Breathless was released in 1960 and was directed by Jean-Luc Godard. It was released by Criterion on DVD on October 23, 2007 and on Blu-Ray on February 25, 2014, as spine #408. Godard is a Criterion favorite, having also directed Alphaville (spine #25), Contempt (spine #171), Band of Outsiders (spine #174), A Woman is a Woman (spine #238), Tout va bien (spine #275), Masculin féminin (spine #308), Pierrot le fou (spine #421), Made in U.S.A. (spine #481), 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (spine #482), Vivre sa vie (spine #512), Weekend (spine #635), and Every Man for Himself (spine #744, to be released next month).
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a criminal who styles himself after Humphrey Bogart, kills a policeman and finds himself wanted. He seeks out former lover Patricia (Jean Seberg) and convinces her to hide him in her apartment.
Breathless is one of those “revolutionary” classics that still feels new decades after its release. Films like Citizen Kane were undeniably influential, but we can’t help but see it through the prism of the films it influenced. Intellectually, we know how formally daring it was, but it’s hard to get that experience now that its techniques have been fully absorbed by mainstream filmmaking. Breathless, while certainly influential, doesn’t feel like that. Its jump cuts are still jarring, its narrative is still floaty, and its sense of cool is still unique. There have been other movies like Breathless, but none that fully replicate its je ne sais quoi.
As such, it’s a somewhat difficult film to talk about. It exists in a vacuum, as both completely referential to other less memorable films, and a powerfully individual work of art. It’s even something of an outlier in Godard’s own canon, as it began a career of ever-increasing experimentation. His most recent film, last year’s 3D cinematic essay Goodbye to Language, could not be more different from Breathless, and yet they both bear Godard’s signature flair for rule violation. If there’s one thing no one does better than Godard, it’s tearing down cinema’s walls. Because he grew bolder and bolder as his career went on, Breathless necessarily represents his most conventional work, but that’s a high bar to clear when it comes to Godard. This is a film that cuts once every sentence in one scene, and then spends almost a half-hour on long takes in a single hotel room. Its rhythms are unpredictable, as if Godard is putting the film together on the fly as you’re watching it. But it never feels slapdash or sloppy; there’s never any doubt that this is the work of an artist with a vision.
There are interviews galore on this release, both recent and archival. I tend to find this type of Criterion feature pretty dull, and these are no exception. Fortunately, there’s plenty of meat to make up for it. There are two great video essays, one by filmmaker Mark Rappaport on the life of star Jean Seberg, and one by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum exploring Godard’s claim that Breathless represents an extension of his work as a film critic. Both are intriguing, particularly the former, which details tragedy in Seberg’s later years that I was completely unaware of. Rosenbaum’s video talks mainly about the influences and references on display in Breathless, and I was left wishing he went into more detail about the film’s specific function as “criticism.” It’s still an interesting piece, though.
As is often the case, the best feature is in the booklet. This release includes two original treatments for Breathless; the first is written by Francois Truffaut, and the second by Godard. Truffaut was inspired by a true story that was in the news at the time, and he wrote a more conventional take on it for Godard. Godard’s version is far looser and prone to narrative digressions, closely resembling the final version of the feature. It’s interesting to see the two men have such wildly different takes on the same setup.
Breathless’ idiosyncratic rhythm and irresistible lead performances have kept it fresh over a half-century after its release.
Criterion Grade: B
Film Grade: A