REVIEW: DVD Release: Breathless

Film: Breathless
Release date: 13th September 2010
Certificate: PG
Running time: 87 mins
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Jacques Huet
Genre: Crime/Drama/Romance/Thriller
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: France

There is an anecdote about Jean-Luc Godard approaching the director Jean-Pierre Melville, dismayed by the way his debut film was going and describing the finished rushes as lousy. Melville agreed that, yes, Godard’s film was lousy, but told him not to change a thing and it would create a revolution. That film was 1960's À Bout De Souffle, and Melville’s judgement has proven as astute as it was prescient.

Jean-Paul Belmondo’s petty criminal Michel steals a car in Marseille and heads for Paris, gunning down a pursuing policeman on the way. Once in the capital he meets with up with an old flame, Jean Seberg’s American student Patricia.

As Michel’s holes up in Patricia’s apartment, he shows as much interest in seducing the American as he does in calling in a loan to fund an escape to Italy. As Patricia tries to figure out if she is truly in love with Michel, a number of revelations come to light, showing how little either really know about the other, and how limited their future together is.

With the authorities closing in, Patricia will ultimately betray Michel, leading to a final shoot out in the street…

À Bout De Souffle occupies a canonical position in cinema history. It has left an indelible mark on cinema, and has had a great influence over the way films have looked ever since. Through its utilising of natural sound and lighting, extensive on-location shooting, hand-held cameras, long tracking shots, and a total disregard for the still-sacred 180° line, it created nothing less than a new language of cinema. Perhaps its most significant contribution was the jump-cut, initially a means of achieving a suitable running-time for distribution, its influence has now spread far beyond the confines of cinema (it’s almost impossible to imagine MTV existing in its present form without Godard’s film, for example).

The film still retains an aesthetic vitality a movie celebrating its half century really has no rightful claim to. What the new Blu-ray version in particular does is reiterate just what a good looking film it was all along. Some of its images have attained iconic status (such as our introduction to Patricia selling the New York Herald Tribune along the Champs-Élysées), but there are equally evocative images that might have passed you by before (the swirling patterns of cigarette smoke reflected in Patricia’s dressing mirror, sunlight falling through an open window). Raoul Coutard’s cinematography remains capable of transforming the mundane into something quite beautiful.

So much of the praise heaped on À Bout De Souffle actually refers to factors outside the film (its influence on subsequent cinema, the enjoyment of discussing it afterwards, its myriad references to other film and media) that it overlooks how curiously soulless and uninvolving on an emotional level it can be at times. Though we spend the entire film waiting for Michel to get caught, Godard is not interested in generating suspense. Nor is he interested in forcing us to like his characters. Despite Michel's and Patricia's obvious charms, they're both somewhat despicable. Michel is the easier to get a handle on. His gangster persona is a performance that functions to conceal the frightened little boy underneath, out of his depth and growing increasingly desperate. Patricia is harder to read. She shows the same emotional detachment to the fact she may be carrying Michel’s child as she does to startling revelations about Michel (that he is a murderer, that he is married, that he has more than one name). Even her betrayal of Michel has less to do with morality than a test she sets for herself to determine if she loves him or not. She may not be a killer, but she is perhaps even more monstrous, because she’s less deluded than Michel.

So there is a depth to the characters beneath their seemingly shallow exteriors, but it’s a peculiar depth – one to do with surfaces; one concealing Michel’s desperation, the other concealing an essential emptiness, a void at the heart of Patricia. One of the film’s greatest achievements is the way Godard brings Paris alive in a way that had never been done before (and arguably hasn’t since). It’s just a pity there isn’t the same attention to the human aspect. There’s a knowing, intellectual element to the film that its numerous stylistic innovations and undeniable immediacy cannot wholly overcome.

À Bout De Souffle is more a work of ideas than a work of art. The influence of existentialism can be detected, and it seems to obliquely foreshadow Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra as well the deconstructionism of Derrida; but it’s all cloaked in a typically post-modern self-awareness and reflexivity that masks, or even conceals a lack of any unified meaning. Early on Michel declares, “If you don’t like the sea, if you don’t like the mountains, if you don’t like the city, then get stuffed.” It’s essentially a meaningless statement, indicative of a film less concerned with critiquing anything specific than with expressing ideas. Of course, a cinema of ideas is something we should be grateful for at all times, but the problem is that there are so many ideas here that À Bout De Souffle resembles an essay on cinema rather than a cinematic experience.

Everything in this film relates to movies. It’s dedicated to Monogram Pictures, the American studio that specialised in B-movies. Michel and Patricia go to the cinema to see Westbound, a 1957 B-western directed by Budd Boetticher. Also showing at the cinema are Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima, Mon Amour (a major catalyst for the nouvelle vague movement). Director Jean-Pierre Melville (often called the father of the French new wave) appears as a writer being interviewed, and a sly reference is made to the eponymous hero of his 1957 movie Bob Le Flambeur. Even the references to art and literature come back to movies. When Patricia quotes from William Faulkner and hangs a poster of a Renoir-painting, it is Faulkner the screenwriter and Renoir’s son, the great Jean Renoir, Godard is evoking. Other references are more obscure, and will likely pass by all but the most obsessive of modern-day cinephiles.

If there is an ultimate meaning to À Bout De Souffle, it lies in Godard’s love of movies. It’s really a love letter to cinema as a whole, even the old forms of moviemaking that the film posits itself to replace. When Michel stands outside the cinema looking at a poster of Humphrey Bogart and runs his finger across his lip in imitation, Godard pays homage to the cinema of the past, and, in the same moment, offers us a new type of (anti)hero, and a new cinematic language. The literal translation of À Bout De Souffle is not ‘Breathless’ but ‘Out Of Breath’ - from a last gasp cinema was given a new beginning.

That À Bout De Souffle deserves its place in cinema history is beyond question. It’s a film that only reveals much of its charm after several viewings, and if this review seems to argue against its greatness, it is only because it often leaves you wondering how something so bad can be so good. Fifty years on from its original release, À Bout De Souffle continues to beguile and infuriate in equal measures. GJK

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