Godard's Innovations Live On in Restored Print of 'Breathless'

Photo: Heavy breathing. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Patricia (Jean Seberg) flirt in Godard's 1960 classic 'Breathless,' which has just been restored for its 50th anniversary.
Rialto Pictures/Studio Canal/Courtesy
Heavy breathing. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Patricia (Jean Seberg) flirt in Godard's 1960 classic 'Breathless,' which has just been restored for its 50th anniversary.

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The 50th anniversary of Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" is a strange event. Not necessarily because of the film itself, which has stood the test of time, but because it's hard to envision the the director making such a movie now. His latest work, "Socialism," which debuted at Cannes earlier this year, is reportedly a difficult mess that complements a standard dose of bourgeois Marxism with a syntax devoid of verbs ("Navajo English," as Godard put it). The film according to critics, like much of Godard's career, is divisive and not at all fun to watch.

But "Breathless" is a joy to behold. There is a reason the film is an entry-point for teenage girls and francophiles alike. It's vibrant, it's jazzy and Godard doesn't skim on the plot: A Francois Truffaut-penned story about a small-time crook trying to run away with an American girl. Sounds simple enough, but for Godard, who tends to violently oppose the privileging of story in cinema, it's a pretty generous gesture toward the audience.

The bare-bones story allows Godard to strut his technical stuff. Seeing the gangster and the girl tool around Paris in stolen American cars without the film's trademark jump cuts could be as boring as a Kevin Smith film. But these cinematic tricks speed up the leisurely drive around the Champs-Elysees into a break-neck romp that gives the sequence the feel of a chase. Godard contrasts the rhythm of the rapid-fire street shots with extended bedroom scenes which details the love/hate relationship between the two lovers. The heterosexual binary is something that Godard will explore and flog the viewer with later on in his career, but examination of these sexes in "Breathless" seems more playful than pedantic.

Cinematograher Raoul Coutard helps give the movie an innovative guerrilla aesthetic, transforming Paris into a cinema verite warzone where actors mix with the public and the whole event is captured on a shoulder rather than a track.

The power of "Breathless" also rests on its young cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo as the gangster is an irreverent prick who is surprisingly vulnerable when spurned by a precocious Jean Seberg playing Patricia. As cops close in, their relations become tense as Patricia contemplates betrayal. There is a moment when Seberg's expresion slowly morphs and we can see her inner Judas take hold. It's not the Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus change-of-heart moment that plagues much literature. Instead, Patricia's decision is less sure but equally as damning as most cinematic climaxes. With Seberg standing in for all of American cinema, Patricia's pitiless face provokes Godard's feature-length homage/critique of the form.

The problem with Godard's passion is that it overtakes him in his later career. His middle period is best described as "Whores & Ho Chi Minh" when the streaks of misogyny and revolutionary zeal merely present in "Breathless" threaten to torpedo his viability as a filmmaker. His Brechtian obsession with turning cinema in toward itself and upsetting the viewer becomes sadistic, while still innovating avant-garde cinema, and misses the levity found in his early work.

So the big deal about watching "Breathless" again (or for the first time) remastered and featuring a new translation, with ultimately negligible differences, is seeing Godard anew. "Breathless"'s place in cinematic history is inexorably tied to the power of the French New Wave. The hipness of Godard's technical prowess, sexual politics and playful regard for cinema is still a breath of fresh air, even 50 years later.

Turn cinema in toward itself with Derek at [email protected]

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