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Breathless: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // February 25, 2014
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 1, 2014 | E-mail the Author

The first time I saw Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 debut film Breathless (incidentally, just a few short years ago), I pretty much hated it. Well, maybe "hate" is too strong a word, but I can't say with any conviction that I enjoyed much about this game-changing, highly influential import. The film's plot is secondary to its playfully-edited, expressive style; its central characters secondary to the Parisian cityscape they live in. During the film's scant 90-minute lifespan, we follow petty thief Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his American girlfriend Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) as they chat about life, sex, death and just about everything in between. Michel's on the run after shooting a police officer in cold blood following a theft, and the Humphrey Bogart-worshiping, chain-smoking American car enthusiast is rarely painted in a sympathetic light. He simply is who he is...but his good looks, fashion sense and overwhelming confidence are more than enough to keep Patricia coming back for more. She ends up calling the cops on him anyway.

The film's unusual style undoubtedly impressed audiences of the 1960s and, for obvious reasons, still manages to stand out on occasion. Originally intended as a free-flowing and loose documentary inspired by the 1952 exploits of Michel Portail and his American girlfriend Beverly Lynette, Breathless was shot entirely on a hand-held camera and primarily used natural lighting. Onlookers gawk at Michel and Patricia, unaware they're now background characters in a feature-length film. Entire sections of dialogue were almost completely improvised and much of the film's story was dreamed up by Godard as shooting progressed, while most of the audio was redubbed in post-production. The editing style of Breathless feels gimmicky at times but is memorable nonetheless, as quick jump cuts trim a few seconds here and there. A clever stylistic choice to be sure, though first-time views might simply assume a few frames went missing.

As a pure narrative, Breathless is often as winded as its title suggests. Godard's film takes a sharp turn near the 30-minute mark and spends almost one-third of its total running time on a single exhausting, verbose encounter between the two lovers in her small apartment...and if you're not ready for it, scenes like this one are true momentum killers, especially taking the film's dramatic opening scenes into account. Sloppy decisions like this still make Breathless difficult to enjoy, but it's also easy to see how it influenced legions of followers in the decades to come, if only for its unusual approach, occasional winking nods to the audience and, at times, hypnotic atmosphere. Time marches on, fads and fashion change and most folks eventually shed the self-absorbed behavior of youth. Breathless refuses to grow up, for better or for worse...and either way, we can still appreciate some of what it originally brought to the table.

Criterion presents Breathless as a Dual-Format Edition, combining their 2010 Blu-ray and 2007 DVD to form a bulky three-disc package for those extremely late to the party. This is a well-meaning but oddly confusing release and, more than likely, exists solely to streamline future printing demands. Either way, it serves up a strong A/V presentation and plenty of helpful even if the film doesn't win you over, there's some interesting history to dig through.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Not surprisingly, this recent 1080p transfer of Breathless, approved by director of photography Raoul Coutard, looks quite impressive from start to finish. The film's raw, on-the-fly appearance features a satisfying layer of film grain, plenty of image detail and fairly consistent black levels. Outdoor sequences are particularly strong, especially those filmed in direct sunlight, while textures are extremely vibrant during close-ups and medium shots. No glaring digital imperfections could be spotted along the way, aside from a few trace moments of mild edge enhancement. Overall, this was a pleasing effort on Criterion's Blu-ray back in 2010 and the same transfer holds up nicely almost four years later. In turn, the DVD looks terrific for standard definition, though it's sadly picture-boxed for those with TV overscan.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

The film's original French (and occasionally English) mono mix is presented in uncompressed PCM format and, not for lack of trying, sounds about as good as its source material will allow. This dialogue-driven production sounds fairly crisp and clear overall, music cues are balanced nicely and there's even a bit of depth in some of the bustling outdoor sequences. Optional English subtitles are included for translation purposes only, a bad habit that Criterion should break soon.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's menu interface is smooth and easy to navigate on both formats. This two-disc set is locked for Region A/1 players only; like the studio's other "Dual-Format" releases, there's a lot of extra packaging for those just interested in the Blu-ray disc. Adapted from previous packages, the digipak case is adorned with attractive artwork, a playful sense of design and it feels quite sturdy overall. The accompanying square-bound 80-Page Book features an essay by scholar Dudley Andrew, writings by Godard, Francois Truffaut's original treatment and Godard's scenario.

Bonus Features

This release includes all of the extras from the 2010 Blu-ray, which are in turn recycled from Criterion's own 2007 DVD. Listed by name only, these include Interviews with DP Raoul Coutard, assistant director Pierre Rissien, actors Jean-Paul Belmondo & Jean Sebarg and famed documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker; two Film Essays by Mark Rappaport ("Jean Sebarg") and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum ("Breathless as Criticism"); a lengthy French cast, crew and location retrospective "Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede"; and Charlotte et son Jules, a 1959 Godard short film also starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. Also included is an obligatory DVD Copy of Breathless and all of the supplements listed above on two separate discs. Like the main feature itself, optional English subtitles have been provided for translation purposes only.

Final Thoughts

Historically important but sporadically lost in time, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless left a big mark in 1960; it still manages to entertain in spurts, but modern audiences likely won't be able to appreciate some of its fundamental strengths. The film's technical merits are obvious and the snapshot of Paris is certainly valuable from a historical perspective, even while the film's slapped-together story and largely improvised dialogue don't regularly hit the mark. But even if Breathless doesn't sound like your cup of tea, check it out anyway: Criterion's Dual-Format release serves up a fine A/V presentation and plenty of well-meaning extras. Either way, I'd imagine that most folks dead-set on owning Breathless on home video have done so if you're this late to the party, proceed with caution. Mildly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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