There was before BREATHLESS, and there was after BREATHLESS. With its lack of polish, surplus of attitude, crackling personalities of rising stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, and anything-goes crime narrative, Jean-Luc Godard's debut fashioned a simultaneous homage to and critique of the American film genres that influenced and rocked him as a film writer for Cahiers du Cinema. Jazzy, free-form, and sexy, BREATHLESS ( A bout de souffle) helped launch the French new wave and ensured cinema would never be the same.
Interviewed during the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, Jean-Luc Godard at age 30 was already a study in contrariness. His feature-directing debut Breathless
was a hit and clearly a game changer for the art and practice of filmmaking. Yet the young auteur took scant satisfaction in that: "I hope I disappoint them"--audiences, that is--"so they don't trust me anymore." This interview appears on the Criterion Blu-ray, along with several others from that magic time. Jean Seberg, holding a daisy in her fingertips, seems bemused at the turns her stardom has taken in a mere three years. Jean-Paul Belmondo--smart, engaging, refreshingly levelheaded--lounges among neoclassical statuary and confides that from day to day during filming he had no idea what would happen next to his character Michel Poiccard. Then there's Jean-Pierre Melville, the veteran writer-director who plays the novelist Parvulesco in the movie and whose independent filmmaking triumphs made him an inspiration to the New Wave. Melville deadpans that he "was already an old man when the New Wave was born … a kind of big brother who gave them advice, which they mostly ignored. But that's what advice is for!"
Aside from Godard's 1959 short film "Charlotte et son Jules" and the French trailer for Breathless, the other Criterion extras are newer. Two Breathless collaborators, cinematographer Raoul Coutard and assistant director Pierre Rissient, recollect being in on the making of film history--although at the time they had doubts that the movie would be released. Rissient (who became a legendary producer and promoter) reckons that Godard "learned his style out of Breathless." Coutard's resourceful available-light camerawork revolutionized modern cinematography and made him a New Wave star in his own right. His training as a photojournalist had prepared him to work fast, on location, and on the cheap (he got "dolly shots" by filming from a wheelchair pushed by Godard). And he had the equanimity to cope when, after two hours' work, the director would close his notebook and say, "That's all for today--I'm out of ideas."
Three visual essays deepen appreciation of the film. Cinéma vérité pioneer D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back) discusses the overlap of documentary technique and narrative film in Godard's work, including Godard's description of Breathless as "a documentary about Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg." In "Breathless" as Criticism, film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum positions the movie as a "critical manifesto on behalf of American genre cinema" and highlights Godard's penchant for quotations and interpolations from literature, painting, and especially movies--most famously, Belmondo aping Humphrey Bogart's signature rubbing of his lip. Mark Rappaport, maker of the 1995 feature From the Journals of Jean Seberg, contributes a new take on the actress's troubled life and career. He sees her Breathless character Patricia as a variation on Henry James's Daisy Miller: in Seberg's final, enigmatic close-up, "she's an open book and a riddle waiting to be solved."
Longest and most intriguing of the special features is Chambre 12, Hôtel du Suède, an 80-minute documentary from 1993. The titular chambre is the selfsame tiny hotel room where Godard filmed Breathless's 25-minute seduction scene. Xavier Villetard rents it for a week, as a base from which to explore key Breathless locations around Paris and interview as many surviving cast and crew members as he can meet. Godard remains a brusque voice on the telephone, but Claude Chabrol, billed as "technical consultant" on Breathless, talks genially about the "totally bogus" credits for himself and François Truffaut ("screenplay"); because they each already had a hit film to their credit, their nominal participation lent Godard cachet as he scrambled for backing. Belmondo, a silver lion by 1993, is still funny and frank; editor Cécile Decugis reminisces wryly about Godard's working methods. All good stuff, yet some of the choicest material is contributed by bit players in Godard's film and life. Liliane David, who played the casual girlfriend Michel robs, dishes about the diverse personalities in "the Cahiers gang," Godard's fellow critics-turned-filmmakers, and we learn that some of the outré names studding the movie's dialogue were borrowed from personal friends of the director. During a visit to the Swiss town that was Godard's home in the years before Breathless, we even get to meet one of them (he and Godard don't talk much anymore). As for Room 12 and the Hôtel du Suède, the whole place, literally a landmark in film history, was demolished the day after Villetard checked out. --Richard T. Jameson