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DVD Pick: "Breathless"

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"So I'll get the money. I'll ask Patricia yes or no. And then … Milano, Genova, Roma!" says Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as he speeds towards Paris in a stolen car. But it turns out he has to put his plans to go to Italy on hold for a few days while he gets the money. During that time he pursues a romantic relationship with Patricia (Jean Seberg), and I see their story of doomed love as being at the heart of Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" (1960).

"Breathless" is a landmark French New Wave film and one of the most influential movies in cinema history. It appears in most greatest-films lists and was ranked 15th in the 2002 "Sight & Sound" Critics' Poll. I find it one of the most entertaining of the great movies because it is fast-paced, witty, and above all romantic.

The lovers in "Breathless" are Michel, a small-time hood who gets in big trouble by gunning down a policeman, and Patricia, an aspiring novelist who is set to study at the Sorbonne. Michel generates a lot of excitement, but Patricia sometimes finds talking to him difficult. For example:

Patricia: "Do you know William Faulkner?"
Michel: "No, who's he? Have you slept with him?"

I think "Breathless" still looks fresh to 21st-century audiences. The sheer genius of its exuberant filmmaking technique is as vibrant and modern as anything being done today. Also, the societal issues explored are still relevant because times may change, but human nature remains the same.

Among the reasons that "Breathless" has stood the test of time are its spontaneity, the improvisatory feel of many scenes, the unconventional editing, and the amorality and anti-authoritarian attitudes of the characters. Also, I'm impressed by the way Godard intermingles sequences having an American gangster B-movie sensibility with references to Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Bach, Mozart, Rilke, Lenin, and the like.

I find "Breathless" memorable, not only for its visual quality, but for its dialogue as well. Consider the following examples:

Patricia: "I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy."

Patricia (quoting Faulkner's "The Wild Palms") "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief."

A male-chauvinist novelist: "Sentiment is a luxury few women allow themselves."

A movie character: "In the crossways of kisses, the years pass too quickly. Beware, beware, beware of shattered memories."

I believe Jean-Paul Belmondo was the perfect actor to play Michel, bringing the right mix of bravado and vulnerability to the role. Michel is a menace to society—he knocks out an innocent bystander just so he can steal his wallet—yet Belmondo pulls off the difficult feat of making his character roguishly charming. Also, Jean Seberg—with her short hair and severe makeup—is good as the enigmatic, cold-hearted, manipulative Patricia. I didn’t detect romantic chemistry between Seberg and Belmondo, but that seems appropriate to me since I think we are to understand that Patricia is at best ambivalent about her attraction to Michel.

The "Breathless" DVD has only one bonus material of any consequence, a feature-length audio commentary by David Sterritt, author of "The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible," film critic for the "Christian Science Monitor," and a teacher at Long Island University and Columbia. I would describe his presentation as being like one of those enthusiastic, informal lectures I would expect to hear in a college classroom, whereas in a DVD commentary for a classic film I prefer a well-organized, carefully prepared, scholarly approach. Still, he makes quite a few worthwhile points. For example, he mentions that Godard was influenced by the Beats (novelist Jack Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg) and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Also, Sterritt claims that Godard was fascinated by heavy philosophical questions such as: "Does something inside us determine our behaviors, or are we defined and determined by our behaviors?"

I've listed all the special features of the "Breathless" DVD on the next page.

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