Breathless – Criterion Collection (1961)

by | Oct 23, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Breathless – Criterion Collection (1961)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Liliane David
Studio: The Criterion Collection 408 (2 discs)
Video: 1.33:1 full screen B&W
Audio: French, DD mono (option to feed L & R speakers instead of center)
Subtitles: English
Extras: Archival interviews with Godard, Belmondo, Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville; French theatrical trailer; New interviews with Dir. of Photography Raoul Coutard, Asst. Dir. Pierre Rissient, and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker; New video essays: “Jean Seberg” & ” ‘Breathless’ as Criticism;” “Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede” – an 80 min. documentary about the making of Breathless, with cast and crew members; “Charlotte et son Jules,” 1959 short film by Godard starring Belmondo; Printed book with articles by Godard, film scholar Dudley Andrew, and Francois Truffaut’s original film treatment.
Length: 90 minutes (feature only)
Rating: *****

Breathless helped launch the entire French New Wave cinema. Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol were all film critics for Cahiers du cinéma who regarded themselves as filmmakers.  Truffaut and Chabrol, who were already making films, signed on – one as providing the film’s treatment and the other as “technical advisor.” But they were little involved as Godard went his own iconoclastic way and created a low-budget, path-breaking masterpiece that completely changed the world of films.

Godard was a huge fan of American noir gangster films, Bogart, Howard Hawks, Edward G. Robinson and others.  On one level Breathless is an homage to his inspirations. On another it is a free-for-all attack on what Godard felt was the stodgy and boring qualities of French cinema as practiced by most of the established directors (who he named at length in his essays and reviews). 

Michel is a young gangster type first seen in Marseilles where he hot-wires the car of an American military officer, leaving behind the girl friend who acted as lookout on the crime. On the drive back to Paris he illegally roars around some road work and is pursued by two motorcycle cops. He finds a gun in the car’s glove compartment and kills one of the cops, running across a field to escape. As the film lurches ahead with little concern about the strictures of continuity and jump cuts, Michel hooks up with another girl friend, Patricia, who is an American selling the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysée.  She appears the innocent American abroad, with her poor French and not knowing things like what Michel meant when he referred to “les Champs.” And Michel, who is constantly phoning someone named Berruti to get some money owed him, while lying low from the police for the killing, keeps all this from Patricia.  He steals whatever American car he needs at the drop of a hat, making her think he’s wealthy. He seems the dangerous one, but in the end Patricia proves more totally unprincipled.

There is an over-20-minute scene shot in one of the tiny rooms of the Hotel de Suede, where there was barely room for the two actors, Godard, the cameraman and script girl. The entire approach is off-the-cuff, free and easy, almost like jazz improvisation.  And the soundtrack by jazz pianist Martial Solal fits the approach perfectly.  The meager budget wouldn’t allow a sync-sound camera, and it  would have made too much noise in such a small room anyway. There was also no crew or money to be much concerned about lighting.  Godard used a simple, portable, noisy 35mm camera and to overcome the problem of shooting indoors and at night without special lighting, perfected a way of using very high speed (400 ASA) black and white film designed for still photography, and which was then developed in such a way as to double its film speed.  Instead of expensive, time-consuming dolly shots, he put his cinematographer in a wheel chair or disguised in a package-delivery cart on the streets. He directed as though making a silent film, shouting at the actors what they should do and giving them their lines just before each take. (He had just written them earlier that morning while sitting at a sidewalk cafe.) All the sound was dubbed in later.

The restoration is terrific and the almost endless extras plus the booklet are sure to captivate all Breathless fans.  I hadn’t noticed the 80-minute detail on the 1993 documentary by the French TV host on the small hotel room and other nostalgia of the film – such as revisiting the exact spots where important shots in the film took place. It seemed to continue forever, but then the last person whose memories of Breathless were queried turned out to be white-haired Belmondo himself, and that was fascinating. (Godard was phoned twice by the filmmaker, and hung up on him both times.)  Any aficionado of French films should be breathless over this superb Criterion edition.

 – John Sunier


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