A Superior DVD Version of a Classic of World Cinema
Arguably the quintessential French New Wave film, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) is often identified as one of the most influential movies of all time. One reason is that its two central characters are depicted as being amoral, dismissive of authority, and not having conventional lifestyles or values. Another reason is that it is loosely structured, feels spontaneous, and breaks some of the rules of traditional moviemaking, particularly in its use of noticeable discontinuities between frames.
Although Breathless can be viewed as a New Wave manifesto, it is nonetheless entertaining, largely because Godard chose to make it a star vehicle for his leads, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Belmondo is a masculine force of nature and went on to play the leading man in many mainstream action and comedy movies. Seberg, on the other hand, had difficulty matching up with acting jobs. However, she had a gamine-like quality that was well-suited to her role in Breathless as a young American trying to find herself in Paris, and Godard used a large number of close-ups of her to good effect.
In 2001 Fox Lorber issued a DVD of Breathless with only one extra, a worthwhile commentary by a film critic. However, the 2007 Criterion Collection version of the feature film has better picture quality — the transfer was approved by famed cinematographer Raoul Coutard — and improved English subtitles (example: "Makes me want to puke" instead of "It's really a scumbag"). The Criterion version offers no commentary track, but it is a two-disc set loaded with excellent bonus materials.
A Brief Romance Between an Ambitious Girl and a Killer on the Lam
Breathless covers less than 48 hours in the life of a petty criminal named Michel (Belmondo), focusing on his romantic relationship with Patricia (Seberg). The backstory (revealed through dialogue) is that three weeks earlier they met and spent a few nights together — he says five, she says three. Within the movie's first few minutes, Michel resolves he will go to Paris, collect some money he is owed, locate Patricia, and take her to Italy.
But Michel's plan encounters obstacles. He kills a cop and becomes the object of a manhunt. There's a delay in collecting his money. And above all, Patricia is ambivalent about going with him.
As it happens, Michel reunites with Patricia at a time when something of utmost importance to her has come up. She wants to become a professional writer, and she gets her first assignment: covering a press conference with a famous novelist for the New York Herald Tribune. She finds Michel exciting, and going with him offers her the prospect of experiencing emotional intensity. But if she goes, it will ruin her chances for getting more assignments at the newspaper. She eventually tells him, "I don't want to be in love with you."
Ultimately, Michel and Patricia must each decide what they want to do about their budding relationship. But she reads a sentence from Faulkner that may give us a clue as to a fundamental difference between them: "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." One interpretation of the film's denouement is that she settles for grief, but rather than compromise, he chooses nothing.
An Engaging Making-Of Documentary
The Criterion DVD set contains numerous extras, but if you like Breathless, you should not miss the 78-minute "Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suède." It's named for the tiny real-life hotel room where 24 minutes of the movie takes place with nothing happening other than Michel and Patricia spending time together. In the documentary, which was shot 33 years after Breathless was released, French television host Claude Ventura tracks down the locations and people involved in the making of Godard's groundbreaking film.
Ventura also finds some interesting paperwork. For example, he shows the bill for the rental of the wheelchair the cinematographer sat in with a handheld camera to get dolly shots. He also displays letters and telegrams giving the film's English title as Out of Breath and indicating that Jean Seberg's salary consumed one-sixth of the production budget. As another example, he shows the receipt for the striped dress Patricia looked so smashing in at the press conference. It was purchased at a budget store called Prisunic, which today would be like buying the leading lady's best outfit at Target.
Over the years there's been much consternation over Michel's final words in Breathless, which are to the effect that he finds something or someone really disgusting. Ventura takes this on in the documentary by asking, "What makes him want to puke? Life? Patricia? Or both?" In a staged phone call, Ventura raises this issue with Godard, who responds curtly, "I don't remember."
A Compelling Featurette on Jean Seberg
The DVD set contains a fascinating 19-minute featurette on actress Jean Seberg (1938-1979). She got her start at 17 years of age when she was chosen to play the title character in Otto Preminger's Saint Joan. There's a clip of her first meeting with Preminger, where she tells him she's from Marshalltown, Iowa. However, her debut movie was critically reviled and a box-office bomb.
She next starred in Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse, followed by Breathless, and Godard saw her character as being the same young woman in both films, only she was three years older in his movie. The featurette mentions numerous films Seberg appeared in, but moviegoers today are likely to be unfamiliar with most of them, except for Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Airport (1970).
She was married three times, and one of her husbands was novelist Romain Gary. She got involved with left-wing politics, ran guns for the Black Panthers and had affairs with two of them. She eventually had problems with drugs and alcohol, and at age 40 she committed suicide.
Page Two: DVD Review Continues