Remember her duet with 88 Keys? Oh, wait.
The whole French New Wave thing sometimes gets maligned by movie fans. The cliché image is a bunch of good-looking people sitting around smoking cigarettes while ruminating about their angst and/or their ennui. Like other oft-spoofed movie types, such as cartoon princesses or slasher killers, when the French new wave thing is done well, it makes for great filmmaking.
If Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless did not create the new wave, it certainly popularized it. A sensation upon its release in 1960, it broke new ground and influenced generations of filmmakers. It’s also become one of the shiniest jewels in the Criterion Collection’s crown, as Criterion has released it on home video several times now. The latest is Breathless (1960) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection.
Car thief Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo, Pierrot Le Fou) shoots and kills a traffic cop to escape arrest. He flees to Paris, where he meets up with his sometimes squeeze Patricia (Jean Seberg, Paint Your Wagon). He wants her to come with him to Italy, while she is interested in starting real career in journalism. In a little more than a day, emotions run high as Michel and Patricia each come to terms with what they really want.
No plot description of Breathless does the movie justice, basically boiling it down to “young lovers on the run from the cops.” Except that there’s a lot more going on in the movie. Breathless has a style and attitude all of its own, its “vibe,” as it were. Just as Michel has a confident swagger as he saunters around Paris, the movie itself has a similar confidence. In an article accompanying this set, written by Godard in 1959, Godard champions Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and advocating a call to arms for young filmmakers to create movies that eschew Hollywood cliché and dare to film everyday life as it really looks. In this article, you can get the sense of Godard developing the ideas that would eventually become Breathless.
Filmed on a threadbare budget with handheld cameras and natural lighting, Breathless is a great example of a creative filmmaker doing a lot with very little. The documentary style camerawork is deceptively simple. It gives audiences an appropriate “you-are-there” feeling, but there are also numerous shots that are beautiful, framed like a painting. Godard is often praised for his innovative use of jump cuts in the film, for good reason. These are no Michael Bay-style I-can’t-tell-what-the-heck-I’m-looking-at jump cuts, instead they are used carefully both to move the story forward and to establish the characters’ states of mind. Twice, the camera focuses on Patricia as male characters make long speeches. During these speeches, the words carry on uninterrupted, but the images are quick cuts, giving us the impression that a lot of time has passed. You can almost sense Patricia thinking, “I wish he’d stop talking.”
Visual ticks like these are everywhere in Breathless, rewarding repeat viewings. The movie begins with Michel on a long drive through the country. He toys around with a gun as he drives, and the camera does a quick cut to outside with cartoony gunshot sound effects. Here we see Michel living in his own imagination, seeing himself as a movie-style badass. Minutes later, when Michel kills the cop, it happens fast and is unglamorous, ending with Michel clumsily running through some tall grass. Instead of emphasizing this scene, we jump cut over it and get on to Michel’s relationship with Patricia, which is the real meat of the movie, rather than the crime.
So the movie is historically important, breaking new ground in its day. The question is, does it entertain? Can you just sit down and watch it? Yes, you can, because the characters are just that nicely established. We begin with Michel, looking very much like a classic movie gangster with his suit, fedora-like hat, and omnipresent cigarette. As noted above, this is all an act on his part. Michel is a bottom-barrel thug, one who only imagines himself a larger-than-life crime lord. He talks the talk, he looks the part, but the reality is he doesn’t enough cash for a place to stay for the night, or even for breakfast. We see him stealing a hotel key, and swiping money from an ex-girlfriend, and being an overall dirtbag. He still radiates that “cool bad guy” charm, though. One telling scene has him coming across a photo of Humphrey Bogart and admiring it.
Patricia is a character we learn more and more about as time goes on. When we first meet her selling the newspapers, she comes off very much as “college girl with a summer job.” Later, though, she meets with the paper’s editor, and we learn of her ambitions of writing for the paper, rather than selling it. Then, we learn she’s so much the nice girl we thought she was, as she’s not above using her sexuality to achieve her ambitions. She romances the editor—and a writer at a press conference—all to further her standing at the paper. This further adds to her conflicted feelings for Michel. If she runs off with the bad boy, she’s leaving opportunities behind. Yet, she still cannot resist the allure of the bad boy.
The big drive throughout most of the movie is not actually the crime plot, but the sexual tension between Michel and Patricia. You could argue that he’s a sexist jerk to her, and he is, really, but they nonetheless share an easygoing charm when strolling down the Champs-Elysees (I think) as she sells newspapers. The sexual tension reaches stratospheric heights, though, in the middle third of the movie, which we spend inside Patricia’s hotel room. It’s just the two of them, in that one space, for a huge chunk of the movie, and it’s the most intense, most compelling part of the movie. Michel and Patricia are already an item of sorts (their Facebook probably says, “le complicated”), so they’re comfortable lounging about partially clothed in a hotel room, but even with that familiarity, the sexuality is palpable. He’s pursuing her aggressively, full of macho bravado, and she responds with pure aloofness, saying neither yes nor no. Such are the head games these two play with each other en route to fun times beneath the covers, and it feels both intense and emotionally genuine.
The hotel room scenes are so good, that what comes afterward almost feels anticlimactic. The movie’s final third returns to “crime caper” territory that 1960 audiences were expecting. We see Michel steal cars and generally cause trouble, all while the cops increase their hunt for him, the metaphorical noose tightening around his and Patricia’s necks.
If there’s any complaint to be levied against Breathless, it’s the rambling plot. Sure, Godard crafted the story that way on purpose for realism and whatnot, but it’s still disorienting to see new characters and settings introduced in the final act. That said, the choices Michel makes in his final moments are consistent with his wannabe-gangster persona, and the movie’s memorable last shot mirrors the opening shot, making a nice capper, one that will stay with viewers for a long time after viewing.
“Wait a sec,” you say. “Didn’t Criterion already release Breathless on a really nice Blu-ray back in 2010?” You’re right. The only different between this Breathless (1960) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection and the previous Blu-ray is this one comes with two DVDs as well, one with the movie and one with the bonus features. Everything else is the same as the previous Blu-ray. The highlight of the extras is the feature-length documentary Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede, all about the making of the film. There are also interviews with the director and actors, shorter featurettes, the trailer, and Godard’s short film Charlotte et Son Jules. There’s also a reprint of the earlier set’s eighty-page booklet, with an essay, the movie’s early treatments, and, best of all, articles written by Godard before, during, and after the success of Breathless, offering three different perspectives of his on his own film.
Breathless has benefitted from numerous digital restorations throughout the DVD/Blu-ray age, so it stands to reason that the movie looks fantastic now. Detail is rich and defined, blacks are deep and rich, and you can practically smell all the cigarette smoke. Audio, in its original mono, can’t compete with modern-day DTS kabooms, but it is nonetheless clean and clear, and the jazzy score and occasional use of classical music sounds quite good. In its original aspect ratio, the movie will appear on widescreen TVs with black spaces (they’re not bars) on either side of the screen. I didn’t find it distracting at all.
The musical score in Breathless evokes jazz, and it could be argued that the film as a whole is comparable to jazz as well. Breathless is freeform art, open to multiple interpretations, wild and unpredictable. It kicked off an entire movement in the history of cinema, and it still speaks to us today.