Monday, 12 July 2010

'Breathless' re-issue review: Back in cinemas and looking good...

Jean-Luc Godard's 'À Bout de Souffle' ('Breathless') may not have been the inaugural film of the French New Wave, coming as it did a year after Truffaut's 'The 400 Blows', but in many ways it has become the most iconic, the image of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo walking down the Champs-Élysées now synonymous with the influential movement. Boasting a script co-written by Truffaut and Godard it is perhaps an appropriate signifier. Now in its 50th year, the film has been the subject of a restoration and remastering effort and has now been re-released in selected cinemas.

As with the re-releases of 'The Godfather' and 'The Red Shoes' last year, the primary benefit of the restoration is that these old and "important" films are once again available to see as they should be seen: projected on a big screen in a dark room. The new print of 'Breathless' is beautiful and sharp, but as with those other two films (and Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' last month) I was most taken aback by the atmosphere and power the film gained when set back into its original context.

Up on the screen the film can hold your complete attention better than a television can, and this isn't just down to the size of the screen and the darkness of the room. For the most part it is the social experience - more specifically the rules we must follow in a public cinema. You can not (or at least ought not) talk to the person next to or look at your mobile phone. You can not pause to make a cup of tea and you hesitate to leave for the toilet. In the cinema these norms of social behaviour work in favour of the art form: you are there to watch the movie and you watch the movie properly.

Watching it this way you can notice more than you might at home on a DVD. I was able to better appreciate the ingenious and ground-breaking camera techniques, such as the jump-cuts and the long continuous takes. Likewise themes, such as Michel's (Belmondo) obsession with American popular culture and Patricia's (Seberg) obsession with being loved, were more apparent. The characters are not in love with each other, but with images and cultural symbols. "When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other", says Michel near the films climax and he seems to sum up the relationship as it has been. All of it was clearer and better defined in a theatre.

The most extraordinary thing about 'Breathless' is that it opens with a car theft and subsequent murder of a policeman and follows a man on the run, but that this story seems to take a back seat - at times seeming unimportant. Indeed the murder itself is afforded little screen time and is boiled down to the most crucial elements: the trigger being pulled and the body falling dead. Instead, the film is about the central relationship between Patricia and Michel, with elements of crime thriller and Film Noir on the side. For the most part Michel seems relaxed. He walks the streets openly and feels under such limited threat that he even tails a policemen who is looking for him. He continues to steal cars. Late in the film when he learns the police know his whereabouts he makes no sudden movements. He does not run or hide.

Written by two film critics it does not seem like too big a stretch to say that Michel behaves as though he is the self-conscious star of his own film, taking his Boggart obsession to the extreme and living that persona to the last. He is an empty vessel for popular culture. Patricia is no better, she is shown to be vain and disloyal. But if the movie seems cynical about people, it is perhaps more cynical about movies. After all, Godard once said "all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl".

In 'Breathless' there are tons of self-referential in-jokes about film itself: two scenes take place at the cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville makes an appearance and Michel declines to buy an issue of Cahiers Du Cinema (saying he objects to youth). There are also running jokes about language (with Patricia constantly asking Michel what various words mean) and there is even a lot of snappy, pseudo-intellectual, cod philosophy ("Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love").

There is a dubious sexual politics here too, as Michel, like the film's other male characters, is an unapologetic misogynist. Add all of this to the raw beauty of the images and 'Breathless' is certainly a film worthy of discussion and its place in film history. Godard said that he was "destroying all the old principles rather than creating something new" with 'Breathless'. But far from an iconoclast, 'Breathless' is a genuine movie icon. And there is no better place to see it than at the cinema. So catch it whilst you can.

'Breathless' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on very limited release in selected cinemas across the UK.


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