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Fox Lorber presents
"Between grief and nothing, I will take grief."
DVD Review"You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea." - Pablo Picasso, 1946
Jean-Luc Godard has long been known as the enfant terrible of cinema. He cut away at the previous concepts of filmmaking with a sort of chainsaw approach, producing rough-hewn visuals in a most calculated and self-conscious way. Breathless ( À bout de souffle), Godard's debut feature, became a landmark of the nouvelle vague, or French New Wave cinema, a movement that included François Truffaut (who supplied the treatment for this film), Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. Although their influence is de rigueur today—from the pulse editing of music videos to Woody Allen's rambling dialogue shots on the streets of Manhattan—their brash irreverence for formulaic technique was stunning in its time.
Patricia: That's wrong. I think informing is very wrong.
Michel: No, it's life. Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.
The storyline is fairly simplistic. Michel Poiccard (Belmondo) is an emotionally immature car thief who kills a policeman while in the Côte d'Azur. He hightails back to Paris and holds up with Patricia Franchini (Seberg), a budding American journalist with a mind of her own, who uses the power of her independence as a kind of game. While waiting for money owed him so he can escape to Italy, Michel and Patricia play romantic cat and mouse, he in hotter pursuit of her than the police appear to be of him.
This was both a breakthrough and defining role for Jean-Paul Belmondo. His Michel is a liar, a lover, a killer; something young and wild but far beyond the sang froid Brando in The Wild One or any American movie bad boys of that era. He is reckless and brutal in his selfish pursuits, yet he allows Patricia to toy with him like a child. Belmondo shows an agility that would later lead him seamlessly from drama to comedy and back again. Jean Seberg is boyishly pretty and girlishly charming as the au courant Patricia who, in the end, proves to be the more puerile and self-serving of the pair.
"I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy." - Patricia
In the film's painstakingly spontaneous central scene—which lasts 23 minutes (easily seeming twice as long)—Patricia discusses romance and Faulkner and considers where she should hang her Renoir poster, while Michel tries to convince her to have sex with him, an attempt in which he is as single-minded as the scene is long. The extemporaneous performances flow with a naïve, organic style. Belmondo and Seberg fondle props, toy with each other, smoke endlessly and talk. And talk. While it is in this conspicuously idle scene that careers were made, it is also one that, in retrospect, reveals the artistic conceit of the filmmaker. Nothing much here actually serves the story. Like the characters, we are waiting for the phone to ring; we are killing time. This is art for art's sake, like standing in front of a Pollock or a Rothko, imagining if we do so long enough, something will happen; some inkling of comprehension will come to us.
Comparing Breathless (the title translates more closely to "Out of Breath") to Abstract Expressionism or Post-Modernism yields more accurate results, perhaps, than holding it up to its own medium. Devices such as hand-held camerawork, extreme framing and jazzy jump cuts, juxtaposing a naturalistic, cinéma-vérité style with a deliberate, strategic nomenclature most definitely places Godard's film in its time. Add a nervous, edgy soundtrack, haphazard lighting and a cacophonic mixture of cinematic salutes, and we're reminded that breaking the rules is not necessarily a good thing. But in 1960, Godard's work was preemptory, and if we examine it in the light of that era, there is something worthy of attention, even if the film itself does not stand the test of time.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: It's been a little while since I have viewed a Fox Lorber transfer, and this one is far superior to those I have seen before. With a bitrate running at an unfaltering 10.0, this black & white image is truly impressive. Contrast is nearly perfect, with predominately true blacks and details intact, even in the many over- and under-lit scenes. The 16mm source print is virtually spotless down to fabric and skin texture (Seberg's complexion appears radiant at times), with no negative grain. The only "flaws" are those of the filmmakers intent, caused by the inherent light in certain situations, low-contrast stock footage used as filler—and those artistic jump cuts.
I actually checked the keepcase twice, to be sure that was the Fox Lorber logo I saw. A great transfer with no digital anomalies.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The French 1.0 monaural track falls just short of par with the restored image, likely due to the original material. Dialogue is easily discernable, but apparently most was dubbed in during post-production. There is a bit of unevenness to the volume, but nothing jarring. The captured extraneous sound occasionally interferes (sirens passing outside Patricia's apartment, for example) but this was noted and accepted in the original as enhancing the film's realism. The musical highlights composed and performed by French pianist Martial Solal punctuate the film with a detached amusement.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Film critic David Skerritt
Extras Review: This disc has one of the best menu designs to date on a Fox Lorber release: tasteful, clean and user-friendly, with 16 chapter stops.
The subtitles are erratic at times, with lines of speech going by with no translation. In chapter 8, the dialogue between the two Americans switches fluently between English and French. At one point, the subtitles for the journalist read, "Do as the elephants do—when they're unhappy, they just disappear." Although he delivers the line in French, he ends on the English words, "they vanish." Hmm.
Unlike the brief commentaries on other Fox Lorber discs in their Godard series, such as Le Petit soldat and Les Carabiniers, film critic David Skerritt provides a full-length narrative with only the rare, momentary lapse into silence. Mostly scene specific, Skerritt freely offers his analysis and openly enjoys discussing this film and its creator. Although at times drifting towards describing the on-screen action, he adds a certain flavor to the viewing without descending totally into schoolboy enthusiasm. A nice addition that Godard fans should appreciate.
Filmographies for Godard, Belmondo and Seberg are also presented.
Extras Grade: B
Patricia: What is your greatest ambition in life?
Parvulesco: To be immortal. And then die.
Existential, anarchistic, nihilistic, surreal and revolutionary are adjectives commonly used to describe Godard's groundbreaking classic, Breathless. I call it a vaguely interesting technical achievement, like a Cézanne still life; a unique exercise that flourishes today in the work of those who followed. Given a glorious transfer by Fox Lorber, film students and cinephiles are free to debate its importance for decades to come.
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