Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Jacques Huet, Van Doude, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Roger Hanin, Jean-Louis Richard
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard, based on a story by Francois Truffaut
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 90
Date: 16/03/1960

Breathless (1960)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Jump Cut Above the Rest

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

To truly understand Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (a.k.a. À bout de souffle) (1960), we have to go back to the 1950s, when Godard and his new wave cronies wrote movie reviews for the seminal film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. But they did not follow the normal format of film criticism, which was to praise anything that was based on classic literature, contained a political message, or was more than three hours long. Godard instead looked for patterns and signatures for certain directors like Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and dozens of others.

When he turned filmmaker, Godard took an interesting tack to his art. As critic David Thomson wisely points out in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, Godard makes essays rather than films. Breathless is a kind of essay about the low-budget B-film (it's dedicated to Monogram Pictures, which cranked out cheap Charlie Chan and Bela Lugosi pictures). The film begins with Jean-Paul Belmondo, a swaggering, wiry tough guy with an angular face and full lips. Even though he's a star in his own right, he's thinking about being Humphrey Bogart. He mutters, "Bogie," and runs his thumb across the skin of his lips, perhaps imitating Bogart's impulsive ear tug in The Big Sleep (1946). Belmondo steals a car and drives through the country, shooting and killing a motorcycle cop who pulls him over. He spends the rest of the movie on the run. But he can't resist meeting an old American flame (Jean Seberg) in Paris for another fling.

Though we spend the entire film waiting for Belmondo to get caught, Godard is not interested in generating suspense. Nor is he interested in forcing us to like his characters. Despite Belmondo's and Seberg's obvious charms, they're both somewhat despicable. But Godard still wants to observe their conduct and to plug his favorite movies as well as art and literature linked to movies. The fugitives go to see Westbound (1959), a great B-western directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. Director Jean-Pierre Melville (often called the father of the French New Wave and the man behind 1967's Le Samourai) appears as a writer being interviewed. Seberg quotes from Faulkner ("between grief and nothing, I will take grief") and hangs a poster of a Renoir painting-but we should remember that Faulkner was a screenwriter (To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep) and Renoir's son was the great Jean Renoir. Everything relates to movies.

Breathless also introduced a new style to filmmaking, a preoccupation with the form itself. Godard shot with hand-held cameras and edited with jump cuts, techniques that, at the time, any seasoned filmmaker would tell you not to use. These have since become commonplace, and Breathless has long ago received credit for them. But as a result, Breathless became a kind of existential hipster classic, a cool flick as well as great cinema.

With Breathless, and with every other film he's made since -- and he's still working today -- Godard has essentially tried to please only himself, and hang what anybody else thinks. (In a masterstroke of self-congratulation, Godard himself plays the informer who tips Belmondo off to the police.) And in this world of test-screenings and demographics, that's why Breathless is still vital today.

The Criterion Collection has released an essential Blu-Ray edition, based on the spectacular 2010 restoration. I always regarded this is a low-budget "B" movie, worthy of a rather grungy presentation, but seeing it this clearly is a revelation. The extras on the Blu-Ray look to be the same as those on the DVD.

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