Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Restored and Rereleased: Breathless

It was the cynical bad cop paired with the sensitive good cop of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Together, the two films essentially launched the French New Wave and radically altered the way the world perceived cinema. Loosely based on a treatment by Truffaut, crediting Claude Chabrol as a technical advisor, and featuring Jean-Pierre Melville in a supporting role, Breathless was produced with the contributions from four major French directors, but director Jean-Luc Godard is its unquestioned auteur. Now Breathless (a.k.a. Á Bout de Souffle, trailer here), his first and arguably greatest film, will be rereleased this Friday at Film Forum in a freshly restored print with newly retranslated subtitles to mark its fiftieth anniversary.

Michel Poiccard does not have much of a plan. In Marseilles, he steals a car, ditching his girlfriend accomplice. Almost surprised to find the police giving chase, Poiccard fatally shoots a motorcycle gendarme, more or less on impulse. Somehow he makes it to Paris, where he takes time out from shaking down ex-lovers to seduce the not very impressed American Patricia Franchini. Despite the desperation of his circumstances, he convinces her to accompany him on the lam, but it will be a rocky road for them to travel.

Poiccard is an immature young man, who fancies himself a bad customer, aping the mannerisms of American movie gangsters, especially Bogart. Tragically, his posturing escalates into a full-blown crime spree. In any other film, this would make him a pathetic jerk, but for Godard, his accidental violence is his existential redemption. Though many Nouvelle Vague filmmakers were influenced by American film noir, Godard was the first to pay explicit homage in his films. Martial Solal’s music also helps evoke the noir atmosphere with themes that swing robustly, but have a hint of underlying menace. Indeed, his main theme, “La Mort” is classic crime jazz that will happily stick in your head for days.

Breathless has been interpreted as an anti-American statement: a Frenchman seduced by Hollywood images into a life a crime is betrayed by a callous American working for The New York Herald Tribune, an arm of the supposedly omnipresent American media. Knowing where Godard went in later films, it is probably a reasonably fair interpretation. It hardly needs be said that millions saw those very same gangster movies without being similarly effected as Poiccard. They simply had stronger personalities and moral compasses. Of course, that makes them boring to Godard.

Super cool yet oddly naïve, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Poiccard became an overnight screen icon, making the actor France’s biggest movie star for the next thirty-some years. In a way, he is a hardboiled version of Truffaut’s cinematic alter-ego Antoine Doinel. Of course, it was the surface cool that lingered in public perception, but it is a rather nuanced performance, especially given the working conditions of Godard’s shoot.

Though not generally improvised per se, the director never allowed his cast must prep time, writing each the scene the night before. At least his cast did not have to worry about memorizing their pages each night. In fact, with all the dialogue to be dubbed afterwards, Godard often fed his cast their lines during their scenes.

For all the attention given Godard’s unorthodox filmmaking techniques, like the then unprecedented use of deliberate jump cuts within scenes that now seem old hat, there is something about Breathless’s characters that still holds the fascination of young cinema hipsters, like Youth in Revolt’s Nick Twisp. Jean Seberg became nearly as much of a cool movie icon in her newspaper t-shirt as Belomondo’s lip stroking rebel. For sheer movie charisma though, neither of them can hold a candle to Jean-Pierre Melville’s wonderfully eccentric, wholly spontaneous performance as Parvulesco, a verbose novelist holding an airport press conference. His greatest ambition? “To immortal, and then die.” Top that.

Viewing Godard’s Breathless is absolutely essential for anyone wishing to attain any measure of cinematic literacy. Fortunately, the newly restored print offers an excellent opportunity to see it for the first time, or to experience its idiosyncratic verve yet again. It opens at Film Forum this Friday (5/28).