Criterion // 1960 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 30th, 2010
"I'm not sure if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy." -- Patricia Franchini
Throughout the 1950s, a group of young Frenchmen with a passion for cinema (especially American cinema) began to change movie history with their insightful film criticism, published primarily in the journal Cahiers du cinéma. They were on a mission to destroy the perception that movies were throwaway entertainment; movies were art -- or so these critics claimed. Their writing resulted in, among other things, the creation of the auteur theory that elevated the reputations of popular Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, and the coinage of the term "film noir" to describe postwar Hollywood B crime pictures that contained more intellectual and artistic substance than initially met the eye. By the end of the '50s, these critics were no longer content writing about cinema. They wanted to make cinema. They set a new goal for themselves: The creation of a cinematic voice unique to France, one that appreciated the enormous impact of American pictures but didn't merely rip off their style. One of the most influential international film movements was born.
The French New Wave hit the scene with the force of a hurricane, due in large part to the release of two films: François Truffaut's The 400 Blows in 1959 and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (based on a scenario written by Truffaut) in 1960. Breathless, in particular, self-consciously challenged the language of cinema, while also making a case for the artfulness and intelligence of Hollywood genre pieces, and establishing a hipster chic style of European film in the 1960s.
After gunning down a police officer in the French countryside, Humphrey Bogart-obsessed petty crook Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo, A Woman is a Woman) absconds to Paris. There he meets up with Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg, Bonjour Tristesse), an American journalism student and aspiring novelist with whom he had a brief fling. The two hole up in Patricia's apartment where they engage in existential conversations and lovemaking. Their future as a couple is uncertain. When Patricia realizes that Michel is not the man he claims to be, she takes decisive action.
Any plot description of Breathless makes it sound like a pastiche. It is not. The movie is one part loving homage to American crime dramas and one part critical examination and deconstruction of the methodology of filmmaking. Based as it is on a scenario written by Truffaut, Breathless is one of Godard's most straight-forward features from a narrative standpoint. The emotional stakes in Michel and Patricia's relationship feel very real -- surprisingly so, given Godard's later, more intellectually abstract work. Though he acts like a cad, we feel sympathy for Michel because what we see appears to be an invention of his own imagination, based on the tough guys he's seen in American crime movies. Little that he tells us about himself is reliably true, other than that he is a small-time crook and that he did murder a police officer. He plays the sexually liberated rugged individualist, but there's a naiveté in his interactions with Patricia that suggests it's mostly an act. When he tells Patrician that he slept with two women (who did not meet his standards) since the last time he saw her, it may be true or it may not. Either way, there's an underlying insecurity in his bragging, just as there is earlier in the movie when he (too) casually claims he wouldn't mind working as a gigolo. Michel is a poseur, a kid who plays at being the sort of world-weary man Humphrey Bogart made a career of playing, but who has little real experience in the world. We learn quickly enough, however, that there's nothing illusory about Patricia's embrace of free love. Her sexual options are plentiful. In one scene, she attends a press conference and is hit on by a world-renowned novelist (played by Jean-Pierre Mellville -- director of Bob le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge -- whose embrace of American genre forms was a major inspiration for the French New Wave). If Michel pretends to be worldly, then Patricia actually is worldly -- at least by comparison to Michel. She's from New York (a city Michel considers far more cosmopolitan than Paris), and is a student of journalism educated in literature (Michel, who only knows cinema, is so ignorant of books that he's never heard of William Faulkner). In genre terms, Patricia's greater sophistication relative to Michel makes her a femme fatale by default if not by intent. But unlike the dames in classic films noir, it's not Patricia's malice or remorseless sense of self-preservation that prove to be Michel's undoing; it is her casual amorality. In the end, Michel falls prey to the very American style of amoral individualism that he so romanticizes throughout the rest of the picture.
