Breathless (À bout de souffle)

(À bout de souffle)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard (story by François Truffaut)
Stars: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard), Jean Seberg (Patricia Franchini), Daniel Boulanger (Police Inspector Vital), Jean-Pierre Melville (Parvulesco), Henri-Jacques Huet (Antonio Berrutti), Van Doude (Himself), Claude Mansard (Claudius Mansard), Jean-Luc Godard (An Informer), Richard Balducci (Tolmatchoff), Roger Hanin (Cal Zombach), Jean-Louis Richard (A Journalist)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1960
Country: France
Breathless: Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack
BreathlessThe French New Wave was already well underway when Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle) debuted in 1960, but it was this rough-edged, black-and-white homage to B-gangster films that sent the nouvelle vague into the stratosphere. Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups) had both been released a year earlier, and both (especially Truffaut’s film) had been critically and commercially successful. However, it was Breathless that was immediately recognized as a truly revolutionary film with its jangly jump-cut aesthetic, glamorous yet down-to-earth outlaw stars, and Paris-in-the-raw camerawork. Lacking the refinement of Truffaut’s film and the heady, intellectual romanticism of Resnais’s, it was a deliberately unpolished gem, all the more beautiful for its refusal to play by the rules.

Godard himself described the film as “the sort of film where anything goes: that was what it was all about.” He was self-consciously trying to reinvent the idea of what a mainstream movie could do, drawing on both avant-garde traditions and American genre films. In its simplest form, Breathless is a crime melodrama featuring a callously amoral young man named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who is on the run from the cops after gunning down a highway patrolman. He flees to Paris, where he hooks up with Patricia (Jean Seberg), a former girlfriend who is as ambivalent as he is insensible. The majority of the film focuses on their interactions as they talk, draw together, and pull apart, casually enmeshed in their own personal world while the hurly-burly of modern Paris raves outside their window and the cops close in.

The story, which was originally penned by Truffaut, is the film’s crucial foundation, but it is hardly its chief draw. The revolution in Breathless is its heady use of then-jarring cinematic style to reflect the lives and attitudes of its youthful protagonists. Godard borrows the neorealist aesthetics of handheld cameras, natural light, and location shooting and then injects them with a rush of disconnected jump cuts and narrative leaps, giving the film a giddy, utterly unexpected quality that reflects the abstracted rush of modern life just as surely as it attacks the stodginess of French cinema in the 1950s. Godard and the other French New Wave filmmakers wanted to explode cinematic conventions and reinvent the medium on their own terms. Most of them had worked as critics for the influential film journal Cahiers du cinéma, lavishing praise on American filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray while dismissing the so-called French “cinema of quality.”

Breathless was the film that, more so than any other before it, rocked conventions and suggested what an alternate French cinema might look like. It was a perfect storm of a movie, with all the right pieces falling into place. Behind the camera, Godard found a perfect mix of the expected and the unexpected. He dedicated the film to Monogram Pictures, a poverty-row U.S. production company, as a way of aligning Breathless with the kind of dirt-cheap productions that can’t rely on star power and special effects to generate their energy. Thus, the film opens with its first bit of self-reflexivity, which reaches its apex when Michel stands in front of a poster of Humphrey Bogart and self-consciously mimics Bogie’s manner of running his thumb across his lips, which is perhaps the most famous scene in all of 1960s French cinema. In a single instance Godard addresses a myriad of issues, from the youth culture’s embrace and emulation of media icons, to the increasing loss of conventional morality, to the French guilty-pleasure love of cheap American culture. In the process, 26-year-old Belmondo became an international star, a new icon of lanky sensuality.

Godard, on the other hand, became a phenomenon. More than any of the other French New Wave filmmakers, he became larger than life, producing a series of films throughout the 1960s that became more and more radical and more and more political, arguably culminating with his counter-cinema masterpiece Weekend (1967). However, it was Breathless that not only put Godard on the cinematic map, but cut the most gaping hole in the conventions of mainstream cinema, through which poured new possibilities whose influences are still appreciable in everything from Quentin Tarantino’s self-effacing talky crime capers, to rapid-fire music videos.

Breathless Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Archival interviews with director Jean-Luc Godard, and actors Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville
  • Video interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard
  • Video interview with assistant director Pierre Rissient
  • Video interview with filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker
  • “Jean Seberg,” video essay by filmmaker and critic Mark Rappaport
  • Breathless as Film Criticism,” video essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • Chambre 12, Hotel de suede, an 80-minute French documentary about the making of the film
  • Charlotte et son Jules, a 1959 short film by Godard
  • French theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring writings from Godard, film historian Dudley Andrew, François Truffaut’s original film treatment, and Godard’s scenario
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 25, 2014

    When Criterion released their DVD of Breathless back in 2007, they effectively saved an international classic from the realm of substandard transfers in which it had been languishing for years. I had seen Breathless on VHS, laser disc, DVD, and in 16mm, and I had never seen it look even remotely as good as it did there. Now available in full high-definition on Blu-ray, the pristine, digitally restored transfer looks even more impressive, especially since it is no longer windowboxed (a questionable approach to ensuring no image was lost to overscan that Criterion probably now regrets). The transfer was made from an original 35mm fine-grain master positive and approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. The image is incredibly sharp and clear, with excellent detail and contrast. There are no marks or scratches or any signs of age, although the image does maintain a strong presence of film grain that helps accentuate its low-budget alignment with Hollywood B pictures. The audio is a crisp monaural transfer at 24-bit from a 35mm optical print track that removes much of the mustiness generally associated with the film’s soundtrack.
    All of the supplements are the same as those included on the 2007 DVD and the 2010 Blu-ray-only edition. The lack of an audio commentary is made up for largely by two excellent video essays: “Jean Seberg,” (18 min.), in which filmmaker and critic Mark Rappaport explores the troubled career and personal life of the young actress, particularly her abuse by director Otto Preminger; and “Breathless as Film Criticism,” in which Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum analyzes the film in terms of how it extends Godard’s written criticism via its dense web of allusions to art, literature, philosophy, and, most importantly, other movies (everything from Samuel Fuller to Jean-Pierre Melville). There are also a plethora of interviews, both archival and new. We get 26 minutes of archival interviews with Godard and actors Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville, as well as a trio of new video interviews: cinematographer Raoul Coutard, assistant director Pierre Rissient, and documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, who collaborated with Godard in the 1970s (his interview includes clips from several of his films, including 1972’s One P.M. and his first film, 1953’s Daybreak Express). Chambre 12, Hotel de suede is an intriguing 80-minute French documentary in which television host and filmmaker Claude Ventura takes nine days to revisit all the film’s Parisian locations (including, of course, the titular hotel room) and interview a significant number of the cast and crew. Godard completists will be elated by the inclusion of Charlotte et son Jules, Godard’s 1959 short film that marked his first collaboration with Jean-Paul Belmondo. The thick insert book features writings from Godard, film historian Dudley Andrew, François Truffaut’s original film treatment, and Godard’s scenario.

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    Overall Rating: (4)

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