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Criterion Collection: Breathless | Blu-ray Review

Jean-Luc Godard’s BreathlessJean-Luc Godard’s Breathless gave France’s nascent La nouvelle vague a solid international underpinning and it has remained a vibrant, stylish and entertaining influence on filmmakers for 54 years. Largely improvised and capriciously photographed, Breathless tore away the final threads that bound films to novels – and the formal elements of novels – leaving each medium a little freer to reach their own respective potentials. The narrative of Breathless, and unlike some later Godard films it does have one, is not dispensed through written dialogue designed to advance plot points but rather a capturing of fleeting ideas and quickly dissolving moments in time. Like life itself, some of these moments are big and important while others simply banal markers on the timeline of existence. Breathless gives equal dramatic weight to the climactic and the mundane, throwing a greasy yet elegant monkey wrench into 1960‘s accepted orthodoxy of what a movie was supposed to be.

Not only was the film’s storytelling shockingly new, the director repackaged 20 years worth of popular cinema iconography into a gateway to a new aesthetic; one that combined wispy absurdity with standard crime drama alienation. In essence, Godard celebrated the conventions of Film Noir while banishing them to irrelevance in a speeding Citroën; the dust of a generation in its wake. The rugged, big shouldered men of Noir, complete with dark suits and tamped down fedoras, had darted about the screen for two decades, their pockets crammed with cryptic messages on cocktail napkins and loaded roscoes at the ready. These shadowy, laconic figures always had heavy agendas, filled with big deals and important things to do.

The generation of Breathless also has their appointed tasks, but seem uncertain if all the effort is really worth it. The film’s main character – protagonist doesn’t seem like the right word – a hunky young thug named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is one of these confused souls. Weened on the imagery of American gangster movies, Michel spends his aimless days pursuing the twin pleasures of petty theft and venery; a fat Gauloise perpetually dangling from his lips. Michel seems unable to think more than two hours ahead – the typical length of a movie in other words – but one day his short sighted hedonism results in more than existential ennui. With the gendarmes closing in, Michel retreats to Paris and the bohemian flat of a visiting American student (Jean Seberg), where the couple hide out while Michel tries to raise funds for an escape to Italy. True to Godard’s genre-bending vision, Seberg is no gum chewing, bottle blond gun moll, but a tough-minded journalist charting her own course, Vastly superior to Michel in cunning and guile, this pixie-faced savant serves his emotional needs while holding the key to his eventual undoing.

The transformational aspects of Breathless aren’t limited to what appears on the screen. Godard broke filmmaking rules by the bushel, running a set so rife with creative chaos crew members doubted if the film would even be watchable, much less a historic achievement. Writing the script as he went along, Godard would shout directions and newly created lines of dialogue at his actors, often in the midst of scenes with the camera still running, leaving Seberg and Belmondo to define their characters on the fly.

Jump cuts – prior to this movie considered an amateurish mistake – were frequently employed to shorten scenes due to Godard’s refusal to shoot conventional coverage. Shots were “stolen” all over the city of Paris, without permits or attempts at crowd control, as innocent passersby gawk into the camera with dumfounded curiosity. In a famous sequence that foreshadows the film’s violent finale, shot by Godard while seated in a wheelchair, Seberg and Belmondo ruminate on life and love while pacing around an apartment in a myriad of directions. Godard covers it all, tossing the trite notion of a 180˚ camera axis out the window and onto the cobblestones of Montparnasse.

Disc Review

Happily, the visual rough edges of Breathless have survived hi-def transfer and the film retains its gritty, guerrilla aesthetics. While the images are sharp and immaculately clean, they still have the immediacy of a pushed, available light production, and that’s a very good thing. The film is grainy in all the right places, with exterior scenes snappy and shrill under the bright summer sun. The audio has been equally well restored, with the film’s frequent musical stings powerful and nicely upfront. As typical with Criterion products, the disc is visually and sonically beyond reproach.

