It's hard to see the revolutionary aspects of Breathless is part thriller, part noir, and part romance. It’s stylish and sexy and tres cool. It's Hollywood, reimagined via Paris.
BreathlessDirector: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Jean-Pierre Melville
MPAA rating: NC-17
Subtitle: Criterion Collection
First date: 1960
You never forget your first time…
It was awkward and messy, as these things often are, with lots of fumbling, stuttering and misunderstanding. It went quickly, in a storm of confusion. Nothing went right, it was all potential disaster, and yet it was perfect. From that moment on, my life was forever changed. I was reborn, seeing the world with new eyes, a whole new world, previously unseen, unknown, unfurled before me. It was "everything, terribly" (as Godard signed his letters to producer George de Beauregard during filming).
For me, Breathless was love at first frame. No matter that we almost never met. No matter that I went to see it pretty much by accident, in a cramped, ill equipped auditorium nestled somewhere deep in the student center at my university. No matter that the print was awful. That it was scratchy and oversaturated, with an unfortunate tendency to jump off the reel. No matter that the subtitles were all but unreadable, the sound drifted in and out of synch with the film, and the film itself seemed to be missing frames everywhere, startling jump cuts within scenes where there should just be continuous movement.
No matter that it was about as unideal a viewing experience as possible, especially for a seminal pivotal film. Breathless' revolutionary recklessness and effortless cool bowled over all obstacles thrown in its path. It was relentlessly irresistible. Who cares that I didn't understand a lick of what was said? Breathless speaks in a universal language, understandable to all who fall under its sway.
90 minutes after it started, I had fallen in love, hard. I knew I had just seen the one film that would make all the difference, which would turn me from casual moviegoer to ardent cinephile. I've loved many films since, but Breathless will forever be The One.
In the 15 years since, I've seen Breathless too many times to remember, on all different formats, junky VHS tapes, an earlier, somewhat cleaned up, DVD release, and numerous prints, including a restored version about seven years ago. But it's never looked as good as it does now, with the Criterion release. This should come as no surprise, given Criterion's track record. The restoration and digital transfer (under the watchful eye of the film's cinematographer Raoul Coutard) of Breathless is a thing of beauty. It’s crisp, clean, meticulous and pristine. Everything that went awry with my first viewing has been addressed and rectified except, of course, those pesky jump cuts. They're everywhere, still surprising, still exciting.
And of course, they're supposed to be. An editing afterthought done mostly to cut down the film’s runtime, they are one of the film’s most memorable legacies, the missing frames in a continuous shot, stutter steps and weird discontinuities. And the sound continues on, bridging the cuts, uninterrupted, the same voice over disparate scenes. These jumps drive the film, give it is breathless pace. They are the first indicator, and the most apparent, of the underlying stylistic and methodological experimentation that would thrust Breathless, and Godard, to the forefront of the Nouvelle Vague.
Breathless is a statement of intent, one of the first clarion calls of the French New Wave, and, more than Truffaut’s 400 Blows, offers a new way of thinking about, and creating, cinema. It is joy. It is freedom. It is about cutting and running and jumping with abandon. It is all style. It is all cool.
Sure, the story is fun, if insubstantial. A lowlife steals car, shoots cop, runs around Paris trying to bed an American girl and elude cops, and is ultimately betrayed by the girl. It's part thriller, part noir, and part romance. It’s stylish and sexy and tres cool. It's Hollywood, reimagined via Paris. But the story is really there to be subverted. The reason it all works, the reason this generic story, and its two stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, have become so iconic, is the way Godard fused Hollywood conventions with a new fresh, loosey-goosey approach, a devil may care indifference to what a film should, and should not, be.
It's hard to see the revolutionary aspects of Breathless now, since they've become so commonplace, so part of modern cinematic language. But in 1959, so much of it was unprecedented. The film was shot on the fly, with handheld cameras, in a free-floating documentary style, born both of necessity (budget constraints) and cinematographer Coutard's experience as a photojournalist. Reliance on only natural lighting forced the use of ultra sensitive photographic film (hence the over saturation of prints of the film, here rectified). Dolly shots were filmed, famously, with Godard actually pushing Coutard around in a wheelchair or a disguised street cart. Shooting schedules were hopelessly erratic, solely dependent on the whims of the film’s chimerical director.
There was no set script. Godard would write scenes on the morning of the shoot, and feed them to his actors during the filming of the scene, which worked fine, since the cameras were too small to actually record direct sound, leading to voice dubbing at a later stage (hence the occasional loss of synch between sound and film). The script itself is a riot of arch self-aware dialogue, fourth wall breaking by the characters, and numerous references to art, music, literature, and film (Belmondo's famous appraisal of a poster of Humphrey Bogart; Seberg’s profile comparison with a Renoir).
