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Shock and awe

Breathless 50 years later
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  July 6, 2010
4.0 4.0 Stars

WHEN JEAN AND JEAN-PAUL MET JEAN-LUC: Breathless is a film about men and women — and about being a star.

Breathless | Written and Directed by Jean-Luc Godard | with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg | Rialto Pictures | French | B&W | 90 minutes
"For a film all you need is a girl and a gun but you need someone to pay the girl and buy the gun." That's critic Colin MacCabe describing the genesis of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, the French film that in 1960 revolutionized world cinema with its simplicity, its energy, and its jazzy spontaneity. As early as the mid '60s, many of Godard's stylistic novelties, like the jump cut (his legacy from Méliès and Eisenstein), had become Madison Avenue trendy. Yet Breathless itself is a one-of-a-kind movie that has never dated, and it looks and sounds (much improved subtitles) better than ever in Rialto Pictures' 50th-anniversary restoration.

Add a guy and a car to MacCabe's girl and gun and you have the formula for any number of Godard films. This one, his first, starts off with Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) stealing a car in Marseille (and dumping his girlfriend accomplice), shooting the motorcycle cop who follows him, and making his way to Paris, where he hooks back up (they met, we learn, in Nice a few weeks earlier), with Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), who hawks the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées. When Michel's not looking for the man who owes him money (this appears to be his only gainful employment), he and Patricia spend their time together (which includes a 20-minute bedroom scene with the sex completely under the sheets) discussing Faulkner and whether she loves him. Eventually, she calls the police and they gun him down. It's as simple as that.

Well, not quite. From the rolls of grainy, high-contrast Ilford HPS that Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard pasted together to create the film stock to Algerian pianist Martial Solal's start-and-stop jazz score, Breathless is the definition of auteur. Costing less than $100,000, it was shot almost as a documentary, soundless (the dialogue dubbed in later) and, for the most part, with a handheld camera, in August and September 1959 and premiered the following March. Some serendipity was involved. Everyone was looking for the next New Wave star after François Truffaut took home Best Director at Cannes 1959 (for The 400 Blows). Jean Seberg's two films with Otto Preminger, Saint Joan and Bonjour tristesse, tanked at the box office, so Godard got her for $12,000. (Columbia could have had 50 percent of the film's back end, but it took the cash.) He hooked Belmondo, whose potential was already apparent, with his cinematic style and personal charm.

Breathless is a film about men and women — and the opening shot, where Michel studies a girl in her undies on the cover of Paris-Flirt — tells you all you need to know about the men. It's a film about being a star: Michel keeps conjuring Bogie, and buying newspapers to see what they say about him — he even gets his name up in lights on a news marquee. In the last shot, as Michel lies dying, it's Patricia who makes Bogie's thumb-across-the-lips gesture — she's supplanted her rival/lover.

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Related: Review: Two in the Wave, Review: The Road, Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Entertainment, Movies, Jean Seberg,  More more >
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