BREATHLESS: THE CRITERION COLLECTION - DVD review

"Breathless" is a tour-de-force of guerilla film-making.

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

What makes Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" one of the three or four most important sound films ever made? "Breathless" isn't the first French New Wave film, or even the first French New Wave film to win major awards; Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour" was nominated for the Palme d'Or and netted Marguerite Duras an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay just the year before. Claude Chabrol was already an established New Wave figure, even if he didn't quite know it at the time. "Breathless" is not the first film ever to use a jump cut, though it is the first to use the technique so extensively. "Breathless" was nowhere close to being the first film to shoot on real locations, and adopted many of its "fly on the wall" techniques from Italian neo-realism and direct cinema. "Breathless" hardly employs an original plot: just a guy, a girl, and a gun. It's not even Godard's best film. So why in the hell is "Breathless" so important?

Because "Breathless" changed everything. OK, that's an exaggeration. It didn't change the balance of power in the Middle East. It didn't catapult the Earth out of its orbit. It didn't make Americans care about soccer. But it changed pretty much everything else.

"Breathless" is a unique hybrid, much like its director. The film is both the realization of years of critical writings by Godard and his fellow Cahiers du Cinema critics, and also a film made by an unabashed cinephile. In a sense, it is one of the earliest "fan pics" ever made. Godard did not come to destroy Hollywood; he came to celebrate it in all its genre-formula glory. "Breathless" contains enough references to other films and filmmakers that even Quentin Tarantino couldn't keep them all straight. By placing these cinematic references right alongside literary and philosophical ponderings Godard also asserts that film is every bit as valid an art form as any other. Godard collapsed "high" and "low" culture before the practice became de rigueur in post-modern art.

"Breathless" is also a tour-de-force of guerilla film-making. Shot on a super-low budget with hand-held cameras specially modified by now-legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard, many scenes are shot right on the streets of Paris or in tiny apartments where a standard film crew for the time could never have fit. The City of Lights has rarely looked so good. This fly-on-the-wall approach gives the film a distinct documentary quality; Godard has described the film as a documentary about Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Belmondo as Michel Poiccard; Seberg as Patricia Franchini. Along with Jean-Pierre Léaud's Antoine Doinel, they are the most iconic characters of the French New Wave. Belmondo delivers a deliciously superficial performance, full of self-conscious mannerisms, poses, and cool looks; that bit where he runs his fingers over his lips is still electric. Seberg was fresh off her critically panned performances for Otto Preminger in "Saint Joan" (1957) and "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958). The only good press she received was from the Cahiers' writers, especially Godard. Though her acting in "Breathless" hardly dazzles, she was nonetheless an inspired casting choice. Seberg speaks French with a grating American accent that no doubt made her seem that much more exotic and erotic to French audiences, and her cry of "New York Herald Tribune!" as she promenades down the Champs-Elysées is, in my opinion, the most memorable line in any French New Wave film.

Of course, there's also the editing. If you've ever taken a film class, you have already been trained to think "jump cut" at the first mention of "Breathless." The film uses jump cutting extensively, but this was never the plan while shooting the film. In the editing room, Godard realized that many of the dialogue scenes were boring and overlong, so he simply decided to cut out all the uninteresting stuff taking no heed whatsoever of Hollywood's sacrosanct rules about continuity editing.

And this is why "Breathless" is so phenomenally influential. While there is no single technique pioneered by Godard in this film, the combination of jump cutting, hand-held shooting, violations of the 180 degree line and a host of other convention-shattering choices set world cinema free. I exaggerate again, but the film sounded a clarion call to filmmakers young and old, from East and West: there are no rules that cannot be broken; there is no right way to make a movie. "Death to the aristos!" It also helped that herding so many sacred rituals of filmmaking to the guillotine Godard also made a wildly entertaining movie.

At this point, I am supposed to write that "Breathless" may seem dated to modern audiences because so much of its style has been copied, and that which once seemed revolutionary now almost appears old-fashioned. But I'm not going to say that. Audiences today might not be shocked by the jump cutting, or awed by the documentary-style filming, but "Breathless" is as fresh and vital today as when it was released nearly 50 years ago. "Breathless" is as essential as cinema gets.

Video

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full screen releases, the image is picture-boxed, meaning some viewers will see black bars on the left and right sides of the screen. Why waste word count? This is another fantastic transfer from Criterion, practically perfect. It's certainly miles ahead of the old Region 1 DVD release from Fox/Lorber, but you didn't need me to tell you that.

Audio

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras

Wow, where to start with this seriously loaded 2-disc set?

Disc One includes archival interviews (27 min. total) with Godard (May 19, 1960 and May19, 1964), Belmondo (1961), Seberg (July 2, 1960) and Jean-Pierre Melville (July 13, 1963), and also a very nifty Trailer.

Disc Two is just sick.

"Chambre 12, Hotel du Suede" is a 1993 documentary (78 min.) directed by Claude Ventura in which the director revisits the people and places from "Breathless." It's pretty darn good.

"Charlotte et Son Jules" (1959, 12 min) is a short film directed by Godard and starring Belmondo. The whole film is basically a long-winded speech by a pompous ass trying to show off for his girlfriend with a very funny punch line. Not a great film, but a cute one, a reminder of how playful Godard was at the time.

"Breathless as Criticism" (11 min) is a new video essay written by Jonathan Rosenbaum which explains some of the cinematic references Godard makes in the film, and connects Godard's work as a critic to his work as a director on "Breathless."

"Coutard and Rissient" is a new interview with "Breathless" cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who worked on many films for Godard) and cinema's great mystery man Pierre Rissient who also worked as assistant director on the film.

"Jean Seberg" (19 min) is a video essay by Mark Rappaport who directed the superb 1995 film "From the Journals of Jean Seberg." The essay takes a look at the career and the memorable face of the actress who died in 1979.

The collection finishes off with an interview (10 min.) with famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (who collaborated with Godard on "One A.M" which became "One P.M.")

The chunky insert booklet (80 pgs) features an essay by Dudley Andrew, several interviews and articles by Godard, François Truffaut's original (and very brief) treatment for "Breathless," and Godard's adapted scenario.

All that's missing is a commentary track. Phenomenal.

Film Value

Criterion has released the definitive DVD package of one of the most important films ever made. But don't be scared away by the word "important." Unlike some of Godard's later films, "Breathless" is accessible to all audience, a film noir told with a unique flair. I failed to mention Martial Solal's exceptional jazz piano score which drives the entire film. There's far too much to like about "Breathless" to mention in a single review.

I was going to end this review by calling this the best DVD release of 2007, but Criterion's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" just arrived at my door today. Maybe it will be a tie.

Ratings

Video
10
Audio
10
Extras
10
Film Value
10