“After all, I’m an asshole.” With this classic opening line, Jean-Luc Godard opens one of his several masterpieces. Like so many Godard classics, Breathless (the English title for a phrase more literally translated “at breath’s end”) intertwines a tale of crime and human relationships, a meditation on the nature of beauty and betrayal, a documentarian narrative with a hand-held camera that turns the quotidian into the magical.
The new Criterion collection Blu-Ray edition of Breathless reintroduces us to the tragedy of petty crook Michel, a break out role for continental heartthrob Jean-Paul Belmondo. Killing a policeman in a botched car theft early in the film, Michel takes refuge with Patricia (Jean Seberg). Seberg portrayed a young American woman living in Paris who becomes the embodiment of Godard’s long obsession with women as archetypes of transcendent beauty and harrowing fatality.
Based on a treatment by Francois Truffaut, Breathless is usually mentioned along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour as part of a trinity of films that embodied the French New Wave. This important post-war movement transformed story-telling, sometimes actively resisting narrative structure and the strictures of chronology. A few critics at the time and since have derided this style, seeing it as leaving viewers with a rough, inaccessible mess in need of a good editor. “Every edit is a lie” responded Godard and continued to make brilliant films with his characteristic resentment of linear narrative and an erratic pacing that included both interminably long scenes and long shots intermixed with radical jump cuts.
Like so many of Godard’s film’s Breathless seems to move back and forth between being a formal experiment in craftsmanship to becoming a plotless, formless meditation on inexpressibly beautiful moments, faces and actions. Also as in many of his films, Breathless features the long scene with a camera tracking an arguing couple through every room of an apartment. There is sex as well as mystery, power, negotiation and disappointment. There is crime and ironic tragedy as a picture of human alienation and of all the forces that cause our best impulses to seem like misplaced sentiment. Best of all, what could seem like a lugubrious mix of themes best reserved for a dour class on existentialism is, in Godard’s masterful hands, a jazzed up mix of bratty and obnoxiously funny stylishness, a long leap into the dark with a few mid-air dance steps along the way.
Of course, some of us in the States love Godard because of the window his films provide into the fashion and look of ‘60s Paris. The irony of such cross-cultural envy is that Godard’s characters here, as in many of his films, mimic aspects of American culture including Hollywood films (Godard loved John Ford and Howard Hawkes) and certainly American jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. When we first meet Belemondo’s Michel, he is riffing on Humphrey Bogart, reflecting Godard’s own fascination with the noir actor and his love for The Big Sleep.
Criterion puts together offerings that are a film-lover’s dream and the Breathless release is no exception. Other releases of this film have given it a papery and insubstantial look, exactly the opposite effect you need to experience the rowdy, stylish urban landscape Godard created. This Blu-Ray print is beautifully crisp with all the strong lines fully intact. If you are new to high-def transfers of films from this era, be aware that the aspect ratio will give you vertical black bars on the right and left of the picture. Don’t whine about this. It’s a small price to pay for a gorgeous transfer of a film now half a century old.
Extras on the release include a wonderful video essay on the cultural cross-references Godard packed into Breatheless. Another video feature examines Jean Seberg’s career and how she came to represent the mid-century American ex-patriate, the obverse of better-known American icons of the era like Monroe. It also sensitively examines the tragedy hr life became.
Finally, a book of essays and interviews comes packed with more material on Godard and a very fine essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew. The real jewel of this booklet is Godard’s own written scenario that provides us with some sense of the film’s chronological scaffolding. It seems that this booklet could have also included Francois Truffaut’s original treatment on which the film was based but, even as it stands, this new release is guaranteed to give Godard fanboys (and fangirls) the happies.
Pick this one up soon. Criterion releases have tended to become unavailable and go out of print in recent years, and this is one of their offerings that you must not miss. If you are new to the New Wave, this is one of the most accessible films of the genre and, by far, the most accessible of Godard’s film.
Breatheless opens with Michel doing his best Bogart but closes with Seberg’s Patricia looking into the camera with a stare both nakedly innocent and frighteningly dark. Don’t miss the chance to be haunted forever by Godard’s greatest moment.
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