BREATHLESS Criterion Blu-ray Review

     September 26, 2010

Jean-Luc Godard’s new wave masterpiece Breathless is posture as statement. Posture as ideology. Conceived as a low-budget crime story, it hems closely to the structure of a criminal on the lam with a femme fatale at his side, and the fatalistic ending of its predecessors, but it may also be the first movie that treats an audience’s relationship and imitation of cinema as part of the narrative.

To be sure, Hollywood long mocked itself by using filmmaking as a backdrop for all sorts of films (be it a W.C. Fields picture, Singin’ in the Rain or Sunset Boulevard), and many of the pop art films of comedians (and filmmakers like Frank Tashlin) were well aware of the conventions they were practicing, but Breathless exists not just as a film, but as a commentary on both the familiar narrative it undertakes, but also the effect that cinema has on its audience. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel Poicard draws his thumb across his lips as Humphrey Bogart did while he studies a picture of Bogie before seeing a movie. Michel is a gangster, but one that acutely aware of trying to be Bogart-esque. This is only one facet of what makes Breathless one of the great films fifty years on. My review of Criterion’s Blu-ray of Breathless follows after the jump.

Shot with a sixteen millimeter camera and a profession cast, the film is probably most famous for its jump cuts, which often break the rules of editing by not signaling where in time they’ve cut to. Godard happily abuses cinematic notions of time. Whether time has passed or not is unimportant, the film is more alive for this daring. Godard didn’t start this trend or patent using limitations to his advantage, but the film is definitely movie-smart, and as Quentin Tarantino has commented, the film works almost partly because of the sheer force of Godard’s love of cinema.

With Martial Solal’s music providing a jazzy feel, the film establishes a poseur cool. Michel is a criminal, who opens the film by shooting someone and is on the lam from the police. He hides out with his girlfriend Patricia (Jena Seberg). They may or may not love each other, and – like Contempt – the middle of the film is dedicated to the two talking to each other about their relationship. But they are also young and happy to make blatantly presumptions statements about love and sex. Patricia is also a journalist – though spends much of her time hawking the New York Herald Tribune – so she interviews the famous Frenchman Parvulesco (Jean-Pierre Melville), who offers amazing – if somewhat vacuous – platitudes.

It’s now impossible to talk about this film and not talk about Quentin Tarantino, who was a devote of Godard’s early in his career (up through Jackie Brown).  Godard often used the framework of genre to make his films, and Tarantino was obviously attracted to this narrative conceit and the energy and the palpable love of cinema. To that end both filmmakers are indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville (made resonate in Breathless with the Melville’s presence) and Sam Fuller. And Melville is the father to the new wave, both in his DIY spirit in making La Silence De La Mer, and in his love of crime fiction (Godard makes a reference to the main character of Bob Le Flambuer). But both Tarantino and Godard are dilettantes about genre; they like it as a framework to carry their narratives. And though it serves them well, it’s not their main focus in storytelling – it gives their early works a genre and structure to fall back on. The heart of Pulp Fiction is about people accepting change, or living differently, and here Godard is more interested in his love story of vacuous people and in people pretending to be who they are.

Though it might strike the casual viewer as unnecessary, one of the key scenes in the film is the interview with Melville, who says that his goal is to become immortal and then to die. Melville says a number of flamboyant things, and in that Godard ties this generations obsession with movies and mimicry with the works of Oscar Wilde, and any number of artists past, present and future fascinated with the idea of the created self. But Godard is too agile to settle for simple genre deconstruction – while his later works evolved to take on his concerns more provocatively. But what I’m drawn to here is how Godard’s structure in Breathless mimics Contempt, which may be his masterpiece. Contempt is about the dissolution of a marriage, and though the relationship in Breathless is much less poignant because it doesn’t have the collapse of a marriage beneath it, it’s a similar conversation about what love is and what it means to be in love. The ends are different, of course, and the conclusions are in parallel but reversed, but Breathless is a first draft version of some of his later concerns.

But as this was his first film and he was trying to sell himself more than his later works, it’s probably his most commercial. This is a crime story and Belmondo is a charming thug. It’s perfect casting, while Seberg makes for a great female lead – modern in her haircut and sexual attitudes. Being an English speaker, simply being a find by Otto Preminger for his American movies also has great symbolic value – she was an American actress! The film is the love child of American and French sensibilities, and though Godard found his voice with this, he’s making (as close as he came) to pop music. He didn’t lose that energy for quite some time (and his run from this to Weekend is one of the great artistic evolutions of any filmmaker), and eventually he pursued the obscure and odd (though I love his later Tout Va Bien, one of the most watchable films of his 70’s period) before delving into some video work which has meaning and purpose (but not for me). Godard has become a legend, a curmudgeonly figure happy to reject his honorary Oscar (fair enough) and readily available to talk shit about Steven Spielberg and Hollywood as a whole. But he captured something with Breathless. As the title suggests, this has the energy of a sprint, and that energy is timeless. And even fifty years later, infectious.

The Criterion Blu-ray improves on the standard def release with the new transfer. If you don’t have an HD television, it’s the same features, but the picture quality is upgraded, and noticeably so. The film is still presented in full-frame and in 1.0 monaural sound. But the quality is –as I’ve said – excellent. There’s a series of interview with Godard, Belmondo, Seberg, and Melville (27 min.) about the film from around period. This is followed by a 2007 interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard and assistant director Pierre Rissient (23 min.). D.A. Pennebaker offers his thoughts on the film (11 min.) as does Jonathan Rosenbaum (11 min.). Also included is Mark Rappaport’s essay on Seberg (19 min.). There’s also a 1993 documentary on the making of the film, which covers numerous locations and some of the people involved in the making of (79 min.) including Jean-Paul Belmondo. One of Godard’s early short films “Charlotte et son Jules” (12 min.) is also included, along with the film’s theatrical trailer.

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