Breathless: Criterion Collection
December 18, 2007
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) is arguably the most famous example of the French New Wave, a group of film critics who were inspired by classic Hollywood films to become filmmakers themselves. Breathless certainly wasn’t the first French New Wave film on the scene. In fact, Godard was the last of the famous five Cahiers du cinema critics to make a film.
Michel Poiccard (Belmondo) is a small-time criminal who idolizes Humphrey Bogart. In the film’s opening minutes, he steals a car and then shoots and kills a police officer on the side of the road. Michel visits a girlfriend only to steal money from her purse. He eventually hooks up with his lover, Patricia Franchini (Seberg) who sells copies of the New York Herald Tribune on the street. They spend time talking and smoking in bed as Michel ruminates briefly about his fascination with death and cars. The film follows their misadventures and tempetuous relationship.
Breathless is a snapshot of a specific time and place – Paris in the late 1950s and early 1960s with youthful energy conveyed by Godard’s hand-held camera, abrupt jump cuts, Jean-Paul Belmondo addressing the camera, and a snazzy be-bop jazz score that enhances the film’s loose, improvisational feel. This was pretty daring at the time and would inspire future filmmakers like Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese.
Godard presents a romantic view of the city with iconic shots of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg walking down the busy streets of Paris, teeming with life. The black and white cinematography, urban setting and jazz score also give the film a bohemian feel, like something out of a Jack Kerouac novel, only set in Paris instead of New York City. Paris looks beautiful – very cultured and metropolitan. Everyone looks cool, especially Belmondo wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigarette complete with an indifferent attitude. Michel is an amoral hipster who’s seen too many Bogart films as he begins to lead a life he idolizes in American movies: the killer on the run from the law. In comparison, Patricia romanticizes things, comparing their situation to Romeo and Juliet. Both Belmondo and Seberg became sex symbols during the ‘60s because of this film and they look so young and gorgeous, her with an adorable pixyish haircut and he with his male model good looks.
There is a playful sense of humour as fellow French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville plays a famous author being interviewed by a bunch of journalists, including Patricia. He pontificates on numerous topics, including the difference between eroticism and love, and the role women play in modern society which he answers with smart-ass charm and a dash of pretension.
Breathless must’ve inspired countless people to visit and walk the same streets as Belmondo and Seberg. This film harkens back to one’s carefree twenties when you had little responsibilities and your whole life ahead of you and it didn’t matter if you wasted a whole day in bed listening to music and smoking cigarettes. As we grow older and get respectable jobs, get married and have kids, free time for yourself disappears. Godard’s film perfectly captures the romantic aimlessness of being young and full of life, even if, in the case of Michel and Patricia, it’s going nowhere.
The first disc includes “Interviews,” excerpts from ones conducted with Godard, Belmondo, Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville for French television between 1960 and 1964. Godard comes across as confident and smart and then later ruminates on his film’s success. Belmondo talks about how he met Godard and got the role in Breathless. He also describes Godard’s approach to filmmaking. Seberg talks about how she was discovered and what it was like to work with Otto Preminger. Melville talks about his start as an independent filmmaker and how he inspired other French New Wave filmmakers.
There is also a trailer.
The second disc contains the bulk of the extras, starting off with “Coutard and Rissient. Godard’s long-time cinematographer (they made 14 films together), Raoul Coutard and the film’s assistant director, Pierre Rissient recount filming anecdotes and talk about working with Godard. The director wrote the screenplay as he went along but made sure that his actors were at ease so that they could be spontaneous. They talk about casting and various camera tricks and techniques.
“Pennebaker on Breathless” features the legendary documentary filmmaker talking about Godard’s ability to blend the documentary with drama. He points out that Godard was influenced by his own doc, Primary (1960).
“Jean Seberg” is a mini-profile of her career. It starts with her Hollywood films and we see footage of an early screen-test for Saint Joan (1957). This extra also chronicles her meteoric rise and fall while also analyzing her performance in Breathless. Finally, it briefly examines her career afterwards.
“Breathless as Criticism” is a video essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that analyzes Breathless and cites cultural references within it. For example, we see how Godard was influenced by a scene from Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957). Godard viewed filmmaking as another form of film criticism.
“Chambre 12, Hotel de suede” is an 80 minute, 1993 French documentary that revisits the locations, cast and crew involved in making Breathless. It is cheekily shot in a similar style to the film with the interviewer imitating Belmondo. This is an in-depth look at the development of Godard’s film with surviving cast and crew recounting their experiences.
“Charlotte et son Jules” is one of Godard’s short films that he shot in 1959 and stars Belmondo and Anne Collette. Stylistically, this short is very much a warm-up for Breathless.