Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of The Criterion Collection's 2010 Blu-ray release of 'Breathless.'
Sadly, the Blu-ray release of Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless' comes at a time when one of the leading founders of Le nouvelle vague (the French New Wave) has passed away. Claude Chabrol ('Le Boucher') began his career as a critic for the film magazine Cahiers du cinema alongside François Truffaut ('400 Blows') and Godard ('Contempt'). In conjunction with Alain Resnais ('Last Year at Marienband') of the Left Bank, this group of directors ushered in a cinematic revolution that continues to resonate in many contemporary films. But while these young filmmakers experimented with the medium's structure and arrangement, Godard wished to live within it, be a part of it, even exhale cinema like the puff of smoke that escapes from the lips of Jean-Paul Belmondo.
'Breathless' is not only Godard's feature-length debut, but also the film that changed everything, from the way we perceive and experience films to the techniques applied in making them. It is at once a celebration and love of cinema as well as an admission of guilt, of a filmmaker who wants to capture reality through a false and aesthetic medium which is influenced heavily by his own extensive knowledge. Godard makes this known from the very instant we see a white text announce the movie dedicated to Monogram Pictures, an American studio of low-budget features, and the cinematography displaying a documentary style. The critic-turned-director is quite literally dreaming of film, creating scenes as he goes along with a genuine sense of not knowing what will happen next.
It's been said before, and it still remains true: 'Breathless' creates a film culture. Godard embraces the idea that films are made up of other films — or better yet, that life influences art and art influences life — and allows it to construct the narrative of his film. Rather than have an unconscious influence seep into his creation, he turns it into a conscious experience about the influence itself with a series of obvious references to other film and literary texts. He even permits Budd Boetticher's 'Westbound' and Otto Preminger's 'Whirlpool' to bleed into the movie at odd points in the middle of the action, and Jean Seberg quotes from William Faulkner. But beside the production alone, our two protagonists are also representative of this conscious awareness to film culture.
'Breathless' is incessantly situated within genre expectations, but it also deliberately chooses to defy the conventions that define it. The plot about a young, petty criminal on the run after murdering a police officer tells us this is a typical crime drama. But Michel Poiccard (Belmondo) and his girlfriend Patricia (Seberg) seem to imply that the film is not sure what it wants to be. From the way he smokes his cigarettes and rubs his lips with his thumb, he lives in films and intentionally models himself after Humphrey Bogart. She's a student in love with French art, an American who wants to be Parisian. Michel is a continuous and shameless flirt, chasing after an American girl that almost typifies a certain kind of unattainable beauty. Perhaps, that's the reason she also has to be his (and Godard's) demise.
Godard's debut is a beautiful mixture of film narrative and the spirit of documentary, a creative piece that simply observes actions occurring as if by the moment and without explanation. 'Breathless' has a raw energy of unexpectedness and excitement with jump cuts (which the film is best known for) that generate a wonderful jazz rhythm and are suggestive of Michel's nervous state of mind. Consciously, the director follows genre tropes while also disobeying them to create what is essentially a sort of criminal art, much like Michel. If there is any moment of an unconscious design within the film, it's from Godard knowing he's breaking the rules and makes an appearance as the snitching informer, singling out and fingering the criminality of his own creation.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless' comes to Blu-ray as a three-disc combo pack courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #408) with a cardboard slipcover and a very minimal but elegant cover design. Inside a thick gatefold plastic tray, a Region A-locked, BD50 disc sits comfortably on a panel opposite a pair of DVD-9 discs, one on top the other. The package includes an 80-page booklet which features an absolutely terrific and rewarding essay from Film Professor Dudley Andrew, entitled "'Breathless' Then and Now." Also included is a chapter, "Godard in His Own Words," with a selection of writings and interviews from Cahiers du cinema, as well as another chapter, called "'Breathless' in Progress," with a reprint of Truffaut's original treatment to the film and Godard's written scenario. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
According to the booklet in the package, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was made from a 35mm master positive and approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the results are quite beautiful, and the picture appears true to the documentary feel to which Godard aspired. Contrast is not always perfect, but it's well-balanced and consistent for the most part, with clean whites. Black levels can waver somewhat, looking deep and lush one minute and then slightly dull the next. Shadow delineation tends to suffer in poorly-lit scenes as a result of these minor fluctuations. Of course, much of this can be excused as the result of the intended photography and not a fault in the digital transfer. Fine object and textural details are impressive, even striking in some instances, with revealing facial complexions. But the video does come with a few sequences where resolution is noticeably weaker than the rest of the presentation. This, again, can be faulted at the source and not the picture quality. Taken as a whole, Godard's 'Breathless' has never looked better or more attractive than on Blu-ray.
The original mono soundtrack of 'Breathless' also went through a restoration process, taken from the same 35mm print used for the digital transfer. Although the film does sound great on this DTS-HD Master Audio option, the limited sound design doesn't allow for this lossless mix to truly shine in any significant way from its lossy counterpart. Priority is clearly placed on character interaction, so dialogue reproduction is wonderfully delivered with strong fidelity detail. The issue comes from an incredibly narrow soundfield and the level of discrete clarity in background activity. The entire track simply feels heavily restricted to the center of the screen with minor movement or presence in the soundstage. Of course, this is all due to how the film was originally recorded — as part of the documentary style the filmmakers wanted to achieve — and faithfully presented here as such. Viewed from that perspective, there is little to complain about and fans will surely be satisfied with the results.
Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless' is a gorgeous film about cinema as a living form, a revolutionary picture about formalism at its finest. Since its 1960 premiere, the debut of a critic-turned-director has become one of the most influential films of contemporary cinema, and it continues to be a thing of beauty. The Blu-ray shows a great video presentation and strong audio. Although supplements are the same collection found on the DVD, fans of the film and French cinema as a whole will surely be happy with the package nonetheless.