Few films have had as massive an impact as Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 “Breathless”. It’s a rough, naturalistic gem and it was always genuinely shocking, even when I first saw it in 1972.
The shock value has lessened, sixty years later, given that the forms and themes have been done to death. Yet the strength of this remastered print, shown at Stratford Picture House, brings you right back to film as an event that can change perception and rules.
With the recent surfeit of gangster and cop movies, it’s almost impossible for the modern viewer to realise how strong the casual force of Francois Truffaut’s story about a criminal who wants to be the classic Humphrey Bogart character actually was.
The hand-held Eclair Camiflex camera was allegedly so noisy the whole thing had to be re-dubbed in the studio afterwards. Raoul Coutard filmed it in Paris, during August and September 1959.
We are besieged by style. The lack of extra lighting, attitude and personality of “Breathless” made a massive statement of a change of style, heralding the French New Wave and permitting American mavericks to change film forever. Without “Breathless”, film is a much more formal place.
It’s the young stars who make this such a treat. Jean-Paul Belmondo has the most wonderful face and expressions, as a casual criminal on the run in Paris. Jean Seberg is fabulous and gorgeous, as an American who gets caught up with him.
Seberg died young, in real life, after a brief 40 years and there is still debate about whether this was murder or suicide. For me, this movie is her best and she glows with pretend sophistication and personality.
They talk as they wander around Paris. They sleep together. He tries to escape the police, who are always two steps behind them. She tries to make him care about her but he doesn’t, really.
Seberg was married to Francois Moreuil at the time, which is how she came to Godard’s attention. She had faced critical reviews in her first movies but began a new and more successful acting career in France.
There is much to dislike in this movie. For starters, “A Bout De Souffle” is not really “Breathless” but, rather, “at the end of one’s breath”. The subtitles are dreadful and those with even elementary French were tutting at some of the awful translations. To get the best out of this, you really have to understand French well.
I long to redo every single one of the subtitles, because much of the attitude of this film is lost by sloppy translations which could be vastly improved.
And there are slow and draggy bits which linger with you for too long. I see what Godard is doing, but a 90-minute masterpiece shouldn’t annoy me three times with too much attention to nothing. Yes, I know that’s part of the point of this and I don’t mind the jerky cuts and variable quality. I think the point of the slow bits is to make you concentrate more, but this brave experimentalism doesn’t always work.
I recognise the great achievement of this and I think it’s well worth the time spent remastering, just to bring “Breathless” to the attention of a new generation of film lovers. The Picture House was not as full as it should have been, given this one off screening, but those who made the effort were quiet and fascinated and it was a young crowd, used to Hollywood standards.
You probably need to see it to understand film. It says something great about change, risk, European values versus American ways of thinking and how lack of polish can help to tell a story.
The faces of Belmondo and Seberg, particularly in the profoundly affecting final scenes, will haunt me for a very long time to come. if you wonder why Godard is considered such a hero, this movie is all the explanation you will ever need.