50 Years Later, Breathless Still Resonates and Exasperates

Is Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless the most overrated movie of all time? Of course not. At least, I don’t think so. However, eleven months ago I was watching the Criterion Collection DVD of it at home, and thinking to myself “This could be the worst movie I have ever seen!” True, my expectations for the black-and-white, nouvelle vague manifesto were too high from the start. I did not recall ever having seen the movie, except perhaps a short promotional excerpt from it, in which Jean Seberg, cropped and unadorned, wearing a New York Herald Tribune t-shirt, sans bra, is hawking the paper on the Champs-Elysées. Or maybe it was just a poster of Seberg in that t-shirt selling the paper. Either way, the image made an impression which stuck. And the reviews of the movie on Amazon were very positive, even adoring. So I decided it was time to find out what all the excitement was about, fifty years on.

In addition, the anticipation of seeing the movie for the first time brought back the idea of reliving in a small way my own Paris experience. With luck, you have that experience when you are still in your college or prep school years, not later. The Belmondo character, Michel Poiccard, is a sociopath. He is a car thief and cop-killer, who chain-smokes Gauloises, lighting one with the other. There is hardly a moment he does not have a cigarette in his mouth or hand. I could not relate to him, but I could relate to his sometimes-cheery-sometimes-bewildered girlfriend, the American student Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), speaking French with an outrageous American accent, interacting on the Avenue George V, and living in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank. I could relate to the Herald Tribune most of all.

This was a less complicated time when the New York Herald Tribune, Paris edition, was an independent newspaper, with its own columnists and editors. For an American student landing in Paris at that time, pre-1970s, the Tribune was the epicenter of the universe. It served as a reassuring lifeline to home as well as the introduction card to a strange new world which Paris represented. One could kill half the day, rain or shine, sitting at a sidewalk cafe consuming coffee and croissants, and digesting the newspaper, before wandering off to a museum. Paris and the Herald Tribune turned you overnight into a professional flaneur.

Seberg informs Belmondo at their first encounter, “I gotta sign up for classes at the Sorbonne, or my parents will stop sending me money.” What more do you need to know? Everything is clear. Anything is possible. This is Paris, and life is an escapade. As backdrop and milieu, Paris is the central character in Breathless. Not the murky Paris of the 1940s or the classic film noir of the 1950s, but the Paris of sunshine, movement and most of all, youth. This circumstance goes a long way to explain the enduring fascination of Breathless, it seems to me. And the movie itself, its human characters? The answer again is youth, both in front and behind the camera.

Breathless is a celebration of youth—of daring, improvisation, innovation and spontaneity—on either side of the lens. Godard was an intellectual still in his twenties, a Swiss-French journalist obsessed with the cinema, a fan and a critic. Tarantino worked in a video rental shop on the outskirts of Los Angeles; Godard wrote for Cahiers du cinéma in Paris. What’s the difference? One day, Godard decided to make a full-length movie with his friends. Why not? The movie was shot in the summer of 1959 and released in France in 1960. It was an innovative experiment, a lark. And that is the way it comes across. It caused a sensation.

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Still, when all is said and done, the movie is exasperating. The plot and the dialogue are preposterous in retrospect, or at best implausible. (To take one example, with the police closing in and with Michel Poiccard’s photo plastered across every Paris newspaper, he steals yet another car. This time it is a white Cadillac Coup de Ville convertible, a monstrosity. He and Patricia tool around the center of Paris with the top down.) I would not be taking a long second look at Breathless, except for the fact that it is considered a masterpiece of some kind. No doubt it is, within certain parameters, but I defy anybody to watch the now-famous, excruciating, and interminable seduction scene in Patricia’s hotel room, without grinding one’s teeth, or jumping out a window, or falling asleep. I am only slightly exaggerating. My guess is that Godard was trying to make the bedroom conversation between Belmondo and Seberg as pointless and obscure as possible to achieve a breakthrough in realism, naturalism or existentialism. If so, he succeeded. 

As with many important movies, often the background story is as interesting, or even more interesting, than the movie itself. What makes the extended scene in room 12 of the Hôtel de Suède noteworthy is that nothing like it had ever been achieved without auxiliary lights, sound, and a heavy movie camera. Godard’s long-time cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, has remarked that using a small, handheld camera, with no lights or sound, was dictated by the shoestring budget of the film and the tiny size of the room itself. The conventional movie camera would not have fitted into that room, not to mention the bathroom. Everything in Breathless was shot on location, not on a set. Godard wrote the dialogue the night before—or even the morning of shooting. Seberg, Belmondo and Godard went over the lines at a sidewalk cafe. Then Seberg and Belmondo improvised. Today, I believe Breathless could be reshot in its entirety (and in color) using the iPhone, without any other equipment. In the summer of 1959, the technology was different, but Godard and Coutard were on the cutting edge back then. Nobody had approached serious movie-making in such a manner before.

Speaking of the camera, Godard did not want to use lights to begin with, preferring natural light. In order to shoot indoors under low light and outdoors at night by street-lamps, Coutard came up with the idea of putting high-speed Ilford photographic film (ASA 400) inside his newsreel camera. Certain physical adjustments had to be made, because the sprockets on the film did not line up with the teeth of Coutard’s Eclair Cameflex. Then, on top of that, the film was “pushed” in processing with special chemicals so that it became more sensitive to light, say ASA 800, but not to the point of becoming grainy. It all worked. Both on the creative and technical side, experimentation was the norm. Godard said in a 1962 interview: “Breathless was the sort of film where anything goes; that was what it was all about.”

What did Jean Seberg think of all this? Belmondo was still an unknown outside of Paris, but Seberg had worked in two major Hollywood productions under the direction of Otto Preminger, who had discovered her. According to Seberg’s husband at the time—a French lawyer by the name of Francois Moreuil who worked in New York—she was a bit frightened, found the experience unsettling, did not think Godard knew what he was doing and was not serious. She even considered quitting the project after the first day of shooting. Nonetheless, Breathless made Seberg into an international star, bigger than anything Preminger’s high-priced productions had achieved. This is the role for which she will always be remembered.

After fifty years, they are putting Breathless back on the rails. Raul Coutard has overseen the restoration of a new print with new English subtitles. He must have kept the original Ilford B & W film in a very cool place all these years. Breathless is now playing at a theatre near you. But before running out to see it, may I suggest you get your hands on the Criterion Collection package, which is extraordinary. It contains two discs. Don’t look at the film. Look at the interviews with Godard, Coutard, Belmondo, and Seberg. Priceless. They will prepare you. In this way, when you see the newly restored version on a wide screen, you may not be disappointed. To repeat, sometimes the background story is more interesting than the movie itself. With Breathless, the process rivals the end-product. One more thing. I never hear anybody boost the Martial Solal musical score. Breathless is inconceivable without that leitmotiv, just like it would be inconceivable without Paris.



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