Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 90 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Review Date: September 9, 2010
Critic-turned-director Jean-Luc Godard was at the forefront of the French New Wave, a group of young French filmmakers who decried the formal, ossified techniques of filmmaking and longed to set cinema free. While Breathless probably isn’t the first example of the New Wave, it was likely the first great success in the new movement and certainly one of the most fondly remembered. Since that time, every filmmaker in the world has plundered and pillaged the unusual cinematic techniques that are found in this superb film. For the uninitiated, however, it’s important to understand that so many of the procedures that we take for granted now were first used here and were part of the reason the film was so earth-shattering on its initial release.
Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a carefree thief living by his wits throughout Italy and France. On his return to Paris via a stolen car, he shoots a policeman attempting to arrest him and has a city-wide alert for his capture that he must dodge for the remainder of the film. Anyone in his right mind would flee the country as fast as he could, but Michel worships the nerve and verve of American gangster movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and continues eluding the police as he steals more cars, takes money from former girl friends, and robs men in restrooms. Most importantly, he pursues American journalist student Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). Unable to control himself, he has fallen in love with her and refuses to leave Paris for Rome without her.
It’s a very simple story, and despite the robberies and confrontations, the film is remarkably free of much action (and what‘s here is filmed matter-of-factly and not exploitatively). The focus of the movie is on Michel’s attempted seduction of Patricia and her on again-off again desire to be with him. With the two stars almost the entire show, Godard was lucky to have entrusted the leading man part to Jean-Paul Belmondo whose international stardom was sealed with this performance. It’s sly, charming work, effortlessly charismatic, and the film’s larkish tone is grounded in his facile manner before the camera. Jean Seberg, coming off largely disliked work in Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, barely manages to hold her own with Belmondo. Her exquisite pixie quality and expressive eyes do succeed somewhat in distracting the viewer from her relative unease before the camera and some less than fluid line readings. And the Martial Solal jazz score that weaves in and out of the narrative also adds spunk and flavor to the simple story.
Godard’s pioneering use of jump cuts, handheld cameras (with the camera operator being pushed in a wheelchair long before the invention of the Steadicam), natural lighting, real world locations, and an unconcern with continuity mark the film from the very beginning. The entire film seems like a wonderful cinematic spree with the director and his stars making it up as they go along. To further show his disdain for the cinema of the time, however, he employed antiquated iris-ins and iris-outs for some scenes, techniques going all the way back to methods common in silent movies. This kind of guerilla cinema looks commonplace now, but at the time, it was electrifyingly different and not always accepted by the film world’s old guard. Typically, Godard was dismayed by the public’s quick acceptance of this new kind of film and in hindsight felt that he possibly hadn’t pushed the boundaries of formal cinema enough. He was pleased, however, that he managed to catch some of the flavor of the American gangster pictures of Bogart and Cagney and the rough and tumble look of poverty row studios like Monogram (to whom the film is dedicated).
The film’s original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. It’s difficult to ascertain the video quality since the intent of the film was to look rough through the use of different film stocks and using natural lighting. The print displays no obvious artifacts like scratches or hairs, and natural film grain is alive and well. The grayscale varies from superb to milky, blacks run the gamut, and whites tend more toward light gray usually but not always. It’s a solid and impressive encoding, however, since usually problematic shots of objects like brick-paved streets produce no twitter at all. The soft white subtitles are generally easy to read. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The PCM (1.1 Mbps) audio track features European sound recording that is very typical of its era. All of the dialog was post synched, so it has a sterile, tinny quality though it’s always understandable. With Godard feeding the lines to the actors often as scenes were being filmed, it had to be shot silently, and the dubbed dialog usually rings hollow. The wonderful score which mixes classical music with jazz riffs can sound a bit strident with the low fidelity present, and in the upper reaches of volume there is a slight bit of distortion.
Five interviews conducted between 1960 and 1964 for French television involve director Godard (two different ones four years apart), stars Seberg and Belmondo (separately) , and actor-director Jean-Pierre Melville who makes a lengthy cameo appearance in the movie as an author. All are presented in black and white in 1080i and run a total of 27 minutes.
“Coutard and Rissient” is a video interview compilation featuring the director of photography and the assistant director discussing their work on the movie. The 1080i featurette runs 22 minutes.
Documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker discusses the influences of documentary film techniques on the narrative style of Godard. This 1080i interview lasts 10 minutes.
“Jean Seberg” is an 18½-minute video essay by Mark Rappaport on the actress using stills and clips from Breathless and other films in detailing the short, sad life of the movie’s top-billed star. It’s in 1080i.
“Breathless as Criticism” is a critical essay on the movie by Jonathan Rosenbaum. This 11-minute featurette is narrative analysis over film clips from Breathless. It’s in 1080i.
Chambre 12, Hotel de Suède is a marvelous 80-minute documentary made in 1994 by Claude Ventura. In it, the filmmaker spends nine days feeding his obsession with Breathless by visiting the film’s locations and interviewing almost all of the major surviving members of the company. Godard hangs up on him, so he must get his answers to his questions elsewhere, and his search for those elusive answers proves fascinating. This 1080i feature is by far the best bonus in the set.
Charlotte et son Jules is one of Godard’s early short films, his first encounter with actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. The 12½-minute black and white short is basically a one joke affair and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080i.
The theatrical trailer which runs 2-minutes in 1080i offers a series of phrases followed by a flash cut from the film. It succeeds in making the movie appear different and provocative.
The set also comes with an 80-page book filled with stills from the movie, an appreciation of Breathless by film professor Dudley Andrew, and a fascinating series of interviews and correspondence from Jean-Luc Godard from 1959-1962 which show first his enthusiasm for working in the medium and his gradual disgust for the very real success his work brought him.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Breathless, one of the landmarks in international cinema, has come to us from the Criterion Collection in an artifact-free and feature rich Blu-ray edition which receives the highest recommendation. Students of the French New Wave will relish seeing the film in pristine condition. Its cinematic invention may not seem so fresh to 21st century eyes, but its entertainment value has in no way been impaired by the span of more than four decades.