All you need to make a movie, Jean-Luc Godard famously proposed, is a girl and a gun, and he proved that formula the first time out of the box with his 1960 “Breathless,” the fatalistic romance that started a revolution.
Beginning a 50th-anniversary run with a new 35-mm print, “Breathless” is that rare revival that, against noticeable odds, retains the elements that made it celebrated half a century ago.
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a brash French hooligan and Jean Seberg as the American in Paris he loves against his better judgment, “Breathless” caused a sensation when it took its place as one of the first examples of what came to be known as la Nouvelle Vague, a.k.a. the French New Wave.
Godard and his New Wave confederates, such as Francois Truffaut (who wrote the “Breathless” treatment) and Jacques Rivette (who has a wordless cameo as a hit and run victim), were frustrated film critics (is there any other kind) who wanted to turn mainstream film upside down.
“What I wanted to do,” Godard said in 1962, “was to depart from the conventional story and remake, but differently, everything that had already been done in the cinema. I also wanted to give the impression of just finding or experiencing the process of cinema for the first time.”
Godard certainly achieved this goal and did it by throwing out a lot of rules he considered unnecessary. The director, for instance, made extensive use of jump cuts, often cutting right to the key action and eliminating establishing and continuity shots.
Also, influenced by the Italian neo-realists, he had cinematographer Raoul Coutard shoot the whole thing handheld using natural light whenever possible. But because the camera Coutard used was noisy, the entire film had to be dubbed in post-production.
Despite the lack of spontaneity dubbing implies, and even though many of the filmmaking techniques that seemed revolutionary then have become business as usual today, “Breathless” was made with such exceptional energy that it retains its freshness and élan 50 years later.
Its young and restless protagonists, Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard and Seberg’s Patricia Franchini, were created to live for and be alive in the moment on screen, to give us a sense that what we were watching was unpredictably happening right in front of us, and that is still very much the feeling “Breathless” creates.
“Breathless’” actual story is minimal at best. It involves Michel’s attempt to simultaneously collect money he’s due, avoid the police and get Patricia, who famously sells the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysee, to run away with him. Meanwhile, Patricia has to decide how seriously she wants this relationship to be.
Unlike the Italian neo-realists, the New Wave gang were in their own way in love with Hollywood, and because the excitement of cinema ran in their veins, “Breathless” is rife with film references. Dedicated to Monogram Pictures, one of the best known of Hollywood’s Poverty Row studios, and filled with self-conscious references to Humphrey Bogart, “Breathless” also enlisted one of the New Wave’s heroes, maverick French director Jean-Pierre Melville, to play a famous novelist Patricia interviews at Orly Airport.
One of the paradoxes of “Breathless” is that for all its genuine groundbreaking moves, some of the things that keep it fresh and alive are traditional movie virtues, like Coutard’s gorgeous cinematography and Martial Solal’s fine jazz score.
And if there is one thing that hasn’t dated a bit, it’s the star power of Belmondo and Seberg, he the picture of drop-dead hipster insouciance and she, in her iconic short hair, the ultimate innocent siren. Seeing them puts you in mind of one of “Breathless’” most famous quotes, when Melville’s character says his goal is “to become immortal and then die.” This is one cast and one film that has achieved exactly that.
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