Despite the movie's crime storyline and use of light suspense, Godard's artistic sensibilities and tendency towards postmodern tomfoolery are on full display in Breathless (though not as developed as in his later work). From a technical perspective, the film is renowned for the director's aggressive and playful (and sometimes downright intrusive) use of jump cuts. In some scenes, a single stretch of dialogue by a single character stretches across a half dozen jump cuts. The audio delivers a flowing continuity that contrasts sharply with the jarring quality of the visuals. It's a conceit that Godard uses to remind viewers that they are watching a movie, a contrivance that relies on a defined vernacular of editorial tricks. Godard has made a career of such reminders. In one particularly self-conscious sequence, Michel and Patricia drive through Paris in a stolen car. As Michel delivers a long soliloquy meant to seduce Patricia, the camera is trained exclusively on her, shooting her in three-quarter profile from the back seat so that we mostly see her graceful neck, the back of her head, and the Parisian cityscape whizzing by. The sequence is punctuated by a series of rhythmic jump cuts that emphasizes the technique's conventional use in demonstrating the passage of time by blatantly violating that convention: Though the city streets repeatedly change in the shot's background, Michel's speech flows uninterrupted. The disconnect between what we see and what we hear reminds us of the artifice of cinema. Whatever our emotional attachment to Michel and Patricia, they are not real and neither are their problems. This competition between the movie's crime plot and its deconstructive tendencies might have resulted in an incoherent mess, but Godard's intelligence and youthful energy resulted in a movie that is both a heartfelt entertainment and an insightful examination of cinema as a narrative medium. Breathless' groundbreaking style was imitated by moviemakers all over the world throughout the 1960s, but none of the imitations had the same potent mix of style of substance. Godard would go on to make better films than Breathless, but none as important.
Throughout the early years of DVD, North American fans of Breathless had to content themselves with a Fox Lorber DVD release of the movie that offered up a mediocre (at best) transfer of the film. The Criterion Collection rectified that situation with a fine two-disc Special Edition DVD released in the autumn of 2007. That DVD release is the basis for this Blu-ray. The 1080p/AVC transfer is sourced from the same high definition master used for the DVD. Breathless cinematographer Raoul Coutard approved the master, which, according to Criterion's liner notes, was sourced from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and treated to a full digital restoration. The image displays subtle contrast, excellent detail, and a fine patina of grain unmarred by digital noise reduction or other processing techniques. A few isolated scenes show weakness in the source in the form of muddy contrast, but overall Breathless looks excellent in high definition -- certainly the best it has ever looked in a home video format (and likely better and more consistent that it has even appeared in theatrical exhibitions).
There is but one audio option: a Linear PCM two-channel mono presentation of the movie's original analog audio track, in French. The track is flat with cramped dynamic range, but is also clean and free of hiss. It sounds about as good as a French New Wave movie from 1960 can.
The set's dual-layered Blu-ray disc contains all of the supplements from the previously released two-DVD release, all of which have been treated to a high definition upgrade:
This quartet of video featurettes includes vintage interview segments from French television. There are two interviews with Godard from 1960 and 1964; a Jean-Paul Belmondo segment from 1961; a sit-down with Jean Seberg from 1960; and a segment in which director Jean-Pierre Melville discusses Breathless. The entire reel runs 27 minutes.
Coutard and Rissient
In this contemporary interview (it was conducted by the Criterion Collection in 2007), famed cinematographer Raoul Coutard and Breathless assistant director Pierre Rissient reflect on their experiences making the film. The piece runs 22 minutes.
Pennebaker on Breathless
Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop) examines the cinéma vérité style that Godard utilized in Breathless. It runs 10 minutes.
Filmmaker Mark Rappaport (From the Journals of Jean Seberg) contributes this video essay about the American actress and her most famous role in Godard's French New Wave classic. The piece incorporates footage from Breathless and still photos of Seberg. It is 19 minutes long.
Breathless as Criticism
This second video essay, assembled by film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum, analyzes Godard's revolutionary use of self-conscious cultural references throughout Breathless. It runs 11 minutes. Rosenbaum explores how Godard's experience as a film critic was crucial to how he infused his movie with meaning.
Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suède
This feature-length documentary finds French television personality Claude Ventura revisiting the people who made Breathless, as well as the picture's locations. Interviewees include Belmondo, Coutard, and Rissient. The piece was made in 1993 and runs 78 minutes.
Charlotte et son Jules
This pre-Breathless short film by Godard features Belmondo and French actress Anne Collette in a witty and highly intellectualized lovers spat. The presentation is full frame, 1080p/AVC. The short runs just shy of 13 minutes.
The disc also contains a French trailer for Breathless.
Finally, a hefty 80-page insert booklet contains a lengthy and informative essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew, a collection of Jean-Luc Godard interview excerpts, a translation of François Truffaut's film treatment which Godard presented to producer Georges de Beauregard and which eventually became Breathless, Godard's expansion of Truffaut's treatment, detailed notes about the audio and video transfer, and information about the feature's cast and crew.
What do you expect me to say? It's Breathless, one of the most significant motion pictures ever made. If this Blu-ray doesn't qualify as a must-own for every cinephile with high definition gear, nothing does.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video Essays
* Short Film