It's embarrassing to confess, but the first time I went to see Breathless
, I walked out after 20 minutes. I was 14, and it seemed clear to me that Jean-Luc Godard didn't know what the hell he was doing. I've since come around to acknowledging the film as a masterpiece, but many people have felt the same way about it, especially when it first came out in 1960. Yet the fact remains that Breathless
(and, to a lesser extent, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows
, from the year before) changed the way movies would be made, and seen, forever.
For the film's 50th anniversary, a new restored version is being released, and one of those in on the project is its cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, as much an icon in his way as Godard himself. He collaborated with Godard on another 16 films, and he worked with Truffaut on four, so you could see him, along with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, as the link between the Lennon and the McCartney of the Nouvelle Vague.
Here are some thoughts from one of the great artists of the 20th century on changing the future of world cinema.
You collaborated on this 50th-anniversary restoration ofBreathless. How did that come about, and what did it entail?
My role in the restoration was as a calibrator. The films and the printing machines no longer being the same, there could have been disparities in the correspondence with the original, which is a half-century old.
When you were shootingBreathless, did you ever think that in 50 years people would regard it as a turning point in cinema?
When we were shooting the film, we were all curious to see the finished product, but no one thought of it as a benchmark or a cult film.
What were your impressions of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo? Can you comment on Seberg's suicide in 1979, when she was shooting your filmOperation Leopard?
Jean-Paul Belmondo made no impression on me because he was unknown — Breathless allowed him to show his talent and to become a star. Jean Seberg, on the other hand, was "denationalized" — she had just made a big US machine of a film, and now she finds herself on a ridiculously small crew, where the scenario is written from day to day. It was very difficult for her.
Jean was making her last film with Operation Leopard. I had not the least idea as to the reason for her suicide. During the shooting, she seemed at ease.
What were some of the more unconventional demands Godard made during the production ofBreathless?
JLG wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to make films "differently." To cut cost by reducing the crew was the way — since this was a documentary about an individual — to shoot the film as reportage, camera in hand, without lighting, since portable lighting did not yet exist. No sound, either — portable synchronization did not yet exist.
You worked with Godard up throughWeek-End and then not again until the '80s, withPassion. Was there a falling out? How did you get back together? What is your relationship now?
I didn't work with Jean-Luc for 10 years because he had the revelation that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that he therefore could not make films with capitalist money. I think it took him less than 10 years to realize that without that money, no films are possible, but he had to make that turn.