Many of Jean-Luc Godard’s films are set to unconventional rhythms of their own, usually inspired by musical arrangements. His 1960 debut feature, À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), one of the vanguard films for the French New Wave, is a freeform jazz ode to youth and freedom. Cool and sultry, there’s not much in the way of a plot, but Godard has all the instruments he needs – a camera, Paris, a boy, a girl and a gun. With a deep understanding and respect for the past masters and the virtuosity – not to mention sheer arrogance - to riff off the essential elements, Breathless adheres to the underling structure and arrangement of filmmaking, but plays loose with the melody, stretching the boundaries and breaking the rules.
The boy is Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a small-time criminal, a car thief, living from moment to moment according to whim, taking what he needs when he needs it. The only thing on his mind at the moment is a girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg) – a New York girl who lives in Paris working part-time for the New York Herald Tribune. Michel steals a car in the South of France and drives to Paris to see her again, but on the road he shoots a motorbike policeman with a gun found in the glove compartment of the stolen car. As the police close in on Michel, he tries to convince Patricia to run away with him to Rome.
With his free and easy characters, Godard makes Breathless look breezy, inconsequential and effortlessly cool – but there is no pose and nothing here is faked. Godard takes the film’s B-movie gangster plot very seriously indeed, or at least takes his characters very seriously. Breathless is about youth, being young and living for the moment with no care for tomorrow – the future is nothing but a horoscope. For Michel and Patricia, everything is in the here and now - they can walk around half dressed, wear what they like, say what they feel, reach out and take what they like, and are free with their hands to caress tenderly and lasciviously. Feel like lifting a girl’s skirt in the street? – go right ahead! They can be who they want to be, and what they want is to live life the way it is lived in the movies, Michel regarding a photo of Bogart as if looking in a mirror, while Patricia aspires to the beauty of a Renoir painting.
Reality and responsibility however are just around the corner - the police are closing in on Michel and Patricia believes she is pregnant. There is a price to be paid for their actions, but only if they choose to compromise their lifestyles and pay their dues. Compromise however is anathema to Michel, but Patricia has her doubts. Interviewing the author Parvulesco (Jean-Pierre Melville) for her newspaper, Patricia wants to know what his greatest ambition is in life. Parvulesco says that it is to be immortal and then die, and his words strike a chord with the young American girl. She and Michel are living as if they are immortal, for that is what it means to be young – living for the moment, double or nothing, without a thought or care for the future. Hard decisions have to be made.
It may sound like a coming of age story wrapped up in B-movie conventions of two young lovers on the run from the law – and essentially it is - but Godard’s whole approach to the film makes it something else. The gangster elements (from a treatment by Truffaut) are more or less tagged on to the beginning and end of the film to give it drama and drive, but the heart of the film lies within the characters and their expression of their youth and their freedom. The fact that one of the characters is French and the other American is also significant, as it often is in Godard films. Both are young models for the their generation – one Godard would later describe as the “generation of Marx and Coca-cola” – and see the world as theirs for the taking, but their way of effecting this revolution doesn’t seem to be compatible. It wouldn’t be beyond Godard in his subsequent films to draw this distinction is a rather more blunt and heavy-handed manner, but here he carries it off with ease and a great deal more subtlety – the girl being the cultured one, while it is the gangster film influenced guy who shows the corrupting American influence.
The real drama and revolution in Breathless however is a cinematic one, Godard reclaiming cinema back for youth, making a small film, making it cheaply with a handheld camera, making it without a conventional crew, lighting, sound or script – and making it better than what is normally produced by the big mainstream studio system. His daring is never more evident than in the freshness of the scene in Patricia’s bedroom where Seberg and Belmondo take part in a long, remarkable ballet of flirtation and attraction, slipping in and out of clothes, dancing around each other, skirting around and in and out of the bed, trading lines and revelling narcissistically in the moment, in their own reflection and in each other’s company. It’s impossibly cool, sophisticated and deeply sensual, Raoul Coutard’s camera catching every smouldering glance, bathing the room in sunlight and smoke, Godard editing and cutting the fluid jazz rhythm with hip-hop edits. One can perhaps almost imagine the revolutionary impact of such a scene in French cinema in 1960 because it still has tremendous power now. As long as there is youth and cinema it seems, Breathless will continue to remain fresh and vital.