Archival interviews with director Jean-Luc Godard and actors Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville
Filmed at Cannes, Godard reacts to Breathless’ non-inclusion in competition and discusses how “cinema should not influence youth but youth should influence cinema.” In a wonderful bit of irony, the interviewer asks Godard if the success of Breathless has mellowed him; a question history would answer with a resounding no. Belmondo’s interview is filmed in a sculptor’s studio, adding an eerie tone to the proceedings, and he describes his first meeting with Godard and their unusual working relationship. Seberg goes into detail on her childhood in Iowa and her admiration for actor Marlon Brando. Melville, who has a small but highly memorable role in Breathless as an author on a book tour, offers some amusing perspectives on Godard and filmmaking in general. He denies that intelligence is necessary to make movies, citing “some of the best directors I know are imbeciles.” This segment runs 27 minutes.

Contemporary interviews with Coutard, assistant director Pierre Rissient, and filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker
The interviews of Coutard and Rissient are woven together in a 23 minute presentation. Each discuss their individual responsibilities in getting Breathless made. Coutard reveals that most of the dialogue was dubbed, due to the noisiness of the lightweight Cameflex camera the production was obliged to use. Rissient describes the complex deal that allowed Godard the chance to direct, with Truffaut and Chabrol signing agreements that they would step in should Godard botch the picture.

Pennebaker’s piece is a stand alone interview, with the legendary documentarian offering his recollections of a film about the band Jefferson Airplane he and Godard created together in 1972. Pennebaker’s insights on Breathless and Godard’s visionary ideas are interesting and illuminating. 10 minutes.

Two video essays, one on Seberg and one on Breathless as film criticism
The Seberg essay runs 20 minutes and is a fascinating portrait of this troubled soul. Archival footage of her first screen test is included, and the piece covers Seberg’s circuitous path from Iowa farm girl to international star. Her tragic later years, complete with depression and J. Edger Hoover’s efforts to ruin her career, are presented in heartrending detail. This supplement highly recommended.

Written by Chicago-based critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Breathless as Film Criticism is a well paced presentation of many of the obscure references – both from movies and literature – found in the film. Sam Fuller, Ingmar Bergman and Dashiell Hammett are a few of the artists alluded to in Breathless and Rosenbaum makes a strong case for the film as more manifesto than entertainment. 11 minutes.

Chambre 12, Hôtel de suède, an eighty-minute 1993 documentary about the making of Breathless
The true gem of the supplements, this piece by Xavier Villetard and Claude Ventura captures a genuine sense of the enduring appeal of Breathless and its transformative effect on young Parisian audiences. Villetard visits actual locations used in the film, including the hotel room where nearly a third Breathless was filmed a few days before its scheduled demolition. He tracks down the production’s contributors, large and small, and creates a loving tribute to the events of that magical summer in 1959. Constructed much like a detective story, Chambre 12, Hôtel de suède is a hypnotic reconstruction of a cinematic epiphany, and will be greatly enjoyed by most viewers.

Charlotte et son Jules, a 1959 short by Godard starring Belmondo
This delightful 12 minute short, filmed almost totally in a cramped one room apartment, is all about a hilariously one-sided lovers’ spat. Complete with a surprising and nearly perfect ending, this short is as close to a conventional comedy as Godard is likely to ever produce.

PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by scholar Dudley Andrew, writings by Godard, François Truffaut’s original treatment, and Godard’s scenario
This 80 page tome is lavishly illustrated with behind-the-scenes shots and film stills. Truffaut’s treatment, written as a pro-forma contract obligation, and Godard’s synopsis are particularly interesting for they both differ greatly from the finished product. Packaged in a heavyweight library case, this edition includes Breathless in Blu-ray and standard def DVD. Both formats contain the bonus material in its entirety.

Final Thoughts

Criterion’s cinephile edition is an excellent way to add an indispensable piece of film history to your archives. The many ways Breathless has influenced the course of moviemaking over the last half century cannot be overstated, and new innovations seem to reveal themselves with each viewing. In the interim, Jean-Luc Godard has made well over a hundred films, and while many have been remarkable, some even extraordinary, none have topped Breathless as a harbinger of style and approach.

Film: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

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