To honor its 50th anniversary, Rialto Pictures is releasing Jean-Luc Godard's debut feature "Breathless," one of the most famous and influential movies ever made, in a newly restored 35-mm print supervised by its director of cinematography, Raoul Coutard.
Most so-called "revolutionary" movies do not age well – "Easy Rider" is the prototypical example – but "Breathless" still leaps off the screen. It's a seminal movie for filmmakers and critics alike. This is as it should be, since, in a sense, the film is a cinematic essay on movies adored by Godard, who began his career as a critic. Humphrey Bogart is practically the film's patron saint.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, who had previously acted on stage and in a few minor movies, plays Michel, a chain-smoking con artist who early on, fleeing the police in a stolen car, shoots and kills a cop. Arriving in Paris, he falls in with sometime American girlfriend Patricia, played by Jean Seberg, who hawks the International Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysées. With the police on his heels, Michel makes a rather half-hearted attempt to escape, but his fascination with the inscrutably wholesome Patricia holds him back, We start out believing that the flamboyantly charming Michel, with his prankish, adolescent sociopathology, is the dangerous one, only to realize that it is Patricia who is the betrayer. She is the innocent abroad who, without her full awareness, turns out to be anything but innocent.
Godard and Coutard used lightweight cameras and shot mostly with available light. The actors, whose dialogue was dubbed later, worked from a sketchy, often improvised storyline (originally suggested by François Truffaut, who had already scored a major New Wave success with "The 400 Blows"). Godard commented years later that "Breathless" was, in effect, a documentary about Belmondo and Seberg, and there's something to this. Their jags and hesitancies have a present-tense immediacy that, at the same time, perfectly captures their characters. (Both give iconic performances.) Michel and Patricia are like sylphs in a Parisian fantasia on American gangsterdom.
The erotic masquerade between men and women is the core of "Breathless," as it was with so many of Godard's early films. No matter how momentarily blissful, the masquerade is fated to end badly. This romantic tone of existential wistfulness is essential Godard.
His jump-cut technique in "Breathless," where the editing short-circuits the usual rules of narrative continuity, is often regarded as its prime innovation. Like most innovations, it came about accidentally: The rough cut was too long, and Godard and his editors hit upon the idea of snipping out the extraneous linkages in the storytelling.
But it would be a mistake to overemphasize the film's technical breakthroughs. The real breakthrough was thematic. Godard brought to the screen the jagged, intuitive temperament of youth in a way that nobody else had ever done before. He expressed the terror and mystery of being young and isolated in a big city, even one as "romantic" as Paris. The extended sequence, lasting perhaps 20 minutes, between Michel and Patricia as they joust and tease and taunt in a cramped apartment, is altogether remarkable. It captures the wary, desultory sensuality of an afternoon spent with a lover about whom one knows, in the end, very little.
"Breathless" is, along with Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane," the movie that has most influenced other movie- makers. Both, not coincidentally, were first features. Godard had only made two shorts prior to "Breathless," including one with Belmondo, and he was experimenting with the medium right out of the gate. He must have astonished even himself. He transformed a caught-on-the-fly cheapie crime melodrama into an ecstatic ode to cinema. For Godard, of course, cinema and life have always been inseparable.
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