And then there are all the cute little shout outs inserted here and there by Godard, almost like in-jokes. Belmondo scoffing at a girl selling Cahiers du Cinema (the film rag that Truffaut and Godard wrote criticism for, before becoming directors) on the street; the casting of the Nouvelle Vague's figurehead and inspiration, Jean-Pierre Melville, in the film itself; the offhand references to obscure American B-movies; the archaic iris shots evoking the silent era (indeed, Breathless can work as a silent film, as proved by my initial, subtitle free, viewing). You could unpack Breathless frame by frame, and probably never get all the references made to cinema and its history.
And yet, as loose and off the cuff as it may seem to be, both on screen, and behind the scenes, there is a certain amount of rigor to it all. From all the interviews included on the Criterion set (mostly with cast and crew as Godard is almost entirely absent except for archival footage), it is clear Godard took Breathless very seriously, and produced it with great deliberateness. It was not a work of whimsy, and the narrative itself, the story of ill fated lovers Michel and Patricia, actually does have something substantial to say, and is not just a genre exercise to be played with.
There's an obvious, Camus-eque existential exhaustion to the characters that seems at odds with the overall tone and stylistic brio of the film. Michel is on the run, sure, but there's no desperation, no real struggle. He swears love to Patricia, but when asked why, his only reason is "I don't know – she's funny". Patricia appears at first the ingenue, but then reveals startling depths of amorality and deception at the end. And yet, she is too aloof to be a femme fatale, just as Michel is too innocent to be a real gangster. In the end, all he wants to do is sleep, forever. Or, in the words of Melville’s character, a novelist, “To become immortal, then die”.
And in the end, it seems that Godard would like Breathless to die as well, or at least disappear. Least of all does he want it to be his one claim to immortality? In a 1964 interview (one of the few with the director featured on the discs), Godard maintains that he sees his debut as an end to cinema, not a new beginning. To him, Breathless clears the deck for the films he REALLY wants to make, the true Nouvelle Vague that he wants to spearhead.
But he never enjoyed the critical, nor popular, success again that he did with Breathless. His ‘60s output continued to be aesthetically and intellectually progressive, and many are near masterpieces (Masculin-Feminin, Contempt). Unfortunately, his films also became increasingly political, obtuse and hermetically sealed. It's almost as if he was calling the audience's bluff and they responded in kind, by refusing to follow Godard down his obscurantist path. Regardless of the embarrassment he feels, Godard would be hard pressed to deny the seminal, and continued, influence of his debut. Breathless continues to pump new blood into cinema, rediscovered by new acolytes and enthusiasts in cyclic waves, reinvigorating cinema just when it seems to be teetering on stagnation, just as it did at the dawn of the ‘60s. It is just as fresh and exciting and new today as it was almost 30 years ago. Breathless is why we fall in love with the movies.
Interviews with cinematographer Raoul Coutard and assistant director Pierre Rissient go into great detail about the filming process, and Godard’s unorthodox methods of shooting, scripting and working with actors. In another interview, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (of Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop fame) reinforces Coutard’s points about just how significant Godard’s documentary style of shooting was for a narrative film, and how the camera was the real star of Breathless.
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent video essay Breathless as Criticism regards Breathless as a metafilm, a film about other films and cinematic history. Touching on philosophy and aesthetics, it’s a close read of the film and its references, going so far as declare that the famous “in scene” jump cuts are obviously indicative of some sort of profound moral/philosophical disconnect in society. (All well and good, except that Godard just did them to save time).
A pair of shorts filmed by Godard as warm-ups for Breathless, and a twenty minute video essay about Jean Seberg (and her enigmatical face) by Mark Rappaport (which I think is excerpted from his 1995 film about Seberg), round out the extras, bar one.
The undoubted centerpiece of the collection, Claude Ventura’s 85 minute Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede (the name of the hotel where the famous bedroom scene was shot in) is almost reason enough alone to buy the Criterion set (well, aside from Breathless itself). Less a documentary than a meditation on the spirit and dream of a film taken deep within oneself, Ventura’s film plays as both tribute (it’s shot in black and white, with deadpan narration and a jazzy score) and exploration of what a film really means on a personal level.
Though he is rebuffed throughout the process by Godard (heard only on the end of a phone receiver), Ventura wades through notes, scripts and letters to uncover the gestation and birth of the film as well as interviewing the far-flung cast and crew, including Belmondo, Coutard and Claude Charbol. It’s a wonderful, dreamlike little film, which almost deserves its own review, and really captures that feeling of movie love that only the rarest of films can inspire.
Overall, the features accompanying Breathless mostly tend to focus on the process and methods of the film, digging deep to reconstruct the entire production matter-of-factly, without bloviating on about what the film “means”, or looking back on it through the prism of reputation and legacy. They complement without getting in the way, adding depth and insight where necessary without diminishing the enjoyment of the film, or forcing interpretations on the viewer. They let the lasting greatness of the film speak for itself. Breathless stands as its own best argument for its enduring significance.