The 2-disc DVD set of Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) is released in the USA as part of the Criterion Collection. The fold-out digipak is contained within a slipcase, with a hefty booklet. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in NTSC format, and is encoded for Region 1.
Apart from their continued commitment to the idiotic practice of window-boxing the image, Criterion’s edition of Breathless looks marvellous. There is scarcely a mark on the image, other than an occasional scratch which is undoubtedly inherently part of the original source materials and nothing but natural film grain showing. The greyscale tones are beautiful, exhibiting superb clarity and detail in the image. With a progressive transfer moreover, the film flows wonderfully with scarcely a flicker. Again, with another Criterion transfer however, I noticed the same horizontal scanlines in one or two places that were evident throughout Ivan’s Childhood. Here, they don’t cause much of a problem and were only visible in two brief scenes where the image was dull or fading out. They certainly don’t affect the overall quality of the image.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio track is scarcely going to be notable, but all the same, the clarity and tone is marvellous, with only a faint low background analogue hiss.
English subtitles are provided in a clear, white font. The translation is quite good for the most part, finding good equivalents for the French rhyming and slang expressions. Unusually, one strong use of language is toned down into English, when it is more usual for mild French swearwords to be over-emphasised in translation. Personally, the only thing I was really unhappy with was the ever problematic final words of the film. It tries to retain the necessary ambiguity of the original but by no stretch of the imagination would I have found “puke” the best expression of “déguelasse”.
Criterion gather together French television interviews with Godard and the cast from around the period of the film’s release, Godard at Cannes and bemoaning the mistake of the film being so successful; Belmondo on acting and working with Godard; Seberg getting mercilessly grilled on her personal and career difficulties; and Melville being delightfully urbane when questioned about his role as the godfather of the Nouvelle Vague.
In a style that would become characteristic of Godard, the lively trailer is spiced with humorous one and two-word descriptions.
Coutard and Rissient (22:29)
The two people closest to Godard on the set provide great insights into the making of Breathless, how it was scripted, shot and performed, and the imaginative and innovative techniques used.
Pennebaker on Breathless (10:32)Pennebaker talks about working with Godard, the influence of his work on documentary filmmaking and his method of using a documentary approach in narrative film, particularly in Breathless.
Jean Seberg (18:56)
Mark Rappaport’s visual essay covers Jean Seberg’s tumultuous career and private life, considering her iconic presence in Breathless. A superb piece - necessarily brief, but very informative.
Breathless as Criticism (11:07)
Just for fun, Jonathan Rosenbaum points out the numerous literary, cinematic, cultural and philosophical references in the film. It doesn’t add greatly to appreciation of the film, but it at least draws attention to Godard’s unusual method of making films as essays and film criticism.
Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suède (1:18:25)
This 80-minute 1993 French documentary sets up base 33 years later in the very room used in Breathless, just before the hotel is demolished, and carries out an investigation into the making of the film – interviewing Chabrol, Coutard, Rissient and Belmondo among others - uncovering a number of interesting leads. Godard's contribution is typically gruff - when called on the phone and asked to talk about Breathless, Godard replies “Dream on” and hangs up. Needless to say, he has little to add about the mystery of the final lines. A very good feature.
Charlotte et son Jules (12:42)
Godard’s 1958 short film stars Jean-Paul Belmondo (entirely overdubbed by Godard himself) as a jilted boyfriend berating his ex-girlfriend Anne Collette – and the whole of the female sex - when she shows up again at his apartment. Nice to have on DVD, but it’s boring.
Criterion of course also include a fabulous heavy 80-page booklet with the set. Breathless Then And Now by Dudley Andrew pinpoints the films qualities, interestingly noting the Ray, Rossellini and Rouch influences. Godard in his own words collects early articles and interviews where Godard states his intentions for a new cinema. Breathless in Progress includes François Truffaut’s original treatment and Godard’s own scenario.
is a dazzling piece of cinema and a remarkable debut film from Jean-Luc Godard. As a film director, Godard has continued to experiment with the medium, risking failure in order to achieve something greater with cinema as an artform. Apart from Pierrot le Fou however (with the pairing of Belmondo with Anna Karina), nowhere in his work is Godard’s love of the filmmaking medium, his awareness of its power of expression and its infinite possibilities demonstrated so capably and seemingly effortlessly. Criterion’s DVD release is simply outstanding, with an amazing transfer and superb extra features that favour context over criticism. Unquestionably one of the most impressive DVD releases of the year.