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As if to show us that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can be just as clueless as the rest of the film industry, this summer they announced that they intended to give a Special Oscar to French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. I don't know what the Academy expected the opinionated, Marxist, constitutionally anti-commercial Godard to do, but for a few days it didn't look as if he would even respond to the Acad's attempts to contact him. When asked about the European Film Academy's invitation to accept another achievement award for his glorious film career, he responded, "I don't have the impression I have made a career." Whether he will show up for the non-televised Oscar event is anybody's guess
Godard's non-career is one of the most interesting careers in French film history. In 1959 a maverick producer gambled on a French film critic eager to try out his radical filmmaking ideas. Jean-Luc Godard is quoted as saying that as a critic, he already considered himself a filmmaker, and when he made films, he continued being a critic. Criterion's new Blu-ray follows a restored DVD release from 2007.
The first feature effort by Godard is a pastiche of American pulp crime fiction, adapted to the filmmaker's irreverent style of filming. After stealing a car and shooting a policeman, aimless crook Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) spends a chaotic couple of days avoiding Parisian lawmen while chasing down Antonio Berrutti (Henri-Jacques Huet), who owes him money. Michel swipes cash from a couple of girlfriends but spends most of his time reacquainting himself with young Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a free-spirit New Yorker intent on making good on a new job as a newspaper reporter. The two grow closer together until Patricia realizes that Michel is a wanted murderer, with the police hot on his heels.
In an interview conducted a couple of years after the success of Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard admitted that he thought he was making Scarface when his natural inclination was toward Alice in Wonderland. An admirer of American auteur directors like Howard Hawks, Godard realized that he wasn't as interested in narrative as he was in his own ideas about cinema. Breathless did indeed alter the direction of film language. It started as an homage to American noir similar to Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and ended up causing a major movie-world sensation. Although Godard took the commercial path of signing the talked-about star Jean Seberg, the media fuss for once centered on the movie itself.
Narrative storytelling indeed fell by the wayside as Godard's style evolved into a personal mix of spontaneous improvisation, inter-title signage and insider references to obscure movie lore. A Woman is a Woman celebrated (or mocked) the appeal of MGM musicals, while Alphaville subverted the conventions of super-spy fantasies. Breathless is peppered with references to French and American crime pictures, some of which only a studious film historian could pick out. He name-drops a character from Bob le flambeur, and then later casts that film's director as an author holding court at a news interview.
The in-jokes do not dominate the film, thanks to Godard's assured direction of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Seberg may have fit Godard's budget because she was no longer a hot name after her flops with Otto Preminger. Actor Belmondo had already made a short subject with Godard (included on the disc). The actors' unforced natural chemistry is such that it carries an episode in a hotel room for a full twenty minutes without losing energy. Michel is an 'honest cad', an amoral arrested-adolescent who accepts most of fate's surprises with a Bogart-like shrug. The intelligent and graceful Patricia carefully guards her secrets. Godard doesn't stray from the noir formula -- "men seduce and women betray", as one commentator explains -- but his directing style liberates his characters from the rigid confines of a script.
The best thing that ever happened to Godard was producer Georges de Beauregard's insistence that the first-time director work with a cameraman he had never met. Ex- docu lensman Raoul Coutard used fast film manufactured for still cameras, pushing the developing to achieve an ASA higher than 400 without excessive grain. This accounts for the film's luminous dusk and nighttime photography. Coutard achieves full detail on the nighttime Champs-Elyseés without under-cranking his camera; the added resolution of Blu-ray finally displays Coutard's images in their full beauty.
The element that made Breathless a major topic of conversation is Godard's antithetical editorial technique, that rejects many givens of professional filmmaking, especially the notion of invisible cutting. Actors address the camera with their eyes, and even speak to it, directly acknowledging the presence of the audience. Intentional jump-cuts punctuate a drive through the Paris streets, a now-familiar effect that initially elicited charges of incompetence, if not directorial heresy. Some of these jump-cuts now seem like a cheap way to ratchet up the pace of too-leisurely scenes. One café conversation between Patricia and her boss simply snips out the gaps between his sentences, leading us to suspect that the editor has edited out footage of Godard feeding the actor his lines. No wonder Godard was able to knock off some scenes in fifteen minutes. Working at that pace, the performers couldn't possibly become stale.
Jean-Paul Belmondo imitates Humphrey Bogart by self-consciously stroking his lip with his thumb; Godard has him stand outside a theater to regard a photo of the American star. It's reasonable to surmise that the Bogart cult that began on mid-60s college campuses might have been triggered by the New Wave directors' adulation of American noir pictures, way before the term 'film noir' was known in America. We've been told repeatedly that American filmmakers were eager to 'borrow' the spirit of the New Wave. As Clyde Barrow in Bonnie & Clyde, Warren Beatty tilts his head back, taps his hat forward and flicks a matchstick between his lips. After seeing Breathless, it's obvious that he's imitating Belmondo's Michel.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Breathless gives us this early French New Wave classic in a stunning widescreen HD transfer that will transport Francophiles back to the streets of Paris at the magical end of the 1950s. Those of us that saw Godard's films on old 16mm prints will be awed by Coutard's work. The entire picture looks like moving B&W art still photography.
Disc producers Abbey Lustgarten and Alexandre Mabilon repeat the excellent extras from the earlier Criterion DVD edition. A fat insert booklet contains an essay by Dudley Andrew, a selection of Godard quotes, François Truffaut's treatment for the film and Godard's longer scenario. Old TV interviews show us Godard, Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Seberg not long after the film's premiere. Seberg graciously fends off a woman interviewer's aggressive focus on the actress's divorce and emotional problems. The original French trailer is as audacious as the film itself.
New interviews give us cameraman Coutard, assistant director Pierre Rissient and docu filmmaker Donn Pennebaker, all of whom have fond memories of the film. Mark Rappaport's short docu Jean Seberg shows clips of the actress's initial screen test for Otto Preminger and her frightening experience almost burning on the set of St. Joan, and charts her unhappy demise after being hounded by the F.B.I..
In the new featurette Breathless as Criticism Jonathan Rosenbaum identifies the film's insider references as if revealing the answers to a pop quiz. The feature-length French TV docu Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suède visits the film's locations, interviewing Jean-Paul Belmondo and other surviving participants. The docu filmmaker found the film's key hotel room location just a week before the entire building was demolished.
Finishing off the extras is Jean-Luc Godard's short film Charlotte et son Jules, a one-joke skit. Jean-Paul Belmondo attempts to seduce the lady of the title by spouting a ceaseless monologue of insults. When she doesn't respond, Belmondo alters his strategy until he reaches the point of pleading for mercy. The film is an amusing critique of casual lovemaking arrogance.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Breathless Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.