own scenario.

Summary:

Breathless ushered in an exciting and completely new world of modern cinema.  Its influence is undeniable and its reach has been far.  Jean-Luc Godard changed the way we looked at movies, and ushered in a new era of cinema students who are still paying homage to him to this day.

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